Thoughts on Accessibility

Office in HaitiIn the past week, I have been collecting thoughts about the accessibility of international development research by those who are designing and implementing development programs. (I thought I would include photo of my office from one of my “field” posts, from where I read absolutely no published research.)

The historic gap between researchers and practitioners is not unique to the development world. An overview of some of the challenges of the gap between research and practice are nicely outlined in this article by Julie E. Ferguson. (Notably, this discourse calls to the surface many questions about power, perspective, privilege – which I am going to let lie for the moment.) Given our global challenges, linking great minds and great activators seems to be of paramount importance, right?

At this point in my pondering, I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of how good ideas make it – or don’t – from theory into practice. It seems to me that there are a few issues that are gumming up the system.

The fortress of published research – Peer-reviewed, quality research in international development is the gold standard. And oftentimes, it is locked up in subscription-based journals, accessible to those with funds. While the walls of the fortress (and subscription fees) remain high, things are changing. The World Bank and UK’s DFID recently announced that their funded research would be made freely online through open access. Efforts to increase open access are gaining ground (check out the Institute of Development Studies’s work and open access journal) and research-sharing platforms like are also making dents in the fortress.

Even if development practitioners can get their hands on published research, other issues remain. How often is the research readily useful to them? The qualities that set a gold standard in research papers (e.g., literature review and methodology section) seem cumbersome when you’re in the field. Time is in limited quantity and you just want to know what might help you in your daily activities.

One idea I’ve been mulling around is the possibility of adding a section to development research publications – something like How this research relates to the practice of development. The researcher is responsible to translate how his or her work might be useful to practitioners, setting clear guidelines on how to best consider the work and how to avoid abusing it. Moreover, this addition would force the researcher to gain a better notion of the practitioner world, and vice versa.

Other useful ideas, program evaluations, and non-published research – What about all the other good ideas flowing around the halls of academia? What are the mechanisms for getting these ideas into the field?

It seems to me that there are primarily two ways of transmitting quality ideas that don’t make it into literature. First is through word-of-mouth. Conferences, meetings, Skype, and travel help get the word of good practice out, although I wonder how much the practitioners and researchers are talking. Along these lines, I have a keen interest in what I call “evaluation-plus,” the notion of academics conducting evaluation on development programs in collaboration with, sharing their findings and other research with, and providing suggestions to practitioners on how to improve their programs.

The second way that other useful ideas may make it from research to practice is through the mighty Internet. I’m increasingly interested in academics finding ways to more casually and quickly sharing their work. In short, in increasing the accessibility of their ideas.

Countries visited as of Feb 3rd

One thing I love about this blog is the wide reach. Here’s an updated map of the 68 countries whose residents have visited my blog since I started last summer. It’s pretty exciting to see that my own thoughts – far from being peer-reviewed and of traditional published quality – are being seen around the world. I don’t know who is reading the blog and if any of the links are helpful, but I am hopeful that this typifies the future of sharing development research.

Practitioner Needs – The final thought I have on this is how researchers can get a better sense of what would be useful to those who implement programs. What would be most useful? In what format? In what language? How much vetting should be done before sharing ideas? How much interpretation should academics do? What should constitute the “gold standard” for relaying research into practice that will improve the field?

In a quick search of the mighty Internet, I found Knowledge Management 4 Development (KM4DEV), a group of 3,000+ members who are sharing knowledge and good practice about development. Certainly, other groups must exist. I’d be interested to learn more about how to best get ideas for research from the field into the halls of academia.

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Nota bene: So, it turns out that graduate school takes up a lot of time. I’m sure this is no surprise of many of you. But the pace of my first semester as a PhD student was a startling to me. I’m even more committed this semester (many cool things going on and I’m teaching for the first time), but I’m also hoping to keep up on the blog as I enjoy grappling with these ideas, sharing them, and hearing from you.

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University partnerships + new research uncovering challenges

There is a relatively new initiative by USAID that has the same name as this blog. Well, almost the same name. Higher Education for Development (HED) is a joint initiative of USAID and the US Department of State to manage “innovative partnerships that join U.S. colleges and universities with institutions of higher learning in developing nations. In this way, [HED] support and facilitate the engagement of U.S. higher education in global development.”

