I am so jealous. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is visiting sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) this week. After two days in Senegal, he will visit Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the Sommet de la Francophonie -which is guaranteed to be a lively and mesmerizing event.
It is the second time Mr. Harper has managed to visit this important continent. His only previous visit was in 2007. He will have a lot to take in during the short trip this week. Countless significant issues will compete to be items of the highest priority – trade, human rights, conflict, hunger… I wonder which topics he will discuss.
Medical trainees whom I have taught know that I sometimes like to play a game called “If you were the Minister of Health…” Similarly I like to challenge myself with imagining what I would do if I were in other positions of influence. I find it to be a healthy game. Instead of criticizing the work of leaders and public servants, I like to imagine what I might do if I were in their shoes.
So as Mr. Harper spends the next few days in Senegal and the DRC, I’m reflecting on what my priorities would be if I were in such a privileged position. What would I ask people about? Through what lens would I look at these marvelous nations? You might be surprised at my answer. I think what would interest me most about the burgeoning nations of SSA is the topic of… higher education.
This is an area in which Canada and several African nations could have some important interaction. Yes, as a physician I care about health issues in SSA. Yes, several countries in SSA, such as Nigeria are of interest for Canada to strengthen our economic partnerships. Yes, horrific human rights abuses flourish on a grand scale in many regions of the continent. All of these issues should be of vital interest to a Canadian prime minister.
But the hidden crisis in most countries of SSA is the shocking state of higher education. Several countries on the continent have boldly expanded the number of higher education institutions available for the growing population of potential students. But there are serious challenges to keep pace with the quality of faculty and facilities required to prepare a highly skilled and educated work force. This is arguably the most widespread barrier to development and in my mind the most obvious key to release the untapped potential of the region. Rapid economic expansion and genuine democratic foundations cannot be developed in these countries without massive investment in public institutions of higher education.
The challenge of educational issues in the DRC is but one example. A report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs notes that “Since independence [in 1960] to date, the government has not prioritized school expansion and building of new institutions.” Education officials have expressed concern over the severe shortage of teaching faculty in public institutions. A UNESCO report also notes that the military budget of DRC is twice as much as the education budget.
Martha Nussbaum and others have built the case that it is difficult to grow democracies without excellent institutions of higher education that will teach and model critical reasoning. Strong societies are built by generous opportunities for higher education where students wrestle with alternative views and new intellectual arguments while their minds are open to dream of a different future for their communities and nations.
In our relationship with the countries of SSA, Canada’s role should be changing from donor and perceived benefactor to peer and partner. In any case, if we have a sincere interest in these emerging economies, we should seize a great opportunity to build relationships by supporting the expansion of higher education opportunities in many of these low-income countries. If I were Mr. Harper, I would discuss higher education with every African leader I meet this week. I would find out how we can develop mutually beneficial partnerships for Canadian universities and colleges to connect with peer institutions in SSA.
Investment in education is the greatest antidote to poverty, violence and ill health. Canada’s role in sub-Saharan Africa should include enhancing the development of publicly funded higher education. This week is the time to start.