My involvement in ‘University Development Cooperation’ began thanks to a personal relationship. I freshly arrived at the LUC (the ancestor of UHasselt) when Paul Steels, a colleague of mine, entered my desk room to ask: « For years, we are trying to set up a project of medical education in Congo, without success. You speak good French, are you interested by leading it? ». The first trial was not successful, but the second trial was successful. We could do a second project with the faculty of medicine of the university of Kinshasa.
My third experience with Congo also began thanks to a personal relationship. It was another Paul, Paul Janssen, who asked me to lead the transversal part of the newly starting Institutional University Cooperation (IUC) project with the university of Kisangani. From capacity building at the level of a faculty, I went to the level of a university. I kept doing this in other IUCs (Meknes in Morocco, Lubumbashi in DR Congo).
What makes me rich of these experiences? I met humans with the same fundamental questions, with the same hope: that knowledge, academic values, are necessary to help the world face the challenges of our times.
Global partnership is the new name of University Development Cooperation. Besides partnership between institutions, relationship between people and even friendship may be the most important drives of my engagement in university cooperation.
What makes VLIR-UOS projects on Global Partnership less attractive for academics than EU- of FWO-funded projects? The administrative burden? Not really: VLIR-UOS did a great job in simplifying the processes of the calls, reporting, etc, though it can still be ameliorated. The difficult language of this type of project? Neither: Horizon Europe or Erasmus language are not easier. The lack of a true scientific research dimension? This is the most tricky, indeed. Some of those projects are easily connected to forefront research when the research questions are directly linked to the regions with which one collaborates: think about epidemics, environmental or biodiversity studies. Some are more difficult to get associated with ‘excellent’ research. Some have nothing to do with research. For example capacity building as such, like helping students to acquire IT skills, building the foundation of a research coordination office of learning teachers how to make attractive slides.
Moreover, most of the time, those projects are not recognized at the same level as other projects for the promotion of researchers, not to say that Global Partnership projects take more time than more ‘classical’ research projects.
Something to put on the agenda of our university councils if we want that the new generation also engage themselves in Global Partnership.
In the Mid ‘90s, with the rise of PC’s and the early Internet, it became common within the 5 Flemish University Computer Centres, to travel to ‘the South’ to assist universities in adapting these new technologies within their local environments. After a first short mission to Lusaka, Zambia (training network technologies), I was asked by VLIR-UOS to head a major project in the D. R. Congo, consisting in installing a ‘backbone’ fiber network between the 10 faculty buildings on the main campus of the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN). At the same time, UNIKIN would be connected to the Internet via a satellite antenna receiver.
The majority of the equipment was shipped from Belgium, but, as much as possible, local people/companies were hired to do the on-site work, e.g. digging trences, drilling holes, installing cabinets, etc. We hereby tried to make the local people ‘assume’ the project as THEIR project, not ‘a Belgian project’, while at the same time creating a considerable amount of work hours for the local community.
In general the project became a success, in the sense that it is still until today delivering network facilities to the whole university community.
At the same time it marked the ‘revival’ of Belgian Development aid to the DRC,which had more or less stopped due to the civil war in the late ‘90s.
I personally gained a lot of experience, but also many good friends, which remained active through several upcoming projects in e.g. Lubumbashi and Kisangani.
It finally shows that not only members of the Teaching Staff but also technicians or others can be eligible and most welcome in some of these challenging projects.