It is a pleasure to be here today, joining my colleagues in this expression of confidence about the social and economic future of Africa, and about the importance of higher education in the hard work ahead.
The issues facing the countries of Africa are enormous, and much of the day-to-day news is troubling. Foundations and other institutions can provide resources, and information about lessons learned in other places. But ultimately, the successful development of Africa will be planned and led by the people who live there.
Institutions of higher education will be an important source for the large numbers of well-educated Africans needed to realize and secure Africa's vast economic and human potential. As you have heard, we believe there is a rebirth underway at many universities. Strategic plans are being written, academic programs developed, faculties strengthened and governance reformed in ways that hold great promise for the future. We want to encourage that progress.
We have talked about the role that universities play in providing highly trained leadership for economic and social development. The needs are immense and immediate and our partnership will help build capacity. But a network of strong research universities has a longer term importance as well: universities are critical to developing and sustaining healthy democratic societies.
Freedom of inquiry is a cornerstone of democracy. Universities can be an important source of the independent analysis and inquiry so essential in helping frame and solve problems. They can be the setting for the free and safe exchange of ideas, home to individuals free to do the investigation and research necessary to open and useful debate. Without this freedom there can be no reliable progress.
While the four partnership foundations share this conviction, our approaches will differ. The MacArthur Foundation is not as far along in our planning as the others because our work in Africa has been largely in the environment and women's health, not higher education.
We have had a small office in Nigeria and we believe Nigeria is the right place for us to focus. We have worked there for almost a decade and as a result our staff has considerable knowledge about the country and its people. As the most populous nation in sub-Saharan Africa, the vitality of Nigeria is critical to the regional progress and security of West Africa. And in selecting Nigeria we are mindful of the historic opportunity created through the courageous efforts of its president to institute democratic reforms.
Our work will begin with visits this spring and summer by members of our staff to a number of Nigerian universities for in-depth discussions about the needs of their universities and programs within them. That will lead to the selection of four universities for the first round of grants, we hope by the end of this year. We will listen closely to each institution about its specific needs, but I would be surprised if our support did not include the upgrading of libraries, better computer systems, and strengthening research center faculty development.
As we forge relationships with universities in Nigeria, we will, of course, join in the plans for linking the institutions together in ways that will ensure the sharing of lessons learned and ideas that work.
My final thought today is about optimism, and the flexibility of foundations to provide support to good people and institutions when the moment seems right.
We are all aware of the sometimes discouraging news from Africa. The challenges facing the continent are daunting. But behind the big headlines have been smaller ones — news of movement in many countries toward democratic reform. And in those countries institutions of higher education are being developed, improved, or restored. It is in the nations where these two factors intersect that the partnership will focus its work.
We are optimistic, or as my friend Susan Berresford has said, we have a "bias for hope" that these trends will continue and that strong universities will emerge and be secured in many African countries. We hope that our support will help.