18 January 2013

Africa: Columbia University Hub Aims to Engage African Research

Photo: AllAfrica
AllAfrica's Samantha Nkirote McKenzie.

Nairobi — We live in an increasingly globalised world and this is transforming how we live. Thanks to new technology we can now communicate seamlessly and instantly across the globe. However, we also face universal problems such as climate change and environmental degradation.

Some universities in the United States are trying to keep up with the times by opening branch campuses abroad with their own faculty and student base. Columbia University has decided to take a different approach by setting up a network of Global Centres around the world.

The global centres are essentially regional hubs where Columbia students can do hands-on research or service-learning abroad through initiatives that are either regionally focused or involve multiple centres in the network.  This week the university officially opened its Global Centre for Africa.

The centre, which will be based in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of nine Global Centres located around the world but is the first in Africa.  Speaking at the launch, Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, said that the centres provide an important means to engage with the world in new ways. In the current global environment it is no longer possible to think of issues on an individual or country basis, he said.

The center is intended to not only facilitate Columbia faculty and students in getting to Africa but also enable them to work with institutions in the region. Safwan Masri, vice president of the Global Centres, said the centres are not intended for a one-way transfer of knowledge but as a way to work with regional partners by allowing them to take full advantage of the centres' networks.

As with all the centres, it is hoped that having a physical presence in Africa will give rise to interesting research questions. Masri said Kenya provides an ideal base for the Africa centre because of its important developments in the fields of democracy, sustainable development and media.

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki praised the effort. He said that modern academic discourse must be informed by different insights and experiences from around the world to remain relevant.

The Columbia Global Centre in Nairobi will also house the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network for its work in Africa. The Solutions Network, which was launched last year by the UN secretary-general, is intended to bring together scientific and technical expertise from academia, civil society and the private sector to come up with solutions to development challenges.

Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, who leads the network, said he believes the region is at crossroads. He said while there is much to celebrate - citing the progress of Kibaki's government regarding improvements in maternal health, economic progress and the expansion of information technology - Sachs cautioned that the situation in the region and the world remains 'fraught with difficulty and fraught with peril'.

Sachs said the region especially needs to make a breakthrough over the coming decade to escape from what he said were traps of poverty and demographic and environmental risks. He urged regional governments to use the Solutions Network as a resource by, in particular, drawing on the practical solutions it develops to "mobilise new technologies for breakthroughs in health, education, water and sanitation, electrification, agriculture, governance and business development".

The Drylands Initiative, a six country program aimed at helping boost the capacity of dryland communities in drought-prone areas in Africa, is also based at the Africa Centre. For the Millennium Villages Project, a project to help empower rural communities, the centre provides technical and operational support. And in 2013 the centre will implement the second phase of the Africa Soil Information Service which is developing a continent-wide digital soil map.

The Columbia Global Centre has already attracted some notable programs and projects. President Kibaki welcomed the establishment of the centre as being able to contribute to the achievement of Vision 2030, Kenya attaining the status of a middle-income country by 2030, through the dissemination of objective research-based advice to the government and relevant stakeholders.

It seems the Africa centre has already proved that it is strategically placed to not only benefit the academic pursuits of Columbia University students but also to contribute, through its network, to solving some of the global developmental challenges the region faces.

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