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In my opinion

Academics without borders?

Please lend your expertise to the developing world.


In 2006, I was looking around for some way to make a contribution after my imminent retirement in 2007. I had taught philosophy at universities in the United States and Canada and had been involved in university life at these institutions in various ways. I enjoyed my university career and wanted to continue my involvement. I thought that I would try to find a way to contribute to institutions of higher education in the developing world.

Our universities, by educating Canada’s teachers, engineers, health workers, scientists and others, have played an important role in this country’s development; I thought that good universities would similarly help in the developing world. I began searching online, expecting to find dozens of organizations similar to Médecins sans frontières, but for academics. Much to my surprise, I could not find a single stand-alone, non-governmental organization entirely devoted to supporting developing countries build capacity in higher education.

I began reading about the deficit in the developing world for doctors, engineers, teachers, agronomists and other specialists. For example, Ethiopia, a country with 80 million citizens, has only 1,500 doctors; Rwanda, with nine million inhabitants, has only 250. Ghana has no doctoral program in computer science or information technology and must send its students abroad for this education.

A problem is that many of them stay abroad. Ghana does not have sufficient expertise to develop information technology, an essential tool to improve its health and education systems.

With the help of friends and colleagues, I founded Academics for Higher Education and Development (AHED). Its mission is to support developing countries to build capacity in higher education. Worldwide, it is the only NGO exclusively devoted to this goal. It is bilingual, based in Montreal, incorporated in 2007 and granted Canadian and Quebec charitable status in 2008.

To ensure relevant and sustainable capacity development, AHED provides volunteers to support projects initiated by colleges, universities and ministries of higher education in developing countries. Its volunteers are professionals, both working and retired, from the ranks of university and college faculty, staff and administration in Canada and other developed countries, who can offer expertise to improve the quality of the institutions in the developing world. Our goal is to provide developing countries with their own experts that they need for development so that they no longer need volunteers.

AHED has completed a number of projects and has several more under way, several planned and several in the development stage. Just one example: Marion Steff, a recent doctoral graduate in educational psychology from McGill University, volunteered to work for a year with the Centre for Disabilities Studies and Services at the State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. While the university is a leader in Indonesia in providing disabled students with access to higher education, the centre is able to accommodate only blind students. One of Marion’s tasks is to support the centre in providing services for a greater range of disabled students. She also works with the centre to publicize its work in Indonesia so that it can be a model for similar institutions and also can show how people with disabilities can play a useful role in Indonesian society.

AHED has representatives at more than 50 Canadian colleges and universities and an advisory council whose members include Louise Frechette, former deputy secretary general of the United Nations; Charles Freedman, former deputy general at the Bank of Canada; Rob Prichard, former president of the University of Toronto; and Stephen Toope, president of the University of British Columbia. AHED partners with institutions (and departments) across Canada and internationally. It also partners with the higher-education division at UNESCO and the Association of Francophone Universities. It has funding from the McCall-MacBain Foundation, the Zeller Family Foundation and individual donors.

We are building a roster of potential volunteers who are interested in volunteering now or in the future. Why don’t you join us at AHED? If you are a staff member, faculty member or administrator at a university and are interested in volunteering in the developing world, all expenses paid, please consult the AHED website ( AHED also welcomes proposals for projects. Please contact me at [email protected] with your suggestions.

Steven Davis is executive director of Academics for Higher Education and Development.

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  1. Telkom University / January 24, 2024 at 07:58

    Can you share examples of successful projects or collaborations initiated by Academics without Borders?

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