The HED model:

This graphic is taken directly from the HED website. Poke around the site for examples of specific partnerships. In 2011, HED funded 58 U.S. institutions from 31 states to collaborate with 81 overseas universities, and projects included the “usual suspects” of international development:  agriculture, environment, business development, etc.

I adore the idea of this initiative. (Of course I do or I wouldn’t have this blog.) As a current PhD student, I am overwhelmed at the resources available at my American university and daily wonder how they could best be shared; I also constantly fret that my own work may not be relevant to those outside the university. Increasing the flow of knowledge – in both directions – between those who research international development and those who could benefit from the research has great potential.

Yet I must keep my enthusiasm in check. I read some research this week that raises concerns about cross-border higher education partnerships for development.

Elisabeth Anne Wilson, a student who came before me at the University of Minnesota, researched 37 partnerships held by Makerere University in Uganda. In her dissertation, she found that cross-border partnerships held four significant factors: certain “faculty are motivated by individual benefits; internal challenges at the university that hinder partnership development and impact; informal faculty mentorship that happens during partnerships; and reinforcement of dependence on external funding.” In sum, cross-borders collaborations face serious challenges to execute partnerships in the ways intended, although there are positive outcomes in terms of faculty mentorship within the same institutions (my apologies to Dr. Wilson for the coarse summary of her good work).

It is also significant to note that Dr. Wilson set out to examine both externally and internally funded partnerships, yet she found only externally funded ones. “In this study…the faculty members who were interviewed provided no examples of successful, internally funded partnerships. Implications that the university participates in only externally funded partnerships may indicate that the partnership strategy does not hold promise for future sustainability.”

Hmph, my enthusiasm has deflated a bit. Perhaps it is unfair of me to extrapolate Dr. Wilson’s research to all cross-border partnerships for development, especially as HED is funding links between the US and many parts of the world. Each institutional partnership must have its own strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, there is still much to consider in university partnerships for international development and improving existing partnerships. With that motivation, I turn back to my books.

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Who wants to build research capacity in sub-Saharan Africa?

Developed countries have achieved their level of development through research that led to new technologies and their subsequent application. Developing countries now recognize the importance of research as a major driver of socio-economic advancement.

…in Africa, much of the research carried out is externally driven and therefore has limited relevance and impact in the countries where it takes place. Apart from failure by developing countries to finance their own research and hence determine their own research agenda, there is limited capacity to conduct research that leads to development of appropriate technology and a favourable policy environment.

This passage comes from the website of an EDULINK project called Building Research Capacity in African Countries; the project funded and implemented by the European Union. More on this in a moment.

So, building academic research capacity seems like a worthwhile endeavor, doesn’t it? So who wants it to partake? The EU governments aren’t the only ones. The Americans are in! The Senegalese are engaged! The Kenyans are thrilled! The Tanzanians are enthused!

To shift from my slightly flippant tone to a more serious review, I offer a few examples of initiatives aimed specifically at building research capacity in Africa – most which focus on sub-Saharan countries:

  • The African Research Capacity Initiative is sponsored by the UK Department for International Development and aims to address the “skills gap” at African universities. Their latest effort is to “form research consortia in Africa, arranging research exchange programmes between the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa and improve equipment and training in laboratories.”
  • On the European continent, the EDULINK initiative provides grants and programs – like the one mentioned above – to strengthen existing, or create new, international relations offices and quality assurance departments, with an end goal of building the research capacity of participating African (and other regions’) universities.
  • Across the ocean, a group of 7 American foundations started the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa in 2003. One of the Partnership’s goals was to build regional approaches to institution capacity building and research; another was to promote higher education research. After disseminating grants totaling $439,939,624 (no kidding!), the consortium closed in 2010.
  • On the African continent, the Association for African Universities (AAU) administers a three-year project in 2010 to improve the quality and relevance of university research in west and central Africa. This project is jointly founded by AAU and Canada’s West African Office of the International Development Research Centre.
  • Headquartered in Senegal, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) was established in 1973 to develop a pan-African network of social science researchers and protect their academic freedom. Currently, CODESRIA works, inter alia, to strengthen institutions’ creation of social science knowledge. A list of 21 funding partners includes many UN groups, European governments, and US-based foundations.
  • On the other side of the continent, the East Africa Research and Innovation Management Association (EARIMA) is a new initiative that plans to “play a significant role in the professional development and capacity building of its members while promoting best practices in research management and administration.” The steering committee is composed of five African researchers, yet the capacity building is offered by the Irish African Partnership for Capacity Building (IAPCB).

