COLLABORATION. After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, hardly any university teachers or students remained in the country. Slowly and systematically, the country’s university has developed a new academia. It was recently the twentieth anniversary of the collaboration between the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and Swedish universities, including the University of Gothenburg.
The research collaboration between Swedish universities and the state-run University of Rwanda is part of SIDA’s efforts to support societal development in the country. Sahlgrenska Academy has participated in the development project since 2007 and is currently responsible for two subprograms, Infectious Diseases and Undernutrition. SIDA started the collaboration in 2002 and recently celebrated the collaboration’s twentieth anniversary in the capital, Kigali, after a one-year delay resulting from the pandemic.
A conference in connection with the twentieth anniversary looked back over the academic development of the University of Rwanda during the period. This included several recorded interviews with former presidents of the university. One of these interviews particularly impressed Gunilla Krantz, a post retirement professor of public health sciences, who serves as team leader of the Undernutrition subprogram.
“They were emotional and beautiful interviews. Former president Dr. Kayihura Muganga Didas described how genocide had affected the university,” Krantz said. “Hardly any teachers remained, and no students were on campus. With support from countries like Sweden, the United States, and the Netherlands, the university has methodically rebuilt its academic activities. Today the university has many master’s programs, but doctoral studies have not progressed as far.”
The conference also included several field trips, including a demonstration of the drones now used to transport medicines and other necessities to remote rural locations.
Från Sahlgrenska akademin leds alltså två av de totalt sjutton delprogrammen inom det Sida-finansierade samarbetet. Sofia Birgersson, universitetslektor vid Sektionen för farmakologi, är teamleader för programmet Infectious Diseases, ett uppdrag som tidigare innehafts av Tomas Bergström, följt av Anna Martner.
Sahlgrenska Academy heads two of the seventeen subprograms within the SIDA-funded collaboration. Sofia Birgersson, senior lecturer at the Department of Pharmacology, heads the team for the Infectious Diseases program, a position previously held first by Tomas Bergström and then by Anna Martner.
“Generally, the doctoral students involved in the collaboration are extremely ambitious and talented. They have all been selected for the program in very stiff competition, and they are all clearly motivated by a desire to contribute to societal development in Rwanda,” says Birgersson.
Faculties at the University of Gothenburg also run three other research programs: in peace and conflict research, management and economics, and social work. The 15 Swedish universities involved include Chalmers University of Technology, Karolinska Institutet, and Umeå University.
Doctoral students trained in the program have taken on important roles for societal development and for developing the university. For example, one of the doctoral students supervised by Gunilla Krantz, Jean Nepo Utumatwishima, was recently appointed Minister of Youth in the country. Despite the demands of his government position, he aims to finish his doctoral studies and his doctoral project.
“The skills of trained researchers have been in high demand for leadership positions. We hope that more people will eventually be able to devote time to supervising new doctoral students so that Rwanda can develop its own functioning doctoral studies organization again,” says Krantz.
Development in Rwanda is progressing rapidly. For example, the vaccine factory currently being established for BioNTech is one of the first on the African continent. However, poverty is widespread. Most Rwandans have little education and live on small farms in rural areas. Among children, undernutrition is still very common. This is also one of the public health problems addressed in the academic collaboration with Rwanda.
SIDA funds collaboration with the state-run University of Rwanda, with co-financing from the participating universities. However, the Swedish government has made significant cuts in SIDA’s budget, which will affect collaboration moving forward. The budget for the collaboration project has been roughly halved.
“We do not yet know what will be needed to deal with these significant funding cuts. We are reducing our travel to an absolute minimum so we can prioritize completing as many of the planned doctoral and postdoctoral projects as possible,” says Sofia Birgersson.
Even though the collaboration has been downsized, Krantz is optimistic about developments in Rwanda:
“The people are capable, outgoing, and positive, and we have a very good relationship with the University of Rwanda. Rwandans have a clear focus on ensuring that the country does as well as possible, and with every visit we see progress.”
BY: ELIN LINDSTRÖM