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In the last few years, the usefulness of university development cooperation has increasingly been questioned. But according to Nico Koedam and Kora Tushune, such North-South partnerships are key in the search for answers to global issues like climate change. “Many of the challenges we address in our programmes can only be solved through international partnerships.”
Text Kim Hardie / Photo Shutterstock
ln the 1980s, Flemish universities ran a number of research projects on themes related to the Global South. Although these programmes were part of university development cooperation frameworks, they were based on individual contacts between Belgium and the South, says Professor Nico Koedam of VUB’s Biology department. “VUB was the pioneer when it came to fully fledged study programmes, thanks to Raymond Hamers”, he says.
Hamers established one of the first postgraduate programmes on ‘tropical’ molecular biology in 1982, which he asked Koedam to develop. The programme laid the groundwork for the university development cooperation programmes that exist in Belgium today. “It was highly innovative with a true scientific complementarity and cooperation at its core,” Koedam explains, looking back. “Hamers handpicked professors and young lecturers from various Belgian universities with the idea of setting up a graduate school.”
Not everyone was convinced of the usefulness of such a programme, or that the participating students from developing nations would measure up. The fact that these students grew up in developing countries meant they were often perceived as second-rate students. “They were proven wrong when graduates of these programmes developed into top scientists, and some went on to hold key positions in governance bodies,” Koedam says.
Developing trust and expertise
Networks are critically important to any researcher and allow students to benefit from a range of perspectives and opportunities. Networks are also at the heart of university development cooperation and were consequently central to the set-up of the study programmes. Koedam: “The students become contacts who eventually turn into bridgeheads for future cooperation, projects, research, exchanges. Maintaining this network – often built up over years – is vital.”
Koedam’s view is echoed by Kora Tushune, vice-president business development at Jimma University in Ethiopia. “For the past 15 years, we have worked with VLIR-UOS on university development cooperation,” he says, referring to the Flemish Interuniversity Council for University Development Cooperation. “And it has been an evolution. You set up relationships, which develop based on trust, knowledge and expertise. For us, it has been an amazing learning experience.” The partnership has also changed over time, Tushune explains. “At the start, there was a clear imbalance in capacity, but we learned from our Belgian colleagues. And the opportunities that have come from these partnerships have been amazing,” he says. “We now have 50 PhD opportunities, seven centres of excellence with PhD programmes and have worked with some 170 professors in Belgium. We have our joint PhD programmes now, which are split between Belgium and Ethiopia, and this is due to the collaboration and networks we have built up over the years.” [Continue story below the picture]
Navel-gazing vs global outlook
For Tushune, the importance of universities as an engine for growth shouldn’t be forgotten. “Development in the North and South is driven by universities, which are vital in tackling global challenges like migration and climate change. These big issues need to be handled together and, for us, the driving force is university development cooperation,” Tushune says, adding that these strong partnerships must be safeguarded. “The politics surfacing in the West signal more inward, navel-gazing scrutiny” rather than a firm global outlook, he says.
“This will not help tackle the big global challenges that require an international approach and for countries to work together.” Koedam shares this view, but also thinks it’s high time to articulate a vision on the future of development cooperation, especially at a point when such partnerships and the role of the West in them are increasingly being questioned and challenged. “Our programmes are doing very well, but what about the future? Will there still be investment?” he asks. “The current political and societal climate isn’t very conducive towards it. It seems as if university development cooperation has fallen off the radar when universities should be taking a central role.”
Net must cast wider
Koedam says this is especially true for a university like VUB, with strong humanistic roots and a long history of internationalisation. “At VUB, the focus is increasingly on ‘internationalisation at home’ alone. I’m all for that and this must be expanded, but the net must be cast wider,” he says, pointing out that the strength of both Brussels and VUB lies in their international quality.
The role the university could play globally when it comes to inter-university development collaboration is moreover being underestimated in Koedam’s view. “It’s an investment in the future, one that requires us to not shy away from answering the question: What’s in it for us?”
For him, the answer is – a lot. “There is a return on investment in capacity-building projects with the South: networks and providing our local students with opportunities to expand their horizons and to learn from other cultures,” he says. “Many of the challenges we address in our programmes can only be solved through international partnerships.”