The Nigeria Higher Education Foundation Award Acceptance Speech

On September 23, 2010 Jonathan Fanton accepted an award from The Nigeria Higher Education Foundation and discussed the MacArthur Foundation’s initiatives in the African country. 

NHEF Acceptance Speech

September 23, 2010

I thank the leaders of The Nigeria Higher Education Foundation for this award which I accept on behalf of my colleagues at The MacArthur Foundation, especially Kole Shettima and Raul Davion.  Of the 80 countries around the world where MacArthur works, Nigeria is number one in my heart, the place I visited most often, made the best friends, and care most deeply about.  I love Nigeria and its people and I am optimistic about its future.

I want to congratulate NHEF for organizing a full day of excellent discussions.  I am grateful for the opportunity to be with so many colleagues with whom I have made common cause for over a decade, especially Vice Chancellors Briggs and Bamiro.

A robust system of higher education is essential to realizing our collective ambitions for Nigeria.  And those ambitions bring us together tonight to reaffirm and redouble our commitment to Nigeria’s great universities.

I am proud that MacArthur has so far made grants worth $35million to higher education in Nigeria focused on Ibadan, Bayero, ABU and Uniport.  But we have also helped the whole system through bringing down the costs and improving access to internet bandwidth, making available the JSTOR archive of digital journals to all universities, and helping universities acquire and maintain advanced scientific research equipment.  And we are honored to partner with international companies like Shell and Total local businesses like First Bank and a growing number of alumni.

As a result of our collective efforts, we see new laboratories, libraries, IT Centers, research institutes ready to serve a new generation of students and their teachers who have completed their Ph.D’s at first rate universities at home and abroad.
But these new beginnings need to be nurtured by Nigerians everywhere.  MacArthur started the NHEF to appeal to Nigerians working abroad, especially in the U.S., to give back to their homeland, to invest in its future at this critical juncture.  MacArthur can bear witness that every dollar we have given has been used wisely, has produced results.  It is now time to compliment major donors with a broad based campaign for gifts, large, medium and small, and I hope you will help.

Universities are the bellwether for democracy and development.  Can we think of any vibrant democracy and developing economy that has not been nurtured by free and dynamic universities?

For individuals, education is the ladder of opportunity; for communities, it is the base of common values that holds diverse people together; for nations, it is the engine of economic growth; and for all who believe in freedom, education provides the moral foundation for democracy guided by respect for individual dignity and the rule of law.

Nigeria’s journey to democracy is being watched the world over.  Because of its size, cultural complexity and economic prospects, this country is seen as a leader throughout Africa and as a key actor on the global stage.  A Nigeria that improves the quality of lives of its citizens can blaze a trail to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.  A democratic Nigeria that respects human rights at home can encourage, perhaps even compel, higher standards in Africa and beyond.  A Nigeria that fully meets its obligations to its own citizens can provide a beacon of hope to people everywhere.

Let me say here how proud I am of my friend, Vice Chancellor Jega of Bayero, who has taken on the challenge of leading The Independent National Election Commission.  Next year’s elections are critical to Nigeria’s future: they must be – and be seen to be – fair and clean.  Ordinary citizens will engage more vigorously in building their country if they have faith that the government is of, by and for the people.  I believe passionately in Nigeria as it is poised to begin a new era of genuine democracy.

It is said that, “all work that is worth doing, is done in faith”.  Tonight, looking around this room, full of energy and high expectations, I have faith.  I believe, with each of you, that the best years of Nigeria are just over the horizon.  Together, we can each contribute to a future in which knowledge is translated into right actions, and right actions into the creation of a globe that is more just and free than it has ever been.

I have faith that through education, research, and reasoned discourse, we can create a humane world at peace.

Allow me to close by saying:

For all you have done, I salute you.
For all you are doing and will do, I applaud you.

Together we can make a difference.  Let us leave this glorious occasion committed to supporting Nigeria’s great universities.

