In February 2012, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) released a request for proposals for a Higher Education Solutions Network. The full, 57-page RFP can be found here. Initial statements of interest were due in July.
According to the RFP, “The primary goal of [the Higher Education Solutions Network] is to establish institutional partnerships that will create and leverage a virtual network of leading experts who will help USAID solve distinct global development challenges.” Grants will fund single universities or consortiums through multiple million-dollar grants for up to 5 years.
With the Higher Education Solutions Network, the US Government is “taking a new approach” by asking academics to receive funding in exchange for their international development expertise. Another way to look at it is that the UGS is jumping on board with what American universities are already learning, doing, and evaluating – and, ideally, trying to incorporate these lessons into their international development funding and policy. In the USG’s legalese,
The intent of this program is to harness the knowledge, research, and creativity found on higher education campuses to further increase the effectiveness and efficiency of USAID’s development programs while reducing the costs over time.
It’s not a bad idea, and it’s an indirect path for rich American universities to have a positive impact on global development.
However, the principle winners of this grant will be USAID and Americans themselves. USAID is looking to work smarter and save money. The Network itself aims to enrich American students’ learning environment, enhance and build technology that can be sold in overseas markets, and strengthen the universities which receive the funding. In the government’s own words, from the RFP:
USAID also recognizes that the United States’ future economic growth has been tied to investments in science, technology, and engineering, and that huge potential for economic growth, trade and business linkages exist between the emerging markets and the United States.
I don’t mean to be overly cynical. It is a credit to USAID – and government as a whole – to seek closer partnership with their own outstanding institutions of higher learning. My hunch is that there are many worthwhile projects underway that could benefit how governments deliver effective programs overseas.
Two questions come to mind immediately. The first is about leadership of the projects. After the universities are chosen, how much command will USAID have on the projects pursued? For example, can it suggest that researchers work on asphalt development for sub-Saharan Africa instead of something more adapted for roads in a subtropical climate? In short, who is really spearheading the research? And to be rather harsh, is USAID just collecting a list of consultants to carry out its own objectives?
Secondly, how and how effectively will the existing or created knowledge pass from the campus to the government to the development project staff? The question of transfer/usefulness seems to underlie many good intentions.