21 Jan 2020   |   Network Updates   |   Update from KU Leuven
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KU Leuven's Vice Rector calls for broader commitment to university development cooperation


After a recent visit to Ethiopia, where she saw the tangible results of long-term UDC projects, Vice Rector Chris Van Geet is more motivated than ever to further develop the policy plan for University Development Cooperation. “The snowball effect of the cooperation between North and South is remarkable.”

Instead of using the term ‘university development cooperation’, Vice Rector Van Geet prefers to talk about the cooperation with our partners in the South in dealing with global challenges: “Illustrative of this approach is the advisory body that we have set up with alumni from the Global South who did a PhD at KU Leuven. These are people from different continents and fields, who take on a lot of responsibilities in their home country. They advise us on how to best go about UDC, point out what can be improved, suggest new ideas,... This is beneficial to the knowledge and expertise at our own university.”

New course

The university's goal is to strengthen our commitment to UDC: more projects, but also more stakeholders, says Vice Rector Van Geet: “By analogy with the UN, which considers the whole of society, we want to include all stakeholders of the university in UDC; the whole of university, if you like. This also opens up possibilities for initiatives at faculties that are less experienced at UDC. A good example of this was a series of lectures with speakers from the Global South, organised by the Faculty of Arts. These lectures formed the basis of a new course that is now offered in different programmes of the Faculty: L-Interculturality. We also want to involve young researchers, students and more and more members of the administrative and technical staff.” 

“VLIR-UOS, the agency for university development cooperation, provides us with plenty of resources to set up a wide variety of initiatives. There are small projects, that run for two years, and the somewhat bigger team projects. With regard to the latter, we’ve made major progress in the number of approved projects during the last call, which only testifies to their top quality. We have projects on education and student mobility. The most long-term and comprehensive projects are those on institutional interuniversity cooperation (IUC), which involve multiple Flemish universities that are paired with one institution from the South. These projects run for 10 years, allowing for a solid and sustainable partnership to be built. The selection procedure for five new IUC programmes is currently underway.”

Every IUC programme is coordinated by one Flemish university. KU Leuven is currently in charge of five ongoing IUC partnerships in Peru, East Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya, each on a specific topic. The aim of the IUC programme with the Kenyan partner JKUAT, for instance, is to build a regional centre of expertise on legumes. 

“Universities abroad envy us these IUC projects, as they do the VLIR-UOS institution itself, which supports the Flemish universities in setting up joint UDC projects. We also closely cooperate with the other universities within LERU, the network of European research universities; our university oversees the ad-hoc LERU working group on UDC.” 

A unique interpretation of UDC are the four MOOCs – massive open online courses – that were recently proposed, and that originate from an idea suggested by the Interfaculty Council for Development Cooperation (IRO) of KU Leuven and the VLIR-UOS Global Minds programme. They were developed by researchers from our university in cooperation with partners from the South: “Three of the MOOCs deal with specific sustainable development goals (SDGs) on water, soil and nutrition respectively. The fourth MOOC is a more general one about the 17 SDGs formulated by the UN.” These sustainable development goals also provide a source of inspiration as well as a framework for all UDC initiatives, says Vice Rector Van Geet.

Sandwich scholarships

At the same time, academic capacity building at the partner institutions is a central objective of KU Leuven, both on the individual and institutional level. Van Geet: “One of the main instruments we have for this are PhD scholarships. We have ten ‘sandwich scholarships’ funded by Global Minds, for instance. With these scholarships, the doctoral student has one supervisor in the South and one in the North, and he/she divides his/her time between the two countries. The Marc Vervenne Fund also funds a couple of sandwich scholarships, as does the newly founded PACO Fund (PACO stands for ‘Partnership for Capacity Building’). Aside from this, we now have ten full-time PhD scholarships, funded by the university’s own research funds: Zuidbeurzen (PhD scholarships for researchers from the South).” 

“All in all, we can offer over twenty PhD scholarships. We see that most PhD students return to their home institution and quickly take on a lot of responsibilities there. Something that personally struck me is the example of Congolese doctors who, after having obtained their PhD at KU Leuven and starting to work as a doctor in Congo, deposit 50 dollars in a fund each month to buy lab materials for students and young researchers.”

Snowball effect

Before she became responsible for university development cooperation as Vice Rector, Professor Van Geet already supervised various VLIR-UOS research projects and was an active member of LUMOS, the Leuven Medical Development and Solidarity organisation. “Few people know that it has long been a tradition for University Hospitals Leuven, on the proposal of the Medical Council, to partly invest their resources – which are, for a major part, made up of doctors' fees - in LUMOS. This – not insignificant – budget is used for capacity building in the biomedical sector in four countries in Africa: DR Congo, Cameroon, Benin and Rwanda.”

“It's nice that I can now be involved on a different level as Vice Rector. A lot can be accomplished with a strong IRO and a team of extremely competent and committed colleagues from the International Office. In August, I joined the Rector on a visit to three universities in Ethiopia. We concluded partnership agreements with the universities of Arba Minch, Mekelle and Addis Abeba. KU Leuven actually coordinated a project with Mekelle University for over 10 years. It's impressive to see how they’ve managed to use this partnership to turn an extremely barren region frequently plagued by famines into a fertile area thanks to a scientifically sound soil and irrigation policy. Before and after pictures of the region show a massive difference. Something like this obviously has a major impact on the entire society: proper nutrition is one of the key conditions to help the economy flourish and reduce child mortality.” 

“Mekelle University also unveiled a Belgium Park when we were there, as a reminder of the close cooperation. This type of long-term cooperation has a true snowball effect on a university in terms of its ability to autonomously attract external funding and set up new projects. Capacity building truly works.”

his article was published on 16 January 2020 by KU Leuven 

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