Joan Dassin on the Trail to Transform Education & Local Communities

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In the first piece in our series of posts about the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Program (IFP) and its alumni, we talk with Joan Dassin, Executive Director of the International Fellowship Fund (IFF), established in 2001 to implement and oversee IFP, about the program and how access to higher education has the power to not only transform students but entire communities.

The program began—after initial planning in 1999 and 2000—in 2001, with the largest single grant ever awarded by the Ford Foundation. So it began with a very high level of support with the idea of taking a traditional type of activity, namely an international fellowship program, and directing it toward social change. That really was the idea. Over the years we’ve tried to reach that objective by seeking people who are community leaders in their own right, who work in a whole array of development related fields, and who also could benefit from a formal course in a post graduate setting.

Right from the beginning we realized that it was important to have an on the ground view of who these beneficiaries could be. And if we attempted to extend this opportunity to other people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to international higher education in part because of the cost but also because they wouldn’t necessarily have the network, they wouldn’t have prior admission to graduate programs, they wouldn’t be familiar with the whole international apparatus, then we were going to have to rely on a set of in-country organizations that could reach way beyond the capital cities and the usual elites who have access to these types of programs general.

As a result we worked closely with Ford Foundation colleagues and offices around the world to structure an extremely decentralized program.  In fact, what we did was at the Ford Foundation, we spun out a new organization of which I am the executive director called the International Fellowship Fund and then we in turn re-grant a portion of the Ford Fund to various partner organizations around the world. In effect, we became a small operating foundation. This has allowed us to reach enormous diversity in the kinds of people that we’ve been able to recruit—women, people from remote areas, ethnic and religious minorities, and, in some cases, indigenous people. And so throughout the decade we have been working on this idea: how do you expand access to education on the one hand and then use that access in order to have the most direct impact as possible on community level development issues?

A number of programs funded by Ford emphasize the importance of supporting local leaders in under-served communities and giving them the tools they need to work for social justice in their home communities. Can you describe why providing opportunities in higher education and supporting local leaders is such a fundamental part, in Ford’s eyes, for achieving social justice?

For a long time the orthodoxy promoted by the World Bank and other multi-lateral and bi-lateral funders, was that the biggest payoff in terms of economic returns to societies would come from investment in basic education. While that question is very complex, it’s clearer and clearer that higher education has enormous social returns to society, some of which are not easily quantifiable. The consequence of essentially strong disinvestment in many parts of the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, in Universities and in higher education, which has only recently been reversed has been just as the population pressures have been increasing has been less and less capacity on the part of local universities to absorb demand. And so, on one hand, from just a strictly development point of view, the idea of what is called human capacity building or the need to have educated people continues to be very important and is perhaps more important as societies try to join the globalized world and as knowledge products become even more important than raw materials.

We also thought that we could have a more direct impact on development if we focused on higher education opportunities for people who themselves are from marginalized communities.  Whether they are women, in some cases, or people who live in rural areas, there are many people who have the talent and the capacity to contribute to their society but have not had the opportunities or the training. That is what our program is about.

We feel we have been able to contribute to social justice in two big ways. One has to do with providing more educational opportunities to people who wouldn’t have them and secondly by providing a support system for existing leaders.  Because the beneficiaries of our program are people who are themselves development leaders of one sort or another, with our program, they can then return to their communities or work as international organizations or in public sector, private sector, civil society sector or a whole array of areas and continue to make a difference but this time knowing that they have access to the international community.

People who are themselves living and working in poor communities that tend to bear the brunt of underdevelopment-whatever it is—natural disasters, food security or health issues or whatever it is—people who are raised and who live in those communities have a strong sense of commitment to improving conditions in their local communities. So the idea is to try to intervene in the most direct way possible. An example will make this easier to understand. We are planning a trip to Brazil and we are going to visit with our indigenous fellows—these are people who live in quite remote regions of the country and are among the very first indigenous people to ever get graduate degrees.  They live in their communities and they work on topics like agriculture, language, preserving culture and they now have a fairly unique transit between their communities and universities in the area and the bigger cities in the country and so on.

Ford Foundation President Luis Ubinas is quoted on the site as saying that “IFP’s impact has reached far beyond the Fellows…It is reshaping how governments, universities and other scholarship programs are thinking about building diverse and talented leaders committed to our most pressing global issues.” Can you expand on this quote and describe how your grantees are helping to transform traditional assumptions about what it means to be a leader?

Or what traditional assumptions about what it means to be a student. Most fellowship programs to this day –and there have been fellowship programs for at least one hundred years if not more—select their beneficiaries on the basis of their academic performance. The assumption being that the people who are the best and the brightest, the people who have had access to the best educational institutions in their society, should be rewarded with an international study opportunity. And while we at IFP think that intellectual performance is very important, we also know that people who have not had access to the highest quality institutions in their society will have a very hard time being competitive in these kinds of programs. And therefore, by focusing on students who otherwise would be excluded from these sorts of scholarship opportunities, we’ve been able to have a big impact on the receiving institutions, especially in universities where we’ve had several dozen and, in some cases, over one hundred students. Our students tend to be older than the average student-we have no age limit on the program, and 50 percent are women, including from very remote areas. They are people who typically don’t show up at elite universities around the world.

So this does have an impact on the institutions. They have sometimes made their requirements more flexible at the beginning although equally rigorous when it comes to granting the degree.  For example, in the U.S., to get into graduate school you need to have a GRE score but most testing for the GRE is now computer based. But if you are living in rural Ghana, for example, or another remote area of the world where you don’t have easy access to computer based tests and you don’t have much experience with them, it’s quite possible that you won’t do very well on such a test. So we’ve been able to work with universities to expand the period of training prior to enrollment, give people essentially a change to get up to the starting line.

Now, this can represent a risk for the university. It’s much easier for them to take the straight A student from the top public or private university in the country—there is much less risk there.  But our own selection process is highly selective. We’ve had over 100,000 applications in ten years for about 4,000 places. That means that about 95 percent of the candidates are not selected. Those five percent that are selected are people who have great talent and who have been able to overcome enormous obstacles. So for universities to be working with these kinds of students has enabled them to adjust their curricula, to adjust their requirements but without lowering quality. So that’s just one example of changes we’ve seen in private universities in the united states and in public flagship universities in other parts of the world. That’s an important lesson for universities to learn: there are many ways that they can attract new students.

Molly Theobald
Molly Theobald is a Research Fellow with the Worldwatch Institute working with the Food & Agriculture team on State of the World 2011: Nourishing the Planet. Molly brings her skills as former Labor 2008 Pennsylvania State Communications Director for the National AFL-CIO, and her experience working on women's issues, to her research and writing for Worldwatch where she focuses on sustainable agriculture as a means to alleviate hunger and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. She has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College where she concentrated in Women's Studies and Social Justice.
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