As Africa struggles to live up to the expectation as the next big investment frontier it is appropriate to focus on what will be the key driver of Africa’s advancement - Africa’s human resources. Development, a contented term, means to me the efforts to increase the productive capacity of a society, improve the people’s wellbeing, and expand the frontiers of freedom, while protecting the ecosystem for current and future generations.
Philanthropy and entrepreneurship have helped Africans build schools, roads, churches, and mosques. Through philanthropy many Africans have secured scholarships, employment, start-up capital for business, and cost of medical treatment. An individual’s success is deemed to be of limited social value if it does not lead to the success of others in the family, clan or community.
I point these out to underscore a very important point, which is that the link between philanthropy, entrepreneurship and human capital development has a long history in Africa.
Now let me tell you my own story.
Like other Africans fortunate to achieve modest success, I have engaged in virtually all these forms of philanthropy and more. However, the bulk of my efforts has gone toward fostering formal education in my home country, Nigeria. Some of this has taken the form of providing university scholarships for promising young people. Some of it has taken the form of creating and supporting a first-rate boarding school - kindergarten through high school - in Yola, the capital of my home state of Adamawa, in Nigeria's Northeast, a very poor region of the country.
But my largest commitment has been to the American University of Nigeria (AUN), the university which I founded a little more than a decade ago. This, too, is located in Yola, far from Abuja, the Federal Capital and far from the important commercial/industrial/cultural centers of Nigeria.
I would like to tell you about what we are building together, and the role this small private university has begun to play in the sustainable development of my country.
But wouldn't it be more cost effective, you might ask, just to use that money to provide scholarship funds for students to study elsewhere? To study, say, in London? A great many more students could be sent to LSE with the money now being used to run our AUN power plant and construct our buildings, and pay our security force and the like.
My concern, however, is to help develop my country in deeper and more holistic ways. Why should we want to facilitate the brain drain out of Africa, to enable our best and our brightest to take their ambitions, their intelligence, and their drive to London or New York? We need them in Africa. We need them to understand the problems in Africa. We need them to pitch in.
ln these challenging times it is worth asking: why is higher education important in the world, what does it contribute to society, and why is AUN important on the continent?
When we think about the impact of higher education we often think of only the private, individual benefits of higher education for the student.
We know from a great deal of research, for example, that individuals with bachelor's degrees earn more income over a lifetime than those without, and that they become more productive managers, entrepreneurs, and innovators.
Of course increasing individual incomes is important. But higher education is expensive, and these purely individual benefits are hardly enough to justify the significant costs of running a modern university, especially when you look at the often daunting challenges facing most African societies.
However, we know that there are far broader benefits to the wider society from higher education. Higher education not only boosts individual incomes of its graduates, but also the overall GDP of African nations.
A recent study estimated that a one year increase in Africa's stock of institutions of higher education, with no other actions, would raise output growth by 0.63% per year, boosting incomes about 3% after five years and by 12% over a decade.
Of course increasing economic growth is absolutely essential for all African countries, but development is more than merely increasing incomes and enlarging GDPs. Development, sustainable development, is also about improving health, preserving and enhancing the environment, developing good governance, and increasing human welfare, especially for the poor.
How does higher education contribute to these goals? Societies with widespread access to higher education have.
• Better health indicators
• Increased life expectancy and reduced infant and child mortality
• Reduced fertility rates, and
• Increased savings rates
ln addition studies have found that, controlling for income, societies with widespread access to higher education are:
• More democratic and more politically stable.
• Have stronger human rights and civic institutions.
• Have reduced inequality in income.
• Have lower crime, and
• Have improved environmental indicators
Beyond these characteristics, there are other things to consider. ln the 21st century we live in a new world - a world where Information and Communications Technology has changed the way we work, the way we think, and the way we play.
For African societies to grow out of poverty and to compete successfully on the global stage, the technologies, skills and attitudes attendant upon the widespread use of computers and the Internet must be made widely accessible, not only to university students on the African continent, but also to everyone - especially the poor. For the poor, more than anything, lack knowledge, information, and resources are very costly.
What kinds of information? Information about market prices, about weather, about good health practices, about how to handle disasters such as flooding. All of these are things that need to be widely known in places like Yola.
This is one of the areas where AUN can and is already making its mark.
AUN is, I believe, one of the first universities in the world whose stated mission is to be a "development university." This means that we are focusing our teaching and research on the problems of development in all of its senses: literacy, economic planning, sustaining and restoring the environment, entrepreneurial skills, public health - the whole spectrum. But beyond what happens in the classroom and the library, we are taking the knowledge, the information, and the solutions developed in our university and applying them in the local community, in Nigeria, in West Africa, and eventually in the whole continent.
ln establishing our development mission, we drew inspiration from the American land grant universities, which helped make America a world power. Advances in agriculture and industry moved from American universities and colleges to communities through agricultural extension agents. It was a deliberate, government-supported project for places such as MIT, Ohio State, and UC Berkeley.
