14. Dezember 2021

Higher Education for Democracy

14.12.2021 — Basel, Schweiz

A university in South Sudan, a think tank in Palestine, higher education systems in Laos. swisspeace works with all of them to help foster a critical citizenry and democratic governance. Sanjally Jobarteh talked to one of the experts in charge, Ursina Bentele, to lay out the potential and difficulties of this approach.

End of funding, but not the end of working together: Last day of a curriculum workshop with the University of Jub. South Sudan, June 2021. Image: swisspeace.

It is at school and at university that voters, workers, politicians, and economists shape their opinions. In an ideal world, education helps people develop critical thinking skills, which some may then use to promote sensible policies and equal opportunities. Higher education — so the theory goes — plays a crucial role in promoting development and democracy.

When promoting education in authoritarian states, development programs tend to focus on primary education and literacy. However, teaching people how to read and write is not enough if the aim is to contribute to an inclusive system of governance. Democracies need people who are capable of developing policies, leading dialogue and working with international institutions. Without such capacities, locally-owned development is impossible.

swisspeace strongly advocates for higher education. We support universities and institutions that fund research in fragile, conflict-affected or authoritarian settings. In places like South Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine or Laos, we advise actors on how they can develop or improve their programs and funding.

Supporting higher education in authoritarian contexts is not without its challenges. Universities are often public and closely linked to the state. Sometimes they are directly managed by politicians, which can limit academic freedom and impede research. Clearly, it is a risk that funds invested in higher education are misused and serve a corrupt government.

Therefore, this ideal world in which higher education systems positively influence politics is difficult to reach. However, opportunities to contribute to positive change remain, and swisspeace strives to seize them.

Ursina Bentele, Programme Officer at swisspeace, facilitates a workshop at the Institute for Peace, Development and Security Studies (IPDSS), University of Juba, June 2021. Image: swisspeace.

We collaborate with both state and independent academic institutions (like local think tanks) to balance and control for these risks. Research donors are advised to support infrastructure development but also invest in research careers in order to strengthen innovative and critical thinking in despotic systems.

We make sure our support is interdisciplinary. The academic sector is vast, and it is essential to consider different fields of study — agriculture, political sciences, natural resource management and peace building. All of these fields are essential for meaningful and sustainable development.

Another aim of our approach is to limit brain drain. It is inevitable that graduates look for employment and training abroad when such opportunities are lacking at home. swisspeace advocates for exchange programs that allow academics to benefit from an independent higher education for some time — and then use these skills to help build a more inclusive system at home. Despite the challenges, we keep on working towards this ideal.

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