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University partnerships as a cornerstone of sustainable development

Over recent years, I have been very fortunate to find myself in a position of leadership for ‘international development projects’. This is a very broad term, and one which I feel poorly qualified to define. But in the context of my work, I take this to mean projects where highly capable consultants from generally western countries lead workplans that seek to bring about positive economic and social changes in less developed parts of the world.

In many ways I think that phytoremediation has an air of ‘development’ about it. Many phytoremediation and phytomining projects have been implemented in developing countries where environmental regulations are weak, and where there is a real risk of community-level exposure to contamination. The photograph with this blog is of a young girl in the Chinese mercury mining district of Wanshan in 2009. She and her family did not understand the dangers of mercury in their environment. But education and remediation strategies since 2009 have gradually shut down risk pathways. I can only hope that this girl today is living in a safe and secure environment.

International development can be better seen in the context of agriculture. The World Bank and the Economist are two sources of continual Twitter feed on the importance of agriculture to the developing economies of Asia and Africa. Highly capable ‘developed country’ consultants have much to offer to agribusiness and agricultural value chains throughout the developing world.

The East Indonesia Innovative Farm Systems and Capability in Agribusiness Activity (IFSCA), which I lead (see previous blog), is a great example of an international agricultural development project. This project partners Massey University, a top 50 in the World agriculture university, with the Faculty of Agriculture (as well as Animal Science and Food Technology) at the University of Mataram (Unram) on the island of Lombok, Indonesia. Unram does not feature in global university rankings, but Unram, like all universities, has a target for increased global standing. IFSCA is part of a broader bilateral partnership between Unram and Massey that is seeking to achieve this aspiration.

I believe donors are starting to appreciate the value of university-university partnerships in the international development space. Bilateral university partnerships are cornerstones of sustainability. Research and teaching partnerships are a long-term game, and the strong and successful ones are built on years of mutual trust and respect, often between individuals. The IFSCA project was only possible through a five-year, broad-reaching partnership I created between three faculty at Unram and Massey. Bilateral university relationships transcend funding cycles; strong personal relationships lead to long-term research projects and cohorts of postgraduate students. IFSCA is a new model for how sustainable agricultural development could be rolled out in the ASEAN countries, and elsewhere around the world.

On the 18th March, a delegation from Thailand’s Research University Network (RUN) visited Massey University to explore opportunities to leverage the long-term strength of NZ-Thailand research and teaching cooperation. I briefed this delegation on the IFSCA model and on my aspiration to extend this model into Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. But these are hard countries for NZ to operate in; creating university to university partnerships in these countries is tough for NZ consultants. RUN has a solution: extend the model to include a third partner who has existing relationships in a target country. Thailand is a logical choice and RUN could create the mechanism for NZ to extend its presence into these up and coming ASEAN economies.

Cambodia is on my horizon. The IFSCA model could work in this country, but there is a bigger prize. My vision is to integrate agricultural development with mining development. I do not believe these two can be considered in isolation any longer. The rural communities of the World’s developing countries either farm or mine. We must target development of both at the same time. Croesus Projects Ltd., the Meech Working Group, SEF Canada and the Canadian mining company Angkor Gold Ltd. all share this vision. Anchored by a cornerstone relationship between Massey, a Thailand RUN University and a Cambodia university, the future looks bright for long-term sustainable development of rural communities in Cambodia. Though there is much work to do to achieve this goal, our legacy will be healthy children with beaming smiles, much like the young Chinese girl in the photo.

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