Training the next generation of global health leaders in Africa

Members of University of Global Health Equity’s MGHD Class of 2017, after receiving their diplomas. Photo by: Zacharias Abubeker

At this time of year, students around the world are putting on their caps and gowns for graduation ceremonies. Among them are 23 students from Rwanda and one from the U.S. who graduated as the first class of the University of Global Health Equity in Kigali, Rwanda, on Saturday.

“This initiative started a few short years ago, with the subversive idea that world-class health education could be delivered in Africa,” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame, speaking at the ceremony. “Today it is a reality.”

UGHE was an aspiration of the founders of Partners in Health — including Paul Farmer, Ophelia Dahl and Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank — who wanted to build a university that would advance the science of health care delivery. It is one of a number of programs designed to train the next generation of global health leaders in Africa.

Agnes Binagwaho, vice chancellor of the university and a former minister of health in Rwanda, calls UGHE “both exceedingly ambitious and urgently needed.”

Partners in Health has 30 years of experience working with governments to strengthen health systems, and nowhere has it achieved such dramatic gains as in Rwanda — making it the natural starting point for the project.

While UGHE students currently meet at the university’s temporary campus, at the research and training center of Rwinkwavu Hospital in Kigali, its first permanent campus is due to open in the area of Butaro in 2018. Located in northern Rwanda, the university will have teaching laboratories, a clinical simulation center, and lodging and dining capacity for 1,000 students and faculty staff.

“In Rwanda, we’ve made tremendous progress over the last two decades and have seen some of the most dramatic improvements in population health anywhere in the world,” said Dr. Peter Drobac, executive director of UGHE and an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in an online video. “We have lessons that we can share with the world and UGHE is going to help us to do that. In order to continue our progress, we need to train the next generation of transformational leaders in Rwanda who will continue to innovate and to push for results and for equity across the country.”

Vice Chancellor Binagwaho told Devex in an interview that the goal is to go beyond creating a community of intellectuals, and instead build a community of practitioners.

She talked about some of the problems she sees in academia — for example, researchers often publish their findings in restricted-access journals, making that knowledge inaccessible to decisionmakers who cannot afford the subscriptions.

Binagwaho explained that UGHE represents an important and much-needed shift in the center of gravity of health education from the global north to the global south, and from urban to rural.

The university’s flagship program is the Master of Science in Global Health Delivery, which launched in 2015, and has an emphasis on implementation science, or how to drive change in health systems. The two-year, part-time degree gathers students one evening a week and one weekend a month during the semester, as well as for a week-long residency at the beginning of every term. The cost is $16,500 for Rwandan and East African Community nationals and $24,500 for others, typically paid for through a mix of scholarships from the university, employer support and private funds.

Rwandan students in the first graduating class include Caroline Numuhire, who was initially trained as an agronomist and now works with Global Health Corps for an organization providing agricultural solutions to childhood malnutrition; and Dr. Eugene Tuyishime, who was completing his medical residency while pursuing his degree, and will be one of only 14 anesthesiologists in Rwanda. He is committed to expanding, strengthening and improving the field across the country, he said.

Binagwaho emphasizes that this is a global university based in Rwanda — the current cohort includes students from 12 different countries. As the university expands, the plan is to add degree programs in human, veterinary and oral health.

Funding for the university began with the philanthropists Joyce and Bill Cummings of the Cummings Foundation, who offered a $15 million grant which was matched by funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other United States donors.

Paulin Basinga, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, described this as a one-time, special initiative investment to support the long-term vision of an organization that the foundation believes has the ability to change how health care training is done in developing regions.

“UGHE plans to address the challenge of producing medical professionals with deep health system management expertise, which is an important gap in the field,” he told Devex by email.

“Despite the special nature of this grant, we are excited by the impact [of] an increase in trained professionals who understand the whole arch of what is required in developing country settings,” he said. “Tools and technologies to improve health are only as effective and efficient as those people empowered to designate the resources and pathways for delivery.”

“Tools and technologies to improve health are only as effective and efficient as those people empowered to designate the resources and pathways for delivery.”

— Paulin Basinga, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

But the investment does seem to represent a growing interest on the part of the Gates Foundation in the future of global health education and training. For example, it recently launched the first cohort of its International Program for Public Health Leadership, a training program for health professionals from Africa, that combines 16 weeks of distance learning with just over two weeks of residential programs at the University of Washington.

“Over time, we [plan to] build an alumni network and we’d bring in people from the university as well as the foundation’s broad range of partners in the global health ecosystem to participate in that,” Chris Elias, president of the global development program at the Gates Foundation, said at a recent conference at the University of Washington.

A number of global health leaders at the conference called for bringing different disciplines together, building bridges between research and policy, and providing mentorship and coaching for health professionals in developing countries — all areas UGHE aims to address with its model.

Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that higher education in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa is a development imperative because it develops the intellectual property of those economies. He is trying to convince the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development to take this on as a priority, he said. 

Panelists also emphasized the value of partnerships between universities in developed and developing countries, something UGHE is certain to foster — its faculty members hold other posts at Harvard Medical School, Tufts and Yale.

“Consider me as a friend,” Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health — who is also a professor at Harvard — told the UGHE class of 2017 at their final session last week. “As of tomorrow, we are all in this fight together.”

Update, June 7, 2017: This article has been updated to clarify that 23 of the graduating students are from Rwanda and one is from the U.S. 

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.