I listed the funders for each project to make my point. It is not that I am certain that the funder has a great deal of control over the project’s day to day operations, successes, or future. Yet I do think it’s relevant that most of the initiatives come from outside the continent. And those that might be home-grown are provided for by non-African funds. If anyone knows a grass-roots organization aiming to build academic research capacity in Africa, I’d love to hear about it.

So, who is driving this agenda? If not researchers on the African continent, how invested are they in honing or developing their research skills? (Especially when many have such heavy teaching loads and other commitments.) Will any of these initiatives stick? Like so many things, I haven’t seen adequate reporting on the outcomes of these capacity building grants and projects. Irrespective of these outcomes, the global north governments and foundations continue to champion this cause.

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Visitor Map

One of the most enjoyable parts of keeping this blog is learning from where viewers come. As of today, the blog has received more than 500 views from across the world, including Switzerland, Kenya, Colombia, Macedonia, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and (even) Vatican City!

A map of visitors is below. (Thank you, wordpress, for this crafting this lovely image.)

This map hopefully indicates that topics at the crossroads of higher education and international development are relevant to people on every continent. It is an exciting and quickly-growing field!

Thank you for your visits, comments, and ideas for future posts.

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Water at the crossroads of higher education + international development

From August 26th to 31st, the World Water Week Conference was held in Stockholm. Here is a short summary of some of the big issues and warnings. We need to start collecting and reusing the water we have now. We need to reduce our dietary reliance on livestock and other animals. Droughts, like the recent ones across the Sahel and in the central United States, are increasing the price of food and reducing its availability. Meanwhile, 40% percent of the world’s food goes to waste before its consumed.

The fact is that the world’s population is growing and the planet is running out of water. This nexus is often included in some of the food security discussion – namely, how difficult it is to provide a secure environment when food isn’t available to feed the people who live there. Simply put: without water, local food production dries up.

I estimate that water will be a hot topic in international development and that higher education will increasingly be involved in finding solutions. Knowing very little about the study of water, I sought out academic programs that have an international development focus. Most had strong national or regional programs, highlighting engineering and water quality improvement. Very few seemed to have an international focus, but here are a few:

  • UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, located in the Netherlands, conducts research, provides education, and builds capacity in fields of water, environment, and infrastructure. Research areas include water security, urbanization, and water management and governance. The Institute offers PhD and Masters degrees, as well as online courses and short courses. (Take a look. They’re pretty cool.)
  • Water: Systems, Science and Society is an interdisciplinary graduate research and education program at Tufts University in Massachusetts; it combines resources from 6 different colleges and has an international focus. The program does not give a degree, but it provides a certificate to accompany another Tufts graduate program.
  • water@leeds is an interdisciplinary center at the University of Leeds that brings together faculty from at least six science departments to examine issues of water quality, management, processes, and ecosystems; liberal arts and social science research is also welcomed. Masters, PhD, and short courses are offered in collaboration with the Center. Faculty conduct (limited) international water research.
  • Center for Water Research is a multidisciplinary program of engineers and scientists at the University of Texas-San Antonio. The Center has a history of partnerships with Honduras, including providing water for rural communities and improving the teaching quality and resources at the Escuela Agricola Panamericana El Zamorano.

This is only a sample of the academic programs that focus on global water issues, and it does not include single scientific departments who have faculty and students working on the topic. However, it seems to me that international higher education lacks enough capacity to train future leaders and thinkers – especially in the developing world – on an interdisciplinary approach to global water supply, quality, and policy.

