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APRIL 2016


Don Lotter was a senior lecturer in development studies at

St. John’s University of Tanzania from2011 to 2016. He has

a Ph.D. in agriculture from the University of California-

Davis, and has been involved in crop production for food

security and the development of cooking fuels fromagricultural waste to

slow the destruction of Tanzania’s forests for charcoal.


espite the best of intentions,

trillions of dollars in Western

foreign aid have failed to pull sub-

Saharan Africa out of poverty—

much less put the continent on

a development trajectory similar

to the one many Asian and Latin

American countries have success-

fully followed for decades. Here

I propose a different approach to development assistance in

Africa—redirecting aid flows to developing U.S.-run university

programs, initially within existing African universities. Online

education would be the core mode, greatly reducing costs.

This proposal has several advantages over current practice.

First, and most important, building U.S. educational programs

and institutions on the continent is the most efficient way to



Time for Plan B?

Fifty years and trillions of dollars of foreign aid has yet to put the African continent

on a real growth trajectory. Here’s a suggestion for a change in focus.


help establish the foundation for Africans to build their societ-

ies on their own terms. At the same time, however, it is argu-

ably a very effective way to compete with China in Africa.

Beijing is already building universities in Ethiopia and

Malawi, and funding existing schools in South Africa, to win

the hearts and minds of future African leaders. Yet the United

States still has the best system of higher education in the world,

which is why students flock to our colleges from all over the


Scope of the Problem

The failure of development aid to date is easy to see in

Tanzania, where I recently taught at a small university in the

country’s central region. After 50 years of projects and pro-

grams, this area still suffers from food insecurity, malnutrition,

maternal anemia and stunting of children’s growth, as well as

dismal education standards, poor agricultural productivity and

endemic corruption. The same pattern exists across much of

the continent.

African counties commonly derive some 50 percent of

their government budgets from foreign aid. This is a recipe

for dependency and for bloated governments that maintain

a small percent of the population at high incomes, yet fail to