by Thierry Claudien Uhawenimana
Universities and higher learning institutions play an important role in shaping communities’ development. Their activities can lead to raised wages and productivity, allowing individual countries to make impressive strides in accelerating social, economic, scientific, technological and political advancements.
History shows that good economic growth in a country is generally grounded in a knowledge-based economy, especially where the country invests significantly in community-based research in science and technology, biomedical and allied health sciences, agriculture, husbandry and industry. Such growth is further bolstered by universities devoting themselves to quality education, and aligning their curricula with the needs of the community.
It is necessary for higher learning institutions to involve themselves in community outreach-based research to contribute to a strong knowledge-based economy in their country. And it is crucial for universities to expose students to the community early on in their studies—long before graduation. In fact, community outreach activities should be incorporated as core courses in university curricula. This will increase the competence of future human resources and familiarise them with the social needs.
Success stories from East Africa
Having realised the importance of community outreach activities in boosting the social, economic and political sectors of their countries, some Rwandan and Ugandan higher learning institutions have begun to take this approach. Not only does this allow them to better serve their communities, it is a way for a university to strengthen its institutional reputation.
So far, two of Rwanda’s universities are fostering community outreach activities that are shaping and changing people’s lives. While the Kigali Health Institute (KHI) and some departments at the National University of Rwanda have adopted community outreach programmes, other institutions are still struggling to get there.
In addition to the KHI’s clinics and consultancy centres that offer informative, rehabilitative and curative services in dental therapy, physiotherapy, medical diagnostic laboratory and family health therapy to the public, students and staff rural areas to reach out to during the course of the academic year. The institute’s outreach activities revolve mainly around health services, such as health education, screening for certain illnesses and treatment in some serious cases. Importantly, academic staff and students also do door-to-door surveys and even hospital-based surveys to gather information on the prevalence of certain health-related problems. In all outreach activities, KHI collaborates with the ministries and non-governmental organisations such as Water Aid Rwanda, Handicap International, Rotary Club International, UNICEF, Tulane University, and the Belgian Technical Cooperation, among many others. The institute also works with the private sector, for example Colgate Palmolive and Whitedent.
The National University of Rwanda has created various faculty centres that reach out to the community by training local authorities in matters related to sustainable development, particularly grouped settlement (umudugudu), cooperative management, environmental protection, technological agriculture, conflict resolution and peace sustainability. They also look at social issues that affect the population, such as collective trauma and mental health problems.
At Makerere University in Uganda, community outreach is highly valued, to the extent that it occupies a central position in the university’s pursuit for quality education. By emphasising training that makes the university relevant to society’s needs, it is making community outreach-based research a reality. In this new portfolio, outreach activities include internships, consultancy and action research. Within this context, Makerere has registered success in a number of ways. For example, its community outreach-based research has brought about innovations of various local products such as building materials, sanitary pads and paper making from banana fibre, among others.
At Uganda Christian University, Save the Mothers (an international organisation committed to partnerships that, through education, promote the health and dignity of mothers and children in developing countries) has made excellent progress in community outreach among the rural poor. The university offers a Masters Degree in Public Health Leadership, which is contributing to changing the lives of rural mothers and children in Uganda. In addition to the Baby-Friendly Hospital programme established at some hospitals, the organisation, in collaboration with the university, gives students the opportunity to interact with communities around issues of maternal health, allowing them to observe clinical settings where maternal health services are provided. They also participate in behavioural change initiatives in rural communities.
Challenges, opportunities and the way forward
Despite all this, a lot still needs to be done. And while community outreach-based research at institutions of higher learning responds to some social problems, it does not yet provide sustainable, long-term solutions spread widely enough at the grassroots. Universities should become integrated in their communities and work with them to overcome the hurdles that affect local life by seeking tailor-made, evidence-based solutions to the problems that impede progress.
We cannot ignore the financial and curriculum-related problems that still affect the successful implementation of community based-outreach research. These challenges include the lack of clear plans for community outreach activities in some universities’ academic calendars, curricula that do not include community outreach, rigid mindsets and, importantly, the ever-present budget issue.
Academic institutions in Africa should review their curricula and adapt them to the needs of and realities facing the community. Curricula should be designed in way that that will equip students with critical thinking, analysising and problem-solving skills. Universities should furthermore seek out and create synergies with industry, the private sector and civil society during the development and monitoring of their curricula. This will play a critical role in securing and leveraging additional resources for higher education, promoting innovation and technology transfer, and making sure that graduates have the skills and knowledge needed to respond to the developmental aspirations of their countries.
Research units do not always collaborate fully with community outreach departments to identify priority areas where both the community and the university can reap benefits. Research ethics committees at universities can play a role by setting standards that govern and promote community outreach-based research in the institution’s research activities.
To mobilise funds for community outreach-based research, universities should become creative and innovative in their thinking. By establishing income-generating initiatives and carrying out consultancies that link them to the community, a university can capitalise on opportunities to do surveys on matters affecting the university itself. They can also engage in business activities that can generate income that can be used to sustain community outreach activities. This, in turn, will feed into evidence-based solutions being found to various social problems in both rural and urban areas.
Universities should also strengthen their sponsorship activities. They should revamp their public relations activities by engaging all stakeholders, including the community, partners, alumni and government in activities that promote their development and success, while aligning these with the development of their countries.
Universities facing challenges in promoting their research activities need to look at good practices in Research Uptake at other universities and forge strategic partnerships. Similarly, they should collaborate with community-based organisations to work towards improving the quality of life and well-being of individuals and groups—in short, the communities they serve.
Thierry Claudien Uhawenimana is the Public Relations and Communications Officer at the Kigali Health Institute in Rwanda