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US Secretary of Education Says Higher Education Key to Development in Africa

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is in Kigali this week promoting partnerships between American and African universities. The goal is to use higher education to drive development in Africa. For VOA, Thomas Rippe reports from Kigali.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says higher education is vital to the future development of Africa. She says Africa needs highly trained professionals to take on issues such as poverty, hunger and health.

"We believe we cannot be effective in solving development challenges like those we face in health care and other ways without tackling education," she said. "It is such a fundamental building block to development."

Secretary Spellings is in Rwanda this week to open the Africa Regional Higher Education Summit. The summit will bring together representatives from universities around the United States and Africa. The focus is on partnerships in higher education, food security, economic growth and health. Current projects are driving economic development in Nigeria and public health in Rwanda.

Also attending the summit are high-profile donors from around the world.

Iqbal Noor Ali is the CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation USA. He agrees with Secretary Spellings on the importance of higher education for development.

"How else are you going to grow the strong leadership that this continent, or any other part of the developing world, needs? Leaders in government, leaders in business, leaders in civil society," said Noor Ali. "If you stop at just primary and secondary education you are not equipping people with the skills, the knowledge, the tools necessary for their own growth."

Noor Ali says the Aga Khan Foundation has been working with the U.S. government on various programs, including education, for the past 25 years. He says his foundation is active in Africa because it believes in the promise and potential of the continent.

Belief in the potential of Africa is shared by many of those at the conference. Secretary Spellings says U.S. government investment represents only one ninth of all American investment in Africa. She says that when American institutions invest in Africa they want something back, and that is a good sign.

"U.S. higher institutions have some element of self-interest," she said. "They see this as a place that is worth investing in, worth coming to. I think their actions speak volumes."

One of those institutions is Tulane University in New Orleans. In 2000 Tulane established a partnership with the National University of Rwanda to train professionals in public health. The project received a grant from the American Embassy in Rwanda, and every year USAID provides scholarships to 10 students to attend the school.

Tulane's senior staff member at the School of Public Health in Kigali, Joshua Rodd, explains the school helps doctors expand their thinking from individual patients to broader social issues.

"These were excellent doctors, but they did not really have any public health background," he said. "So now all of a sudden they are responsible for the health of several-hundred-thousand people. It is not just a patient they are treating in front of them. They have to think in an entirely new way about health."

One of those doctors is Jeanine Condo. As a physician she was treating HIV-positive children who were malnourished. But each time she treated a child she knew the child would have to come back for more treatment.

She says she was treating the symptoms, but not the root of the problem. But at the School of Public Health she is able to create programs that address the root.

"I also work with other NGOs in Rwanda," said Condo. "I designed a program where all HIV-positive kids will benefit with food. I helped them in developing training manuals that they are using now and the counseling cards they are using now. Half of the health centers in Rwanda, around 200 centers, they are using the cards."

One question that many here are asking is how the upcoming election in the United States will affect these programs. But Cheryl Sim, the Charge d'Affairs of the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda, is confident the momentum will continue.

"I see an energy and a commitment to this whole thrust and this whole approach that I have not seen previously in my career," said Sim. "So you have that kind of bureaucratic energy. That will also carry through a transition and into the next administration."

Another question some are asking is why focus so much on higher education when so many countries are struggling with their primary and secondary education. Secretary Spellings says that most of the focus was on primary education, but through experience she has learned that it is really higher education that makes a difference.

"I think we have all realized that we will be much more effective at meeting our needs in primary and secondary education if and when we build capacity and engagement in our post-secondary system," she said. "That is where teachers are trained. That is where technologies are incubated."

The Higher Education Summit is trying to create a ripple effect. American institutions train people like Jeanine Condo, who is currently a lecturer at the School of Public Health in Kigali. Some of those students are themselves university lecturers, who will widen the circle by passing on their knowledge to their students.