Six major US charitable foundations today (Friday) announced a new 200 million dollar initiative to help improve African universities. The joint effort ? called the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa ? is an investment in the continent?s economic and social development. 

The partnership includes the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as well as the Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller Foundations and the William & Flora Hewlett and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations. In 2000, when the partnership consisted of only four foundations, it made an initial investment of about $150 million in African universities. The new investment of $200 million dollars will help fund about 40 universities in seven countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

Jonathan Fanton is the president of the MacArthur Foundation.

?Higher education is the critical path to building a strong, democratic state and also for laying the foundation for a balanced economic development that distributes the fruits of growth fairly. I don?t think you can find a country around the world that has taken the democratic path that does not have a strong and free university system,? he says.?

Ford Foundation President Susan Berresford agrees.

She says, ?It?s important to invest in African higher education because, one, there?s a lot of excitement and positive action there building toward African solutions for Africa?s problems. There are important innovations in universities now in Africa addressing problems like AIDS, gender discrimination, the lack of capacity in science and math. There are tremendously important institutions that we can now build on and support as they move in these new directions.?

One of the things the new initiative will do is to greatly enhance the universities? information technology, for instance, by increasing bandwidth. What that means is that a lot more information can be sent and received along the internet, such as faster downloads, better video quality, greater multi-media applications, and real-time collaboration among universities while web-casting conferences or seminars.

Narciso Matos is the chair of international development at Carnegie Corporation of New York and the former Secretary-General of African Universities. He says the six foundations decided to renew and increase their commitment to African universities when countries began to rebound from dictatorships.

He says, ?We were seeing some African countries undertaking policy reform, public reform, processes of democratization, which are reflected in elections and in other ways. So, there is clearly a change in a growing number of African countries.?

Some of the other technological advances include Smart Cards, which resemble credit cards and contain tiny microprocessors. At the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, students are using them for anything from paying for meals to linking with the university?s financial, health, library and registration systems.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the initiative is helping train scientists to grow better crops to fight hunger.  At Makerere University in Uganda, students will now use state of the art laboratories, allowing them to conduct complex experiments. Some of the funds will also go the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town to help foster gender equality on the continent. The initiative will also expand opportunities for African women to study math and science.

Susan Berresford of the Ford Foundation says when Africa benefits, the world benefits.

?The world is an intellectual marketplace now. So, ideas developed in Africa move very quickly to other parts of the world so we all benefit in that way. And second, to the degree that African institutions address some of Africa?s problems, like AIDS, that is going to benefit the whole world. Because some of the problems in Africa, such as the high level of AIDS infection, is a problem for the whole world,? she says.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa ?an outstanding display of global leadership.?

In the five years since investment began, foundation officials say they have ?witnessed considerable progress within universities?in ways that bear directly on development and economic progress.?