A Ground-Breaking Virtual Study Abroad Program Examines People-Led Development in Africa

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Originally published on October 21, 2020

People-centered development are some of the hottest buzz-words in international studies today, yet few universities offer courses on the topic. In January, George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government will offer Africa Zooms Ahead: African-Led Development, African Solutions to African Challenges, a unique “virtual study abroad” experience that brings together top African leaders and practitioners to discuss how African-led development is transforming the continent.

“This course will expose students to a really different perspective—an African perspective that is often radically different than what is espoused by Western powers,” said course leader Gebreselassie Tesfamichael, a former Eritrean Minister of Finance and a now a Senior Fellow at the Schar School.

Through special Zoom sessions, students hear from top African visionaries responsible for surprising advances over the past decade, such as the African countries dominating lists of the fastest growing economies and stock markets, the creation of the world's largest trading block with the new Continental Free Trade Agreement, and advances in addressing health, education, and other issues often related to poverty. Class lectures and discussions following each guest speaker will put into perspective the lessons learned.

Adding to the immersive experience are cultural exchanges via Zoom with young African entrepreneurs and tech experts, a session with African writers, artists, and filmmakers, and a final session at an African Embassy (depending on COVID-19 restrictions).

Tesfamichael, who was one of the early leaders in African-led development, brings an unusual mix of experience. He served as a governor of the World Bank and African Development Bank, was an advisor to the executive director at the International Monetary Fund, counseled governments throughout the world on post-conflict planning and reconstruction, and was a front-line liberation fighter in his country’s independence war.

“Far from the gloom and doom often attributed to Africa, we’ll see a vibrancy and the ingenuity driving homegrown solutions addressing Africa’s challenges,” explained course co-leader, Carol Pineau, also a Senior Fellow at the Schar School and a journalist specializing in Africa, including postings for CNN and Voice of America. “This is really narrowing the gap between how the world sees Africa and how Africans see themselves.”

Africa Zooms Ahead was created to find new ways to offer study abroad experiences during COVID-19’s travel restrictions,” said Michal McElwain Malur, director of External Programs at the Schar School and a co-leader and co-creator of the course. “It would have been impossible to design a Pan-African, in-country study abroad program that covers a continent of 50-plus countries and a land mass three times the size of the U.S., but with Zoom, we’re able to offer something that is truly groundbreaking.”

The three-credit class starts over George Mason’s Winter Break—January 15 to 18 2021—and continues one Saturday per month through the spring semester. More details and registration information is online.