01/26/2015 12:36 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Hottest Year on Record: What Universities and Aid Agencies Can Do

This past year marked the Earth's hottest year ever on record. The heat wave is attributed to greenhouse gas emissions. This dangerous trend is expected to continue unless we take immediate and continuous steps, not just in the United States, but across the globe. In the US, we have our challenges as the President laid out in his SOTU speech. However, the challenges of GHG/global warming are even greater in and to pre-industrial developing countries, which rely heavily on fossil fuels to catch up and get ahead in the world's economy.

None of this information is new, yet there are new ways to tackle these challenges. To do so, it is time for universities and aid agencies to step-up as partners to provide leadership and solutions to these complex, sustainable development challenges.

Universities have played a central role in helping the world understand the nature and magnitude of the enormously complex problem of GHG emissions and global warming. Scholarly research has been instrumental in documenting and raising public awareness about the impacts of climate change on the global economy, on ecological resilience, and on social justice. It's no wonder donors and development-focused organizations frequently turn to experts at universities for assistance on environmental issues, such as water scarcity, energy efficiency, waste management, sea level rise and agriculture.

Beyond their research endeavors, U.S. universities are now also seeking ways to play a more direct role in providing actionable solutions and impact-driven opportunities internationally, expanding their funding sources from traditional donors to the academy, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, to USAID and the World Bank.

However, two main challenges often hold universities back from competing for international development projects in this space: (i) How to meet the requirements of most bilateral donors, specifically when it comes to demonstrating past experience in managing multi-million dollar international projects and (ii) actual in-country relationships and experience.

To address the first challenge, aid agencies and bilateral donors should change their award criteria and project designs. This means less emphasis on "corporate structures" and immediate results, and more of a focus on how the project will impact the behavior of the next generation and beyond; sustainable outcomes are just as much about constructing green buildings now as they are about teaching the next generations how to live and work in a more energy efficient manner in the future. Aid agencies should therefore require that solution-driven projects include environmental sustainability education programs for students of all ages to expedite productive behavior changes and give citizens a stake in their country's long-term sustainable growth.

The second challenge requires universities to make changes so their faculty can spend more time in the field. This is no easy feat. The rigorous demands of teaching and research often keep faculty from participating in international development projects that clearly would benefit from their expertise. To address this, universities could provide faculty with financial and academic incentives to create relationships on-the-ground as a precursor to proposed research and development work so they can ultimately engage directly in impactful global opportunities. However, for such incentives and the activities they'd create to be effective they must be acknowledged as an essential part of the faculty reward system, too, instead of being considered a distraction from more so-called mainstream, traditional academic activities such as classroom teaching and publishing research in scholarly journals.

These changes would offer both the international donor community and the universities opportunities to address today's sustainability challenges. At the same time, providing the next generation of students and educators the skills and experience that could begin to reverse an impending global-scale ecologic crisis and bring us a bit closer to putting the planet and its population on a trajectory towards sustainability.

Fron Nahzi specializes in international development. The views expressed here are his own.