I leave you with the link to Is Clean Water the New Oil? from Tufts’s Water: Systems, Science and Society website. Relevant to this post, WSSS Chair Richard Vogel states:

This is probably the most profound and lasting change of the WSSS program: creation of future leaders in water planning and management that are fluent in the language of inter-disciplinary work.

There are all these wonderful water initiatives all around the world…  But I wish that they could come to Tufts and listen to what we do. We could train the populations to obtain their own water resources, manage their own water resources in a sustainable fashion and to educate future generations to do the same.

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Follow-Up: Free, open online courses as development tools?

To continue the themes of my August 25th post, Free, open online courses as development tools?, I share the following from today’s New York Times: A Free Online University Tests the Water.

University of the People touts that it is the first degree-granting online free university. Based in Pasadena, California, the 3-year-old university has admitted 1,500 students from 132 countries. It’s not exactly free: students must pay an application fee – which is prorated based on their country’s GDP – and starting in September they will pay a fee to take exams. Yet students from poorer countries can apply for micro-scholarships to cover the exam cost.

University of the People provides degrees only in computer science and business administration, and the founder Shai Reshef said, “These are the two programs that are most likely to help people find a better job, and that’s what our students want. They want a better chance for the future.”

In the article, Mr. Rashef goes on to say:

…most of our students, be they American or from developing countries, appreciate the American higher education system. They want to study in an American university. And our students want us to be accredited. Accreditation means, for a student, both that it’s a legitimate institution and that they will find a job.

With approximately 500 new students accepted every year, is University of the People a model for global development? Will an American-accredited degree really open doors for its international graduates? One thing is for sure. It certainly is getting attention. The University’s Facebook page has – at the time I publish this post – has 1,031,419 “likes,” including mine.

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A U.S. Liberal College Partnership for Palestine

Satellite campuses or international branch campuses – or as I prefer to call them, “outpost campuses” – are a relatively new endeavor. Wikipedia tells me that branch campuses worldwide grew from 35 before 1999 to 162 in 2009. And it seems there are plenty of wrinkles in the process of establishing them. Just ask Yale University, as it defends its actions in establishing an undergraduate college with National University Singapore, slated to open in 2015.

Some contentious issues arise: Is the quality of the two campuses the same? Yale says yes. Will the outpost campus issue degrees? Yale says yes, and Yale-N.U.S. won’t be accredited in the U.S. Will students be able to move freely between campuses? Not really. Can a liberal university guarantee academic freedom in a country with a questionable human rights record? Yale seems to think it can, although many protest.

This post really isn’t about the Yale-N.U.S. College. It is about a more interesting program: the Al-Quds Bard Partnership. I choose to focus on the Partnership because this outpost campus model makes direct contributions – in my eyes – to social and economic development. Housed at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, the Partnership aims to “raise the level of Palestinian education, as the best means of preparing young Palestinians to assume the responsibilities of leadership and self-governance in a future democratic state.” In other words, to prepare Palestinians to establish and develop their future country.

The Partnership offers two degree programs. The first is a B.A. from the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences, which offers diverse coursework in 15 fields, including human rights and environmental studies. The second is a Masters of Arts Innovation Schools Program, which offers a M.A. in Teaching and includes hands-on experience. These programs are designed “to educate future leaders and foster economic development education should encourage a critical turn of mind and an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Another cool Al Quds Bard initiative, Campus in Camps, brings together 15 students from West Bank refugee camps to envision a different identity for their camps. The initiative is run in partnership with the German Government and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). More from the website:

The aim is to provide young motivated Palestinian refugees who are interested in engaging their community the intellectual space and necessary infrastructure to facilitate these debates and translate them into practical community-driven projects that will incarnate representational practices and make them visible in the camps.

Both the Partnership and the Yale-N.U.S. model have the goal of bringing American liberal education to a new region, yet the Al-Quds Bard Partnership has innovative programs that directly link university resources to economic and social development. I applaud Al-Quds’s and Bard’s efforts.

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