We in Northern Ireland have become used to people – usually outsiders – telling us how narrow, inward and backward-looking we are, obsessed with our own supposedly unique little devil’s brew of history, religion and nationality. Get off the island, they say. See how the rest of the world lives, and that will soon put your provincial squabble into perspective.
The Centre for Cross Border Studies is following this advice. We’re going to Africa. More specifically we’re going to Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi to work with universities there to help them build their capacity to do research that will improve those countries’ education and health services, increase their ICT capability and better the position of women, and in such ways reduce the poverty of their peoples. As the world’s more advanced countries move towards being ‘knowledge economies’, where new products and services are largely the result of research, it is vital that such high-level research should also be shared with the world’s poorest countries. Reducing child mortality, combatting HIV/AIDS, improving teacher education and capitalising on new forms of telecommunications are just a few examples of the kind of research work that is vital to Africa.
Of course our small research centre in Armagh cannot do this on its own. The key to this new adventure is the Centre’s position as the secretariat to Universities Ireland, which brings together the nine universities on the island – two in the North and seven in the South – to do research, conference and exchange projects together.
In 2005 a delegation from Universities Ireland – drawn from CCBS, Trinity College Dublin, Queen’s University Belfast and Mary Immaculate College (University of Limerick) – went to Uganda to meet people working in higher education, teacher education and health education there.
Out of this visit came a string of contacts and conversations with people involved in development work in Ireland, notably Irish Aid, the development cooperation wing of the Department of Foreign Affairs. When at the end of 2007 Irish Aid – along with the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in Dublin – announced a new funding programme for projects aiming to involve Irish higher education institutions more in such cooperation, Universities Ireland was keen to become involved.
In the event, on the advice of the HEA, it was the Centre for Cross Border Studies – using its Southern base at Dublin City University – which led a consortium of all nine Irish universities in a bid to set up what was to become known as the Irish-African Partnership for Research Capacity Building (IAPRCB). After a two stage competitive process, the CCBS-led partnership was one of five successful applicants, and the only one run out of Northern Ireland, to receive €1.5 million for a three year pilot project. Universities Ireland provided €111,000 in matching funding.
The IAPRCB, which will be launched by President McAleese at a high-level workshop in Dublin City University on 8 April, plans to do a number of things over the next three years. Firstly, it will engage in a wide-ranging consultation with senior university people in the 13 participating universities to find out how research aimed at reducing poverty can be built in health, education, ICT and gender in the African universities, and how, in parallel, research into effective development cooperation can be built here in universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
It has brought in Sheila Moorcroft, a leading British expert in ‘foresight exercises’, which assist governments, companies, universities and other bodies to plan for the future by taking into account all the likely factors which will help them to grow and prosper, or will prevent them from doing so. The clever people who planned the last ten years of ‘Celtic Tiger’ prosperity in the Republic of Ireland used foresight exercises a lot. Now the Irish universities will endeavour to use this tool to help our African friends.
The IAPRCB will bring university leaders and policy makers together from the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi in six four-day workshops of intense debate and discussion – three in Ireland and three in Africa – over the next three years. Out of this process will come, we hope, a new network (served by a sophisticated website run out of Trinity College Dublin) to link higher education institutions in Ireland, North and South, and their counterparts in Africa, with the common aim of increasing and spreading knowledge in order to combat disease and lack of education and the crippling poverty which is a consequence of both.
P.S. A few months ago I was bemoaning the declining flow of students crossing the Irish border to pursue their studies – and thus learn about life – in the other jurisdiction. Universities Ireland and six individual companies – Arthur Cox, Belfast City Airport, CSA Group, Dublin Port, Healy Group and RPS Group – have come together to offer generous €20,000 scholarships to outstanding young people to undertake postgraduate study in the other part of the island. The deadline for applications is Friday 2 May. Further information is available on www.universitiesireland.ie. Please spread the word about this highly innovative scheme.