07/15/2013 07:14 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

SEEDing Sustainability Beyond the Millennium Development Goals

The path to development in all geographies goes through higher education. In particular, sustainable development in meeting the public health challenges relies heavily on reliable local capacity of doctors, nurses and public health professionals. In recent past, there have been a strong emphasis on improving the educational programs in health sciences through the "Medical Education Partnership Initiative" or MEPI, which has allowed U.S. institutions to partner with institutions in the developing world to create new programs and strengthen existing programs for quality medical education. While the jury is out on long-term success, the initial signs are promising.

While capacity in public health is undoubtedly needed, so is the capacity to innovate and sustain the medical and engineering innovations that come through various public, private or philanthropic ventures. What is therefore needed is a strategy to strengthen higher education in engineering and the sciences to create innovative capacity locally in priority areas of development. The USAID program of Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) is a step in this direction, yet more needs to be done that focuses on improving the quality of education in sciences and engineering. In addition to the large programs and consortia created by USAID through HESN, what we also need is smaller one-to-one programs of partnership that are smaller in size and focused directly on improving the quality of higher education in the STEM fields. What we need is therefore a program that mirrors MEPI, something that I would call "Science and Engineering Education for Development," or SEED.

Here, I propose a three-pronged vision of the "SEED" program. First, we need to analyze the in-country state of higher education in science and engineering, with respect to the national and millennial development goals. In most developing countries where I have lived, visited, or worked, I have found institutions of higher learning offering degrees in the STEM disciplines. Unfortunately, not only do these institutions often do not meet the growing demands of the inflating population, they are often use dated and obsolete curricula that have little to do with national priorities. As a result these institutions are unable to produce innovators who can steady the national development ship in turbulent streams of disease, poverty and social chaos. A rigorous analysis of curricula, teaching quality and availability, training and competence would allow for identification of gaps in higher education at the institutional, regional and the national level. This would in turn allow for creation of a better and optimized national policy focused toward closing the gaps national priorities in meeting the MDG goals.

The presence of gaps in national higher education takes me to the second aspect of the proposed program. We need to identify areas of national importance which are completely absent in the higher education framework and work collaboratively to bridge those gaps. This may require creating new degree programs, or modifying existing ones, creating new institutes or building regional centers of excellence serving multiple communities. Regardless of the approach, it is clear that the status quo in higher education in STEM disciplines will lead to a rapid decline in sustaining the successes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a brand new policy of innovation integration needs to be put in place. Institutions are often created but seldom maintained. It is not unusual to see a program that starts with the best of intentions, spiral into decline and disrepair at a breathtaking speed. The integration needs to happen at multiple levels. First, new programs that are created need to be integrated across disciplines. The programs in engineering and sciences need to work closely with schools of medicine and public health. This cross-disciplinary interaction is not only needed for national development, but also for the intellectual development of the teachers, students and researchers. Integration also needs to be vertical. The ministries of health, need to work with ministries of education, commerce and in many cases ministries of women and youth development to create a context appropriate strategies of higher education and innovation capacity building that outlive the tenure of an individual government.

We live in exciting times in higher education. New institutions of higher education are springing all over the developing world. With a large portion of society falling in the college-going age group in many countries across the globe, the demand for higher education is immense. Private and public institutions are finding themselves at the intersection of MOOCs and the classroom, the junction of orthodox and innovative. There is opportunity not only in using education for innovation but the moment is ripe to harness innovation in education to make the world a better place beyond the Millennium Development Goals.