Global Forum: Collaboration Yields Dialogue, Hope and Shelter in a Broken World

Nations the world over are grappling with economic uncertainty, and the U.S. has not been immune, with people in poor communities being hit the hardest.

Contentious negotiations over raising the federal debt limit culminating in a last-minute deal containing trillions in discretionary spending cuts have caused further worries, exacerbated by concerns the cuts will hit the most vulnerable.

The most important investment — whether at the local, state or national level — is education. An educated and well-informed citizenry is critical to the long-term health of a country. If the U.S. expects to maintain a leading and competitive advantage in science, technology, industry as well as culture, then everyone needs to receive a quality education. At the same time, we need to engage in the exchange of ideas with people from other parts of the world.

The speed and power of electronic technology allows educators and students to communicate and even see one another across time and great distances. But there is no substitute for visiting another country, engaging with people face to face, examining their solutions to problems and learning to communicate in their language.

Educational exchanges afford others the opportunity to learn about the United States, the diversity of its people, and understand why American innovation is the envy of so many people around the world.

The United States’ commitment to support international exchange programs represents a fraction of federal spending yet is one of the best investments of taxpayer dollars. The Fulbright program is one example that focuses on individual recipients.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Higher Education for Development, or HED, which fosters partnerships between universities in the United States and developing countries.

In 2007, Max Rettig, a graduate of Amherst College, received a Fulbright scholarship, which enabled him to conduct research in Rwanda on “gacaca,” a unique and sometimes controversial process involving transitional justice and trials, instituted by the government after the genocide of more than 800,000 people in 1994.

In 2008, Rettig’s research was published in the African Studies Review, a highly regarded academic peer-reviewed journal. Three years later, in early 2011, the Parents Circle – Families Forum, an organization made up of more than 500 families, half Israeli and half Palestinian, began using Rettig’s article to help its members understand the necessity of reconciliation as opposed to the aim of revenge.

Now a lawyer, Rettig was surprised that his research had made an unexpected international journey and pleased that it might be of assistance to Parents Circle. Maya Kahanoff, academic director of Parents Circle, explained that the goal of the organization was to “get people to talk instead of to remain silent, even if political, religious or cultural opinions and values differ.” The research conducted by Rettig provided valuable insight on a peace process in Rwanda that would, Kahanoff explained, offer an opportunity for members and supporters of Parents Circle to look at alternatives for reconciliation as presented by the “gacaca” process in Rwanda.

This powerful example of the value of academic research and its impact across international borders speaks to the importance of continued support, especially in the humanities, for individual international exchanges. The journey of Rettig’s research also demonstrates the common humanity of people. A solution in one part of the world can resonate with people in another.

The work of HED represents another mechanism of funding by the United States that fosters direct partnerships and collaboration among universities here and in developing countries.

In 2010, support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, totaled $7.4 million with another $6 million in cost share contributions from 62 partner institutions in the United States and 73 others abroad. The focus of projects undertaken by HED ranged from the environment and agriculture to workforce development and entrepreneurship, health, democracy and governance and education. In 2002, Tuskegee University worked with Fort Hare University in South Africa on a project to provide healthier living conditions in that country’s townships by addressing the shortage of housing.

The success of the project was the result of the research skills of Tuskegee faculty combined with the access and insight of Fort Hare University in using local building methods incorporating available materials that were unused or underutilized. This $100,000 project brought together members of an international higher education exchange to solve a pressing problem for citizens in the area surrounding Fort Hare University. An interesting outcome was that many of the lessons are applicable in the United States, which faces its own housing shortage in poor neighborhoods and homelessness challenges.

Investing in higher education and international partnerships abroad should be a budget priority. Financial support for Fulbright and programs such as HED strengthens the image of the United States and exposes faculty and students here and abroad to problems that are often similar with results that can be applicable in many nations.

Two years ago in June, President Obama gave an address at Cairo University, a strong signal that educational institutions abroad are valued and vital partners. We all need to work diligently to ensure that financial cutbacks don’t damage the quality of education at the school around the corner, the college or university across the state and educational programs abroad. D

— Karen Jenkins is executive director of the African Studies Association at Rutgers University