by Xu Lingui, Peng Peigen
BEIJING, Nov. 24 (Xinhua) -- Only six months ago, Awan Riak was in his office near the White Nile advising the president of South Sudan. He is now on campus at one of China's prestigious higher learning institutes.
Housed in a traditional courtyard that once served as Empress Dowager Cixi's cabinet chamber, the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD) at Peking University is where Riak and his fellow classmates learn development theories from Chinese professors.
Taking a mid-career study program is not uncommon, but for ministers like Riak, a year's break was a step out of the center of politics and away from the comfortable lifestyle of a minister at home.
The former minister in the Office of President of South Sudan told Xinhua that it was a courageous decision to come to China for a master's degree in public administration.
"It is not easy at the beginning. You have to do the laundry, take 20 to 25 minutes walk to school from the apartment, and your classmates are 10 or 20 years your junior," Riak said. "It is an experience I missed really. I have adapted and enjoyed it."
Riak was among the first 48 students enrolled when ISSCAD opened in September 2016. Proposed by President Xi Jinping at the U.N. headquarters in 2015, it materialized a year later, offering one-year master's degrees and three-year Ph.D. degree programs to potential leaders and policymakers in developing nations.
Teaching staff include some of Peking University's best instructors in economics, administration, and international development, headed by former World Bank Chief Economist Justin Yifu Lin.
Lin, ISSCAD dean, said one of his findings from dozens of years researching development issues is that the biggest challenge for a country's development is not capital or industrial structure, but development ideas.
He said the institute will help students learn ideas generated from China's development experiences, which are particularly suitable for developing countries, compared to those from the West.
JOURNEY TO THE EAST
Riak said he came to learn how China transformed itself to become the world's second largest economy in a little more than three decades and wants to bring the experience home to benefit South Sudan.
South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, has been facing persistent challenges to peace and security since gaining independence in 2011.
The latest outbreak of conflict between supporters of two political camps in capital Juba this July resulted in hundreds of deaths. The head of a UN mission recently voiced concern that clashes were pushing the country towards further division and risked a full-scale civil conflict.
"Everything else comes after peace," Riak said. The country is facing challenges on all fronts: fighting poverty, building infrastructure, and providing basic needs for its population such as clean water, electricity, functional health care and education.
While peace is yet to come to South Sudan, other countries are in a better position to unleash growth initiatives.
ISSCAD's first batch of students are from 27 countries, with nearly three-quarters in Africa.
Desta Tesfaw Mebratu, pursuing a Ph.D. in national development, held a ministerial position for the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.
He considers China a model for Ethiopia's economic and social development as governments in both countries play similarly important roles in leading development efforts.
Mebratu said the western development model, exemplified by the IMF's neoliberal structural adjustment programs introduced in the 1990s, has failed in many African countries.
The approach is seen to put African people in a poverty trap and prompted some governments to search for alternatives. The rapid economic development in East Asia prompted some African policymakers to look to the East.
"Theoretically, western ideas look pretty, but they do not work for my country," said Jumanne Said Gomera, an ISSCAD student and policy analyst with the Prime Minister's Office of Tanzania.
Lin said China went through many of the developing world's challenges decades ago. China was extremely poor when the transitioning from an inward looking economy to a market economy started in the late 1970s. But in less than four decades, its per capita GDP surged from lower than one third of Sub-Saharan African countries to be among the world's high-medium income countries in 2015.
In comparison, most developing countries at the end of the Second World War still face development challenges today.
"Poverty is not destiny. Change is possible," Lin said, adding that China is willing to share its development ideas and experience.
There is no lack of good public policy schools around the world, but ISSCAD Academic Dean Fu Jun believes his has the potential to become the best.
Fu received his Ph.D. in political economy from Harvard University, mainly researching mathematical modeling, institutional political economy, and related policies.
Like him, the institute's core faculty members are well versed in western development theories as well as in Chinese experience.
China's growth story, involving one-fifth of the world's population in the past three or so decades is very relevant to other developing countries, Fu said. The combination of theory and practice the ISSCAD faculty offers, gives them an edge over their foreign counterparts.
"We believe a curriculum combining theory with practice will offer the best for our students. In line with this, the program's courses are supplemented by workshops or seminars led by senior officials or practitioners in various policy domains," Fu said.
Fu said in selecting the candidates, the institute values their intellectual ability as well as their leadership skills, and is striving to broaden their vision and improve their managerial skills to become better leaders in the future.
"In addition to infrastructure development and financial support, what is more important in the long term is education. There is a big difference between being given a fish and being able to go fishing," Fu said. "And there China can make a difference as well."
For many students, the past few months have proved to be eye-opening. Gomera said that he did not know the role of the private sector in the Chinese economy before coming here, adding that he mistakenly thought 80 percent of Chinese companies were run by the state.
"We learned about the language, culture, and history of the West since we were kids in school, but few things about China," said Ayman Fakih, who works for the Lebanese Ministry of Finance. "Unless you are here, you can't understand China's reform and opening-up."
He said almost everyone around him has gone to the United Kingdom or Spain for higher education, and that he will stand out as one of the first few Lebanese to have done a master's degree in China.
It is the same for Riak, who could be the first South Sudanese minister to have a Chinese education background.
"It is a new beginning for us to come to learn here." Riak said. "I will encourage my other colleagues to come."