What is your deepest fear?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

TU Delft takes on Africa

The theme for this year's lustrum anniversary celebrations at TU Delft is 'Sustainability and Africa'. Based on this theme the university plans to take certain actions throughout the year to find out how it can contribute to sustainable development in Africa. "But does sustainable development really mean 'Western' sustainable development, and isn't educating many more African students really the best way to help Africa?"

Sustainability is one of the recent buzzwords encountered in many technology discussions today. The term is used perhaps without a clear understanding of what it actually means. I always had a vague idea that the definition has something to do with 'the ability for something to go on'. One TU lecturer, during a course at the TPM Faculty, suggested that the vagueness of the term is intentionally maintained so that businesses engaged in the manufacturing of certain 'harmful' products have some wiggle room. But according to Wikipedia, sustainability is "an attempt to provide the best outcomes for the human and natural environments both now and into the indefinite future".

This year TU Delft celebrates its 165th lustrum anniversary and the theme for the year's celebrations is 'Sustainability and Africa'. Throughout the year, a number of activities have been scheduled to explore the possible contributions that a university like TU Delft can make towards achieving this goal of sustainable development, with a particular focus on African countries.

But why the focus on Africa? The committee organizing the lustrum program mentioned a number of problems: energy, climate change, water supply and health, which affect countries worldwide. During the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, it was stated that the three overarching objectives of sustainable development were: eradicating poverty, protecting natural resources and changing unsustainable production and consumption patterns.

The focus on African countries therefore can be seen from the point of view that they could act as a valuable testing ground for sustainable solutions to these problems. During a debate with international students recently, TU Delft Rector Magnificus Jacob Fokkema mentioned that "in the next 50 years, we shall need six earths to sustain us if we are still living the same lifestyle as today".

But the implication is that the 'developed Western lifestyle' cannot be supported by the earth for much longer. TU Delft has taken on the challenge to search in Africa for new solutions (to the critical problems) that minimize the damage done to the earth.

So what actions are TU Delft taking this year to contribute to sustainable development? A number of students and staff have already been sent to developing countries to visit projects in these countries and evaluate the impact of these projects. From their travels, the students and staff shall build a journal that shall act as a basis for debates on how the TU can contribute to sustainable solutions.

In addition to this, TU Delft intends to establish a 'Delft Center for Sustainable Solutions' that shall bring together various projects related to sustainability issues. Finally, the university intends to fund a number of scholarships for African students this year.

It shall be interesting to observe the outcomes of the journeys made by the TU's students and staff. These journeys are being made primarily by engineers who are seeking ideas to solve problems. Their journals, however, are supposed to include some aspect of social issues that are affecting the areas in question. Considering that engineers normally operate in a problem-solution environment, I imagine that it shall be challenging to adjust their style of operation to accommodate a more social approach. Moreover the cultural differences between Africans and Europeans can only add to this challenge.


While all these activities are going on, however, one should think about what contributions TU Delft can eventually make. I shall consider two that I feel can make considerable impact: technological solutions and education.

The university, being a center where solutions are developed, is in a position to provide appropriate technological solutions. I'm reminded of a student I met in Delft shortly after I arrived, who was investigating how very small-scale financial institutions in Africa can be aided in monitoring their clients.

One of his recommendations was to have an employee of the financial institution visit clients with a mobile phone equipped with a camera. This employee would then take a picture, write a short text and upload this content to the Internet via Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS).

Considering that the employee was having problems connecting to the Internet at their office, it was an appropriate and more efficient solution given the circumstances. The focus of such solutions, therefore, should be that they improve the circumstances of those using them, while still fitting into the context of the user's lifestyles.

The second contribution that the TU Delft can make is in fact its core business: education. As mentioned earlier, there are plans to offer scholarships to African students. I believe this should be coupled with encouraging such students to eventually seek out a graduation project that is relevant to their home countries while still fitting the academic requirements of TU Delft.

Such an idea, however, faces challenges that the professors might not have experienced with issues in developing countries, as well as having a misconception that a project in a developing country might not pose a sufficient academic challenge for the student.

Future plans aside, the current situation is a bit disheartening. At the moment, the enrollment of African students in TUD is very low. When I joined the university, I was the only African student studying in my MSc program. Moreover, the enrollment of international students in my program was eight students out of a total of approximately sixty for that year.

Based on this, one may assume that the situation is similar in other TU degree programs. I strongly believe that TU Delft cannot contribute very much to Africa's development, sustainable or otherwise, without increasing the number of African students the university actually educates. After all, teaching a man to fish is far more effective than simply giving him fish.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dutch newspaper headlines.

Reading the dutch newspaper headlines reminds me of the newspapers at home... what are the stories... corruption, road accidents and political disagreements. More interestingly, the corruption stories involve a couple of policemen! It was really funny to read but at the same time I started to think that maybe all this talk about African countries being very corrupt is a sham. On a general level, I would say all societies are the same. People would love to get away with not following rules and regulations. Everybody would like to overspeed, make more money than they deserve and work less. The difference is that in some places, there are stronger law and order enforcement bodies. Maybe these are better facilitated... Who knows. In any case, I have been reading the dutch news everyday and the stories are no different!