University Opens Its First Global Center in Africa

January 30, 2013
The Jan. 14 launch event featured panel discussions on the impacts of media on democracy and sustainable development in the region.

Columbia and Columbians have long been working across many regions in Africa, from the Mailman School’s leadership of AIDS/HIV programs and the Earth Institute’s research on sustainable development to the many scholars of African history and politics, culture and society. But with the opening of the University’s Global Center in Nairobi, Kenya, faculty, students, alumni and friends will have a new home base for engaging with the people, ideas and complex issues that confront a continent undergoing profound change.

The Jan. 14 dedication and discussion event was big news in Africa, attended by leaders of several nations, including Mwai Kibaki, president of Kenya; Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s prime minister; Salva Kiir Mayardit, president of South Sudan; Margaret Kamar, Kenya’s minister of higher education; and Ahmed Ali Silay, Djibouti’s vice minister of foreign affairs.

“Each opening of a Columbia Global Center holds great promise, not only for new academic partnerships in the host nation and region, but also for the continuing reinvention of Columbia’s home campuses in New York City, where our scholarly mission demands a global presence,” Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger said in his welcoming remarks.

The global centers promote and facilitate international collaborations, research projects, academic programming and study abroad, enhancing the University’s historic commitment to global scholarship and problem solving. In addition to Nairobi, Columbia has opened centers in Amman, Beijing, Istanbul, Mumbai, Paris, and Santiago, Chile. In March, it will officially inaugurate the center in Rio de Janeiro.

The dedication program in Nairobi featured panel discussions including "Impacts of the Press and Media on Democracy in the Region," "Pathways to Sustainable Development in Africa, and Health—Now and Future." Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, moderated the panel on development while Lee Goldman, dean of Columbia’s Faculties of Health Science and Medicine, led the discussion on health along with Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology at Mailman School of Public Health.

In his remarks, Bollinger spoke of why the University was opening a center in Nairobi now. “Kenya’s embrace of higher education underscores that the core values of great universities—including a belief in the power of dialogue to reveal truth—stand also at the center of Kenyan society.”

Safwan M. Masri, Columbia’s vice president for global centers, underscored the interactive and collaborative nature of the venture. “We have no preconceived notions and don’t pretend to have answers. We’re here to learn from you,” he said.

The Nairobi center, in a modern, 14,000-square-foot building with videoconferencing facilities and a library, will serve as home base and support center for a number of projects already underway. Later this year, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the center will implement the second phase of the Africa Soil Information Service, dedicated to improving soil and land management. It is also the base for the Millennium Villages, launched in 2005 by the Earth Institute to help rural Africa achieve U.N. Millennium Development Goals; the Drylands Initiative, a six-country program to boost the capacity of communities in drought-prone areas of Africa; and a variety of projects with Columbia’s Engineering School.

Additional programming discussions are underway with the Mailman School of Public Health, the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and Teachers College. But the central mission of the Global Centers is to allow Columbia faculty and students themselves to develop ideas for collaborations across traditional academic disciplines and national boundaries.

While some U.S. universities have built branch campuses and degree-granting schools abroad, Columbia has focused on establishing smaller, flexible hubs for a wide range of activities and resources. Over time these are intended to enhance the quality of research and learning at the University, as well as making a Columbia presence accessible to people and partners, including its own alumni, around the world.

“The research and teaching at the Columbia Global Center in Nairobi will help to address global problems by providing perspectives and evidence from Africa,” said Belay Ejigu Begashaw, director of the Nairobi center, “while also supporting African policy makers, governments, civil society, and regional institutions in developing solutions specific to this continent’s greatest challenges, including the fight against poverty.”

—by Columbia News Staff