When considering U.S. foreign assistance programs, one often hears calls for sustainability. In other words, programs should promote the partner developing country’s ability to graduate from aid and take charge of its own economic growth. Achieving sustainability requires investments in human and institutional capacity. For food security and global agriculture, this means building the capacities of countries to solve their own problems.
As Congress considers authorizing a global food security strategy, with the Obama administration’s ambitious whole-of-government Feed the Future as its centerpiece, building capacity must be at the forefront of the debate.
One of the most essential ways to do this is to strengthen a country’s higher education system, much the same way that our land-grant and public universities lead the way for U.S. agricultural and economic growth. While we have made great strides through Feed the Future and other aid commitments, partnerships around higher education come nowhere close to rivaling where they were decades ago. Without restructured higher education institutions to produce well trained in-country agricultural specialists, U.S. development assistance to the same countries will be required in perpetuity.
Why are developing-nation universities so important for food security? First, universities produce engaged citizens and entrepreneurs who will support democracies and become catalysts for vibrant markets and economies. A recent World Bank study estimates that the greatest economic rates of return for investment in education globally are for higher education in Africa, almost twice that for basic and secondary education. Furthermore, the study shows that the poorer the region the greater the return for investment in higher education. This pattern is likely caused by the fact that better educated people in developing countries set better policy, are more effective entrepreneurs, create more jobs, and in general support a more innovative environment. Basic and secondary education is important but higher education cannot be neglected.
Second, universities play a critical role in supporting both public and private extension services. All the knowledge in the world will not help farmers, particularly smallholders, if they don’t have access to information. Ineffective extension systems inevitably overlook women even though they make up most of Africa’s farmers.
And third, universities in developing nations need the capacity to do agriculture research that is focused on local problems and solutions. Ultimately, the goal must be for developing nations to become self-sufficient and that means having the ability to set their own agenda based on their informed perspectives of their country’s needs.
The best way to revitalize higher education in countries suffering from high levels of poverty and chronic hunger is the proven mechanism of partnership between higher education institutions in developing countries and the United States. A great example is the USAID-funded partnership between Tanzania’s Sokoine Agricultural University and The Ohio State University. This partnership is transforming Sokoine into an institution that produces graduates who will have the skills to meet the private and public sector needs in food systems. The developing world needs more partnerships of this kind, focused on building the capacity of institutions of higher education. U.S. universities have an unparalleled ability to help transform institutions of higher education in developing nations if policymakers make it a priority.
Institutional transformation is not simple and takes time, but it is critical for developing countries. With the youth population bulge in many developing countries now placing extraordinary demands on post-secondary education systems, especially in Africa, higher education is at a critical tipping point. It has the potential to create a dynamic and powerful workforce for food security or if neglect continues, youth may become a destabilizing force that will have significant global economic and security costs.
Congress should play a leading role in authorizing U.S. food security programs in a way that better integrates the role of U.S. and foreign universities. That is the way to achieve sustainability.
Lugar served in the Senate from 1977 to 2013 and is president of The Lugar Center. McPherson, a former administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Glickman, a former Secretary of Agriculture, is co-chair of the Global Agricultural Development Initiative at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.