Originally, those extension agents from such colleges and universities taught farmers how to prepare land, apply fertilizer and grow better crops.
ln the 21st century, all of us in higher education have to be different kinds of extension agents -knowledge extension agents - developing new knowledge and applying those solutions in our societies. That is what we are doing at AUN.
Here are some examples.
Our TELA program (Technology Enhanced Literacy for All), now funded by the United States Agency for International Development, is using the old technology of radio to reach twenty thousand vulnerable, out-of-school children in our surrounding community.
Two thousand of these children in our pilot program are being taught using tablet computers with applications written in Hausa and Fulfulde, our local languages. These literacy applications were written and uploaded by our computer science students. Students from our School of Arts and Sciences have designed the content for the radio program episodes.
Our math and statistics students are conducting the monitoring and evaluation to see which technology is the most effective. Our students are acting as facilitators in 750 learning centers in Yola. ln the process, all are coming to a far deeper understanding of the challenges facing my country, and are gaining useful experience in helping to rise to those challenges. This is integral to their training at AUN. This is not the experience they would have were they to have left Nigeria for education abroad.
Why is this literacy project important? Nigeria, like many other Africa countries, is experiencing very rapid population growth. My country’s population is doubling about every 27 years. Right now we don't have enough trained teachers to teach, and classrooms in which to learn. Unless we develop new solutions for education, by 2050 when we are projected to be the 3rd largest country in the world, we will be a country full of uneducated, angry, and hopeless young people.
Technology is essential for mass education, and AUN, as a development university, is pioneering a new way to educate in Nigeria and Africa.
AUN is located in a part of the world where terrorists are trying to tear apart the country. So, four years ago, worried about the rise of Boko Haram, AUN reached out to all the local Muslim and Christian religious leaders, as well as local business, community, and educational leaders. With their support the AUN leadership established the Adamawa Peace Initiative.
One of our most successful programs has been "Peace Through Sports". Christian and Muslim boys and girls who had never met each other play on unity teams - teams comprising both Christians and Moslems. AUN provided training in peaceful conflict resolution as an integral part of this sports program involving over 5000 children, some of the most vulnerable in the area. AUN can document that not one child in these programs joined the terrorist group, and in spite of two local bombings, Yola has remained peaceful and united. This is what it means to be a development university and have an impact in your society. Our AUN students have been deeply involved in this and the other Adamawa Peace Initiative projects.
As the violent insurgency to our north grew in intensity, Yola was flooded with refugees, doubling the size of the city to 800,000. The Adamawa Peacemakers took care and fed close to 300,000 Internally Displaced People who sheltered in Yola for close to two years. This is what it means to be a development university. AUN students and faculty were at the forefront of this humanitarian effort.
Students from our School of Information and Technology are using our advanced technology wisely. AUN students developed the first E-Voting system in the country.
AUN, according to the American Library Association, now has more digital holdings than Oxford and Cambridge, and our e-library has won the Association's award. But we don't keep these resources to ourselves. Our LOAF program (Library on a Flash) has created 53 libraries in our poor region of Northeastern Nigeria - from primary schools to universities. This is what it means to be a development university.
There are many other examples of how AUN has become a force for improvement in our city and region. Waste to Wealth has over 700 women taking the plastic trash from the streets and turning it into 6 beautiful products, and into building materials. Feed and Read works with over 400 poor boys and girls-many of them orphans providing one meal a day from local food vendors while teaching them to read using new technologies. Our students, once again, are in the community learning about the real problems of the country, and learning how to solve them.
You have probably read about the kidnapping of the "Chibok Girls." Chibok is a community to our north, and a handful of these girls managed to escape their Boko Haram captors. At AUN we are now educating 27 of these remarkably brave and resilient young women on full scholarship. One of them recently expressed what education means in our area of the world. "Education gives me the wings to fly, the power to fight, and the voice to speak."
That is why I founded the American University of Nigeria.
Let me say, however, that while philanthropy and entrepreneurship have an important role to play in promoting human capital development in Africa, African states, like states everywhere, have the primary responsibility for security, education, healthcare and environmental protection and the provision of good governance. Private efforts, including philanthropy, are not a substitute for carefully targeted and efficiently managed public investments in these vital areas.
Investment in human capital is not simply a cost; it is an investment, the most important of all investments. To produce skilled and healthy workers and knowledgeable and engaged citizens is critical for Africa.
Let me also say that economic growth, and employment and wealth creation are not just socially important. They are also critical for the national security of African states. High levels of illiteracy, unemployment and social alienation of the populace, especially young people, are linked to widespread discontent, criminal behaviour and indeed militant insurgency.
By Atiku Abubakar,
GCON, former Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria.