A Different Type of Sustainability

After grants promoting higher education's involvement in developing countries end, how do project leaders ensure the mission lives on?
August 9, 2007

They met for the first time all together in once place: the American and international educators whose colleges have collaborated over the past decade on projects intended to deal with issues facing developing countries.

University leaders from five continents and 170 institutions shared the results of their efforts to solve public health problems, strengthen work force development programs or add to the higher education infrastructure. Organized by Higher Education for Development, a group whose governing board consists of presidents from six American higher education associations, the projects were funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

G. David Miller, a professor emeritus at Southern New Hampshire University's School of Community Economic Development, explained in a conference session how his program -- a collaboration with the Open University of Tanzania -- has trained dozens of students there to help organize socially conscious projects designed to benefit its citizenry.

Afterward, Miller explained a challenge that he and other program leaders face. "You have two years to figure out how to make these projects sustainable," he said. "As soon as the funding runs out, then what?"

When the term sustainability comes up these days in the context of American higher education, it's most often a reference to some sort of environmental initiative. But in many developing countries, it's also a matter of keeping programs and even institutions up and running, including those that help train the future academic leaders.

Several sessions at the international education conference, held in Washington and continuing through Friday, featured discussions of how to sustain such projects. (U.S. AID's grants, typically lasting two years, sometimes include a one-year extension.)

Speakers floated some obvious solutions: Get the private sector and local government involved.

A program in Egypt, for instance, involved the private sector both in funding and in helping to design academic courses intended for citizens who wanted to be trained to work in business. One in Thailand that began several years ago focused on training people to serve on a governing board, which led to the creation of the country's first community college. Local governments picked up on the initiative, and have replicated it in other provinces.

Christine A. Morfit, executive director of Higher Education for Development, said it's not so much whether the particular project survives as it is originally set up, but whether the mission is adopted by leaders in the community, be they in the public or private sector.

"We all would agree that sustainability should be built into a design of a project," Morfit said. "Keeping the local context is important. Project money may or may not be there, but if it's not relevant to the community and responding to the needs of the economy, it's not going to last."

The focus, Morfit said, should be on projects that are designed with continuity in mind. An example: those that train the trainers. In Thailand's program, local boards that received training early on were taught how to train other community college boards. Other initiatives involve training government workers and future teachers at all levels.

Miller, the Southern New Hampshire professor, said his program -- which gives students a joint master's degree from the two institutions -- always has relied on students paying their way. When students have to fund or find sponsors to pay for their education, he said, they have an appreciation of the degree.

For countries looking to build up their higher education system, another aspect of sustainability is whether they can keep academic talent at home. That's historically been a problem for Ethiopia, said Andreas Eshete, president of Addis Ababa University. His institution has lost many top students to other countries because of a lack of doctoral offerings and has had to bring in faculty from the outside.

Eshete said the university is looking to add several doctoral programs, particularly in the humanities. "If we're going to sustain expansion, which we find essential, we resolve the only way is to have [higher] degree programs of our own."

That's important, Eshete said, because home-grown doctoral students are more likely to focus their research on issues important to the local community than are those brought in from the outside. The students also are more likely to stay on as faculty in the country, he said.

Morfit, the HED executive director, said she is seeing more students with Ph.D.'s return to their home countries with high-level jobs, many in academe.

“In some developing countries, once there is economic growth, there is a leap in [natives] coming back," she said. "You can't have people with bachelor's degrees training each other, but once a country is further developed, a Ph.D. can start doing the training, and so on. Universities are still in various stages of development."


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