Encouraged by a rising tide of democracy in Africa, six major US foundations announced on Friday that they would spend US$200 million over the next five years to strengthen higher education in seven African countries.
The investments will significantly increase Internet access for a group of African universities, finance scholarships for hundreds of young women and build programs to train agricultural scientists and public health managers, among other things.
The presidents of Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya visited the Ford Foundation on Friday to offer their thanks at a ceremony to celebrate the undertaking. The other nations getting help are Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
"Education, particularly higher education, will take Africa into the mainstream of globalization," Ghanaian President John Agyekum Kufuor said.
The contributions represent a deepening of financial support for African universities from US foundations. Over the past five years, the Carnegie Corp of New York and the Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller foundations have contributed more than US$150 million for higher education in Africa.
This unusual partnership was joined on Friday by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
US foundations backed away from financing African higher education in the 1970s and 1980s, when civil unrest, corruption, student protests and out-of-control costs plagued African universities, according to a publication of the partnership of foundations.
Also, in the 1980s and 1990s, ensuring universal primary education became the highest priority, and resources followed. But as countries like Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have abolished school fees and millions of African children have poured into grade schools, there has been a growing realization that higher levels of education will also have to improve.
The new money will help bring African universities into the digital age. By banding together with foundation support, the universities have been able to obtain many times the Internet bandwidth they had before at a third the rate paid by most institutions in Africa. Intelsat, the global satellite operator, is providing the bandwidth.
The money will also support training for professions essential to Africa's ability to produce more food and care for its sick. The partnership is investing in a five-year PhD program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to train plant breeders. The hope is that these scientists will develop more productive, pest-resistant crop varieties that will help Africa feed its millions of hungry people.
Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, has revised its curriculum for doctors and public health workers with the aim of preparing them to manage the care of people who live in rural areas where highly skilled staff and sophisticated equipment are in very short supply. Each year, doctors get out of the city for periods of training in the countryside.