Last month, it was announced that Michigan State will lead a $7.3 million grant to strengthen agricultural research institutions and support agricultural degrees in Ghana, Uganda, Mali, Mozambique, and Bangladesh. Named the Borlaug Higher Education Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) Program, the grant is part of the USAID’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future.
BHEARD’s theory is to train researchers who and support universities that will lead improved agricultural practice in these countries. The RFP states it rather inspirationally:
Human and institutional capital development are vital to achieve robust and sustained growth in agriculture and poverty reduction…
A strong and empowered cadre of scientists and researchers with professional skills and extensive high-level knowledge—and effective home institutions where these professionals work—are needed for developing and adaptating of innovations suited to local contexts and are most likely to drive long-term productivity and development and to build resilient systems that can respond to change.
Michigan State is envisioning a program that provides 30 Master-degree and 10 doctoral scholarships per year, with students doing coursework at American universities and then returning to their home countries for research and thesis-writing, with possible visits by their faculty supervisors. They also plan to support local or regional universities (I could not find specifics on how); the institutions to be supported have not been identified. The program has an explicit focus on women, which is appropriate considering that women make up 50% of farm labor in Sub-Saharan Africa.
At first blush, the BHEARD seems to encapsulate all the right ingredients of a higher education and international development partnership: a stated need, expertise sharing, strengthening of local institutions, training of future leaders in the field, and multiple international partners.
However, it was impossible to ignore that most the award’s coverage came from the US, and articles included no commentary from Uganda, Mali, Mozambique, Ghana, or Bangladesh. In fact, there was very little discussion about the logistics and expectations. This is not unusual, but it does make me nervous about the academic and professional environments these scholarship students will return to (e.g. will they be overeducated and want to leave for sexier opportunities abroad?), and how their research might be implemented to alleviate hunger.
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As an aside, Norman Borlaug, for whom BHEARD was named, was a pretty cool guy. Through his research in plant genetics, he developed a type of drought-resistant wheat that combatted hunger in Mexico, Pakistan, and India. For this work, he’s credited with saving over a billion lives and is considered the “Father of the Green Revolution.” And he won a Nobel Peace Prize. This is all important, of course, but I like him most because he’s an Iowan (like me) – I’ve had the privilege of hanging out at his boyhood home in Cresco, Iowa – and he pursued his PhD studies at the University of Minnesota (like me).