United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan hopes the offer of more than $100 million (Pounds 64 million) in grants for African universities from four prestigious American philanthropic organisations will help the continent embrace the educational opportunities offered by the internet.
The Partnership to Strengthen African Universities project has been launched by the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller foundations. The money that the scheme offers over the next five years is intended to expand and improve higher education in sub-Saharan Africa.
The secretary-general called the plan "a unique opportunity to make a real difference". He said strengthened universities could offer improved analyses of the problems facing a continent that is increasingly embracing the liberal democratic norms that would allow resulting sophisticated solutions to take root.
He said: "We look to universities to serve as a model environment for the practice of good governance, conflict resolution and respect for human rights, and to enable African academics to play an active role in the global community of scholars."
He said that the role of the internet would be vital, noting that fewer than 0.5 per cent of all Africans have used the web.
Wider availability of the internet in African universities would provide access to materials and enhance libraries, making affordable journals that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.
He said that the net could also help African universities forge links among themselves and with institutions in the rest of the world, enabling African scholars "to contribute their research to the global bank of knowledge".
Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, added: "Modern technology will be key among those tools that universities can harness to help turn the process of globalisation to Africa's advantage."
Under the programme, the four funding organisations will retain control over which institutions receive grants, but they have agreed to respect specific principles, including the favouring of plans to establish regional and international links between education leaders and the creation of continent-wide learning networks and collaboration. The programme's criteria insist that universities chosen will be:
In countries undergoing "systemic public-policy reform"
Supporting innovation, particularly through use of new technologies
Undertaking strategic planning, to help promote social and economic development
Run by a creative, broad-based institutional leadership.
Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation, said: "While the challenges facing African countries are daunting, Africans determined to address them are increasingly focused on the crucial task of strengthening their universities.
"They recognise that their societies need a new generation of well-educated leaders trained in many fields, and that to develop them, their higher education institutions must expand and diversify."