18 March 2009

Nigeria: 'Education's Engine of Economic Growth'


Lagos — The President of MacArthur Foundation, Dr. Jonathan Fanton, was in Nigeria recently, where he toured some of the foundation's activities around the country and delivered a lecture at the 10th National Programme of Commemoration of the late Shehu Musa Yar'Adua Centre in Abuja. In an interview with Abimbola Akosile, Fanton - who is retiring after a ten-year, two-term tenure - spoke on various development issues, including housing, climate change and importance of education. Excerpts:

In all your teachings you are so passionate about Nigeria. You have been to many countries; why Nigeria? That is a good question. I think it's the people. I can't quite explain it with the Nigerian people. I have met so many smart, determined, courageous, wonderful people and they have reciprocated my reception.

So I feel very warmly welcomed here. It's a place in the world outside the United States where I feel much comfortable.

What about the challenges of working with Nigerians, executing projects? How has it been?

We have had a terrific experience, we supported 250 organisations over the years including the four Universities where we made deep investments of over fourteen million dollars. We have invested in over forty universities.

I would say almost all of the grants we have made have been successful and our money has been clearly put in one great use, been used efficiently.

It is easier to see the progress when you come once in a year than if you live here and see them happen incrementally. So I can remember walking around Bayero University with the former chancellor, Prof. Musa Abdullahi with virtually no computers.

A few years later I was here to dedicate the computer science department. I went back and I am so happy to have it this way, full of modern well connected computers.

I can remember in 2000 going into an undergraduate science laboratory in Ahmadu Bello University once to carry out a scientific research and there was no equipment.

I couldn't believe it; there was nothing. I go back into that same lab three or four years later and it is has full of microscopes, equipment and they are working; so I see the progress.

But it is a great experience and if somebody asks me as they will 'when you look back to ten years of MacArthur, what are you proud of among the top ten all over the world in all the fields?'; I would say what we have done in Nigeria; especially in higher education.

Why the special focus on education?

For individuals, education is the ladder of opportunity. For communities, it is the base of common values that holds diverse people together. For nations, it is the engine of economic growth. And for all those who believe in freedom, education provides the moral foundation for democracy, guided by respect for individual dignity and law.

So, higher education is good for development. The wrong kind of education creates a prison for the mind; the right kind empowers students to think independently.

Nigeria's universities are making steady gains. But as they do, and as the thirst for higher education grows, there are certain principles that should be kept in mind.

One is the value of diversity. A second principle is to set achievable goals. Thirdly is to understand that quality teaching is indispensable to quality education; effective strategies are need to recruit and retain a new generation of academics.

A fourth principle is to understand that universities cannot thrive in isolation from the surrounding society. Finally, international partnerships can help universities rise to world class standards.

How do you feel bagging a second degree from BUK, Kano?

I feel wonderful that I have been honoured with degrees from ABU, Bayero. I feel a special kinship to those universities, I feel like a family.

I will tell you a story. We were at Ibadan earlier this week and somebody was designated to propose a toast, so I stood up and everybody asked me to sit, that I am not a stranger. I feel like a member of the community, which I appreciate.

I know the MacArthur Foundation is backing housing delivery in the US. Do you intend to do that in Nigeria in the future?

I think we will stick with our three core areas of higher education; improving sexual and reproductive health; and advancing human rights. The dangers of a Foundation is you take small money and you scatter it widely. I think it is better to stick to them overtime.

Housing is a really important issue. What we have done in the US, is a sponsored research project that is still on the way, but I think it will demonstrate that stable affordable housing is central to a lot of other things.

Kids are able to go to school, good health, stable family, when you take housing out of the mix. One of the things we are trying to work on is to get people a breaking ground, maybe they can succeed. If we can work on it we should be able to.

What is your view on public private partnership to boost development?

I think public private partnerships are very good and the way to go. I am always pleased to find in government talented people and great civil servants who respond when we are able to provide some funds.

And if you look at our work in Nigeria, we worked with the Federal Ministry of Justice when late Bola Ige was the minister. We supported the review of the laws of the Federation and looking at the inconsistencies of the Constitution.

We support public health, higher education in the Universities. These are public private partnerships, supporting human rights, Legal Aid Council.

You are supporting a research initiative, the Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network (ELAN) and you are talking about adaptation to climate change. Can you bring it down to the Nigerian perspective? Will the network's scope be extended to West Africa?

There are two things connected to it. First is that we have a research network underway and that social network is looking at how conservation-preservation can be advanced to places or areas you want to preserve; areas where people live.

We are trying to put in best practices and harmonise conservation and the second development initiative is a climate change adaptation method by the WWF.

It is intended to analyse and project what climate change will do to conservation areas and then to help with a development plan of action to know what the effect will be.

I think it's very likely we will come to West Africa. It is meant to be a world wide network and if we have conservation groups that work here we should be in touch and connected to the network. I can see you have done your homework.

What do you advise the government to do regarding police reforms, in addition to your report?

We got into police reform because of the belief that the place of the safety of the ordinary people should often be the police. In the world over you can't have a good democracy if you don't have a confident capital police force that respect the rights of the citizens.

We are working with the CLEEN Foundation, Access to Justice and other NGOs and I think we are making progress. The recent white paper on police reforms has a lot of good provisions in it and I hope it will pass into a good Act. We will continue to work with the Ministry of Police Affairs and the Inspector General.

Can you draw a link between the level of education the people have access to and reproductive health; do they go hand in hand?

Yes I think this is not just Nigeria. Studies world over show that for example if girls and young women are educated and have plenty opportunities, they take better care of themselves, get better health, make sensible reproductive choices, get married later.

So I think, there is a link between education and reproductive health. In addition, it reduces female maternal mortality and other things like sexuality education, we have worked with Action Health which in turn work with the Ministry of Education to develop a curriculum to teach sex education. It started out in Lagos and now it is moving to other 23 states.

You are going to retire in September. How do you feel to be looking towards retirement?

The MacArthur Foundation has two terms (ten years) for president and I am a great believer in retirements. I am abiding by the terms of MacArthur Foundation. I would retire and go on to do something else after six months sabbatical at the end of the term.

What do you have in mind?

Well, I can imagine going back to a president of a University, which is what I have done mainly most my life. I can imagine working for an NGO that is interested in human rights and humanitarian cases; basically running a lot of things.

But I have to say that I have been running a new school for seventeen years and I am impressed in my graduates. I have been in the front-line for twenty-seven years and am looking forward to a great sabbatical.

Lastly, during your presentation, you said Nigeria has reached the point of extra ordinary promise. Are you optimistic that things can get better from now, or worse?

I am an historian and a historian takes a long view. I don't look at year to year, I look from decade to decade, generation to generation.

It is my belief that the projectory/trajectory of Nigeria is positive. This doesn't mean it can't be disappointing. Progresses will be made. It is easy to focus on something good, it can be hilarious and dramatic. It is easy to focus on something bad and be discouraged and cynical.

I simply take a long deal, look at a number of issues - not just a single issue - and try to reach the next judgment. My belief is that certainly. I have been working here for a while, a lot of things have changed for the better.

It doesn't mean I am not aware of a lot of things, poor infrastructure, inequality and so on. Things will get better, but I think it is the pace of the progress.

So the bottom line; if you ask me if I am optimistic about Nigeria's future, the answer is yes. It doesn't mean it is automatic, it doesn't mean its going to happen quickly. The good people have to work hard to make it better.

At the beginning you asked me the reason for my affection for Nigeria. The reason is that I know Nigerians are talented people, both the ordinary and people in high places. If the people keep the pace and work together, Nigeria will progress.

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