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“Proper families, businesses and nations”

by D+C | E+Z
Development depends on skills geared to those sectors in which a country has a sustainable competitive advantage. Without well-trained people, businesses cannot grow and prosper. CIDA City Campus in Johannesburg caters exclusively to poor students. Taddy Blecher, the founder of the institution, elaborates on the role of higher education. [ Interview with Taddy Blecher ]

Donor governments tend to think that support for higher education in poor countries will only benefit the elite. Do you agree?

Well, to a limited extent I do. It really depends on the country. Each country has different education policies, and how accessible higher education is to the poor from a financial point of view varies quite a bit. If foreign governments, however, want to make an impact, it’s extremely important that they not only invest in higher education, but that they couple doing so with an entrepreneurial mindset, making sure that graduates won’t just hang around and wait for jobs. In poor countries, the kind of jobs graduates want are often not available, so the challenge is for them to create their own.

Isn’t there a risk of academically-trained professionals migrating from poor to rich countries, thus depriving their nations of their competence?

Yes, there is. It happens all the time. But ultimately any job created for a person educated in a developing nation does add value. Even if these people live overseas, their wealth can become a source of capital for investments back home. After all, expats transfer money to relatives. It is true that their skills get lost to the country, but if you look at the dynamics of it, new opportunities arise for the home country to create more skills.

How can emigration of skilled people trigger more skills in their home country?

As I said, poor countries typically cannot provide very many of the jobs that well-trained graduates would like to have. If some of them leave, the job market looks better for the others. That is an incentive for others to study. Of course, that is also true of the examples set by those who succeed abroad. In the long run, links between high-skilled personnel at home and abroad tend to become a powerful force for innovation and growth. A good example is India. A huge number of Indians went to the USA and other countries, and they sent massive funds back home. Since the Indian economy started to boom, many of them have gone back, using their first-world skills, taking advantage of new opportunities, and assuming the responsibility to make businesses thrive in their home country.

Could it be that an emphasis on higher education makes particular sense in emerging-market nations such as India, South Africa or Mexico, but not in least developed counties?

For developed countries, it is a positive spiral: people get education, this makes them highly employable in well-paid jobs, businesses grow big, and all this then results in wealth and a tax base strong enough to afford education. But less developed countries need education too. Vital entrepreneurship depends on education geared to those sectors in which a country has sustainable competitive advantages. That is where industries can – and must – grow to employ people and create wealth. The industries need to be carefully evaluated, it is necessary to invest in those sectors that are protected from, or immune to, the forces of globalisation for some time.

But the conventional wisdom so far is that primary education matters most.

The UN Millennium Development Goals were issued seven years ago. They focus on the right to universal basic education up to grade 9. Internationally, this issue has been centre stage, and possibly it received undue attention at the expense of vocational, technical and higher education, all three of which are very important. Obviously, we are looking at inter-related links in the educational value chain, and each has to be given due importance. Otherwise, the result is what we often see in developing countries: large numbers of young people who have completed grade 9 or perhaps even grade 12, but are unemployed and even unemployable in terms of the skills that businesses in those countries need.

So what must be done?

Educational strategy must plan long term for a match between what the economy is likely to need and what skills are in short supply. But even if we had the right weighting in the educational value chain, two important aspects would still be missing, both in the developing and developed world. To date, education in general pays too little attention to entrepreneurial matters. Moreover, we need a values-based holistic education to develop citizens with the strength and integrity to build proper families, businesses and nations.

Why is the conventional wisdom about primary education no longer correct? Was it ever?

These things go in phases. Planners are subject to fashions, and often do not think things through in a systemic, long-term way. Sometimes, bad experiences lead to wrong conclusions. For instance, money flooded from the USA into higher education in Africa in the 80s and 90s, with insufficient returns. The result was a reactionary backlash in support of education at basic levels for the disadvantaged, whose parents had not become economically successful. The real lesson should have been that we need education which is entrepreneurially centred and teaches people to become economically self-sufficient. And that is the key reason CIDA City Campus focuses on a general business degree with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.

Yours is an unusual university: a private undertaking in support of disadvantaged people. What are your core principles?

First, every human being has much more potential than is currently being realised. This potential could be tapped to add value in their own lives and society. This is all the more so as people are the only asset any economy has that really matters. Hence, the most important role of government is to develop this asset into a rich one. As a corollary, it is important to prove that the people thrown away by society, the poorest of the poor, the marginalised, can indeed create great value to society. If you can prove that often enough, people will change their views on development aid and how it should be spent to turn weak nations into strong ones. In the end, what we need is a holistic understanding of what a human being is really about.

Questions by Hans Dembowski.

CIDA City Campus is a non-profit, private, higher education institution. It was founded in South Africa in 1999. Its three year curriculum offers a Bachelor of Business Administration degree (BBA). The campus is based in Johannesburg in the former Investec Bank head office. Investec is one of several South African corporations that support CIDA. International donors from the private sector include Microsoft, JP Morgan, DaimlerChrysler and T-Systems. This university, which has been called „the world’s most unusual“, has a good reputation among business leaders, which helps graduates find jobs, of course.

Currently, 1500 students are enrolled. CIDA caters exclusively to students from poor families. Fees are roughly one percent of what would be charged in the USA. Students do not only attend classes – they are also responsible for cleaning and maintaining the campus, and even the institution’s administration. Involving the students this way keeps the costs down.

They return during their vacation to train their home communities in the skills they have learned. CIDA’s goal is to contribute to creating a meaningful democracy as well as a successful economy in South Africa. CIDA emphasises its holistic approach. Besides accounting and marketing, meditation is also taught.