CORVALLIS, Ore. – After nearly 30 years of war and neglect, Iraq is preparing to rebuild its system of higher education.
As part of that effort, Sonny Ramaswamy, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University, toured Iraq last week with a delegation of leaders from seven land grant universities in the United States.
The trip was organized by the U.S. Department of Defense Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Iraq to explore opportunities for collaboration in agricultural research and education, as well as to recruit high quality, fully funded students to U.S. land grant universities.
Ramaswamy was joined by agriculture deans from Pennsylvania State University, University of California-Davis, Kansas State University, and three other American land-grant universities. They visited the Iraqi Ministry of Education, non-governmental organizations and administrators of several agricultural colleges to discuss a new Iraqi initiative that will fund scholarships for 10,000 Iraqi students to study abroad.
That includes scholarships for nearly 1,000 graduate students in the agricultural disciplines, most to institutions in the United States.
This engagement furthers Oregon State University's relationship with the Middle East. A delegation of Iraqi university presidents visited OSU earlier this year to sign memoranda of understanding between the Iraqi institutions and Oregon State.
"Under the framework of these memoranda, OSU can help the Iraqi people rebuild their capacity to produce their own food and shelter," Ramaswamy said.
Located in what’s called the “Fertile Crescent” region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Iraq has been an agricultural producer since biblical times. During much of the 20th century, Iraqis invested heavily in agricultural research and education. They established several institutions of higher learning and encouraged scholarly exchange with the U.S. and other nations.
However, since the 1980s, with the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing wars, invasions, and insurgencies, there has been little investment in Iraqi education and research and an exodus of highly trained researchers and teachers.
"It is a lost generation of expertise," Ramaswamy said. "The lost manpower, decrepitude of research and teaching infrastructure and lack of security have combined to create low morale and concern for the future of the country."
Iraq, which had been a net exporter of agricultural products before 1980, now imports nearly 85 percent of its food needs, according to Ramaswamy.
"At the fundamental level, if Iraq is unable to feed itself and pull significant portions of its population out of poverty, then all of the investments being made will have been wasted, and there will be continued anarchy and chaos, including terrorism and insurgencies," he said.
Despite the wars and hardship, the delegation of American educators witnessed a country trying to rebuild itself and train young people for the future. They saw cause for optimism, according to Ramaswamy.
The delegation visited colleges of agriculture in the University of Baghdad, the University of Babylon and the University of Anbar. In a report to the U.S. Department of Defense following their visit, Ramaswamy and his colleagues described the result of almost 30 years of disinvestment in education and research and no capacity for the extension of knowledge to farmers and others.
"The future of Iraq will depend on the availability of an educated populace requiring significant investments in education," they reported. "Given the importance of agricultural development to Iraq's economy, building capacity in the agricultural sciences should be among the highest priorities."
In order to build capacity and an educated populace in Iraq, the land-grant university leaders saw opportunity for the land-grant model in Iraq.
The delegation is drafting recommendations to the Iraqi government and the U.S. Department of Defense to focus their initial educational efforts on graduate education and on helping Iraqi faculty build capacity.
"With partners in U.S. land-grant institutions helping to train a new generation of Iraqi agricultural researchers," Ramaswamy said, "the Iraqis could build a structure of research, teaching, and Extension similar to the U.S. land-grant network that has contributed invaluably to America's success as a nation."