Introduction to the Panel Discussion

Honorable Minister Chukwu, my distinguished fellow panelists:  It is a pleasure to be here with you all today.  I am delighted to be with my old friend, Professor Nimi Briggs, one of Nigeria’s most outstanding university leaders, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, a leader in transforming Nigeria’s financial situation. And I take special pleasure in sitting on a panel with Dr. Funmi F. Olapade (FOON-me F. OH-la-Fa-dey), winner of one of the MacArthur Fellowships, known as The Genius Grant.  I am pleased that so many of my friends with whom I have made common cause, including Vice Chancellor Bamiro of Ibadand and Ngozi Obonjo Iweala who was a great Minister of Education.

MacArthur has worked in Nigeria since 1989 making grants worth $83 million to over 100 organizations over that period.  Our largest commitment has been to higher education, $33 million, mainly to four institutions that we believe could set the standard of excellence for all Nigerian universities:  Ibadan, Bayero, ABU and Port Harcourt.

Our other work is in human rights and the rule of law and women’s health with a focus on reducing maternal mortality.

We choose higher education because we believe there is a direct link between a strong and independent university system and democracy.  Ask yourself this:  do you know of a strong democracy anywhere that does not have a robust and independent system of higher education?  The reverse is certainly true:  authoritarian regimes do not tolerate intellectual freedom.  As Nigeria advances its transition to democracy, the training of a new generation in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship is essential.

The second reason that we choose higher education as our main focus is the topic of this panel:  the inextricable link between higher education and economic development.

Respected international studies show that university graduates ordinarily earn 50% to 100% more money on the average than a person who stops at secondary school.  Those with degrees are usually employed under better working conditions, helping them enjoy better health, avoid disabling injuries, and live longer.  They are also more able to reason, communicate, plan, organize their lives, and manage their finances.  Their self esteem and confidence are higher than those of other people, their interests broader, and their ambitions greater.

And what is good for the individual is also good for society.

Studies show that a person with more education is likely to pay more in taxes and help increase the productivity of the overall work force.  University graduates also tend to have fewer children, with lower maternal and child mortality rates.  They are able to contribute more to society while needing less from government.  Their children are likely to perform better in school, which means those children are more likely to attend universities themselves and thereby multiply the benefits of a higher education down through the years.

Societies also gain from the research that universities help perform, enriching the economy for all by bringing technological advances to industry, communications, and agriculture.  There are good examples from Nimi’s university, UNIPORT.  The Nigerian film industry, the third largest in the world, Nollywood, is incubated by the Department of Theatre Arts.  Graduates of the Institute of Petroleum Studies are playing a strategic role in the oil industry.  And the Malaria Research Laboratory is poised to make significant contributions to malaria control in Nigeria and Africa.

Elsewhere, Ahmadu Bello University has been designated a W.H.O. center for yellow fever and influenza and made progress in the study of parasitic disease.  It has discovered new more productive varieties of sorghum, maize, cowpeas and cotton.

Ibadan has a partnership with Chicago’s Northwestern University to improve the effectiveness of HIV/Aids prevention services in rural areas. Bayero and Ibadan are offering entrepreneurial training programs so essential to economic development.

I could go on, but you get the point:  University teaching and research are contributing directly to training a new generation of entrepreneurs, skilled personnel for the oil industry, new and more productive crops, and better health outcomes for the population – all essential to realizing Nigeria’s great potential.

So I take great pride when I walk around the campus’ and see MacArthur’s work: a new library and senate building at Port Harcourt, an information technology center at Bayero, a distance learning center at Ibadan and new science labs at ABU.  And I am thrilled to see how the universities have used our support to leverage other funds.  And here, The University of Port Harcourt under Nimi Briggs and Don Baridam, stands out as its capital campaign has raised $25 million from the likes of Shell, First Bank and Bayelsea.

I conclude by saying that I have great confidence in higher education in Nigeria and feel that MacArthur’s money has been well used.  I applaud the NHEF for helping tell this success story to the wider world, particularly here in the U.S.  Let us hope that what has been accomplished will encourage those who love Nigeria to give generously to its universities and for businesses looking for a good investment in Africa’s greatest nation confidence that support for universities will translate directly into economic gains for ordinary Nigerians, but for smart international investors as well.