By Calestous Juma
Inequality between men and women remains one of the most critical sources of low economic productivity in Africa. Many of the efforts seek to address the challenge by creating new training institutions. A complementary strategy is to identify and upgrade promising local initiatives.
In her preface to the new Gender Equality and Female Empowerment, of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton states that achieving US global development objectives “will demand accelerated efforts to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment.” Without it, she stresses, “peace and prosperity will have their own glass ceiling.”
The strategy pays particular attention to the role of science, technology, and innovation in reducing gender gaps and empowering women and girls. It notes that investments by USAID “should make bold, imaginative, and creative use of new technologies and innovations that hold great promise for increasing men’s and women’s health and well-being.”
The basis for achieving the vision already exists in most developing countries. There are many local experiments around the world that could be upgraded with modest additional resources.
An example of such an in situ effort is the African Rural University (ARU) for women inaugurated in Kibaale district of western Uganda in 2011. ARU was incubated by the Uganda Rural Development and Training Program (URDT), a non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 1987. It is the first African university dedicated to training women. It is also the first African university to be incubated by a rural NGO and show great promise in the potential for growth among local organizations.
As documented in The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, ARU is an innovative model that focuses on building strong female leaders for careers in agriculture and on involving the community in every step of the agricultural value chain.
A key feature of the new university is to help young women envision the future they want and design strategies to achieve their goals. Their programming is tailored to meet locally identified needs that value local lifestyles and traditions while allowing the adoption of new technologies and improved production.
ARU is building on a long legacy of URDT, which has resulted in better food security, increased educational attainment, raised incomes for families across the district, better nutrition, and strong female leaders who engage in peace-building efforts and community improvements, among others.
A driving factor in the approach is the community-university interaction that focuses on women and agriculture. URDT also has a primary and secondary girls’ school that focuses on developing girls’ abilities in a variety of areas, including agricultural, business, and leadership skills, and encouraging them to bring their knowledge out to the community.
At URDT Girls’ School, students engage in “Back Home” projects, where they spend some time among their families conducting a project that they have designed from the new skills they learned at school. Such projects include creating a community garden, building drying racks to preserve food in the dry season, or conducting hygiene education.
Parents also come to the school periodically to engage in education and to help the girls design the Back Home projects. School becomes both a learning experience and a productive endeavor; therefore, families are more willing to send children, including girls, to school because they see it as relevant to improving their lives.
URDT focuses on agriculture and on having a curriculum that is relevant for the communities’ needs. They have an experimental farm where people can learn and help develop new agricultural techniques, as well as a Vocational Skills Institute to work with local artisans, farmers, and businessmen who have not had access to traditional schooling.
There is a local radio program designed to share information with the broader community. URDT also runs an Appropriate and Applied Technology program that allows people from the community to interact with international experts and scientists to develop new methods and tools to improve their lives and agricultural productivity.
A recent example is the development of a motorcycle-drawn cart to help bring produce to market and improve availability and use of produce. This technological adaptation lays the basis for creating new training programs on mechanical engineering.
USAID and other development cooperation agencies can draw on such examples to create effective learning institutions to support agriculture in ways that close the gender gap and empower women and girls.
The genesis of ARU shows that NGOs do not always have to stay small and have great potential to grow into pioneering universities, hospitals and public corporations. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah rightly calls for “strong emphasis on building high-impact partnerships, harnessing the power of innovation and conducting rigorous program evaluation to deliver meaningful results.”
Achieving this goal will require paying more attention to in situ efforts such as ARU that have resulted from years of experimentation and demonstrated clear evidence of their ability to innovate and evolve.
Calestous Juma is Professor of Practice of International Development and Faculty Chair of the Innovation for Economic Development Executive Program at Harvard Kennedy School. He is a member of the judging panel of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Twitter @calestous