Universities and Development in Poor Countries

by Kenneth Anderson

Over at AidWatch (William Easterly’s blog), guest blogger Moussa P. Blimpo puts up a post on the role of universities in development in poor countries, in Africa and elsewhere.  There are a lot of tradeoffs, explicit and implied – should universal primary education take precedence over university education, for example.  What is the role of universities in poor countries in training a local elite?  Don’t the graduates simply emigrate and take their skills with them?  Blimpo, who has just earned his PhD from NYU, asks:

Why is it that so little attention and funding is given to universities?  With practical training, wouldn’t these young men and women be the one who will create jobs tomorrow? Shouldn’t African universities be strengthened to enable Africans to think about African problems?

The comment thread is particularly interesting, with numbers of people contesting that universities are the right priority.  I have mixed views.  In another part of my (non-Predator drone) life, I’m a senior fellow and board chair of the US arm of the Rift Valley Institute, which does work on the Rift Valley region in Africa, with particular attention to Sudan.  I’m not a fellow on account of my experience in Africa, which is zero, but on account of my long background in development and particularly development finance organizations – not to mention experience in international NGO law in a practical way – but these questions come up for RVI.  Its mission includes local education, and there is a particular concern about, in the local setting, “elite” education rather than simply primary education.  It is a hard, if not impossible, sell to funders, however, because the results are so diffuse, long term, and intangible.


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