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Southern center aims to aid Africa

by Associated Press

BATON ROUGE La.
Victor Mbarika envisions Louisiana
doctors serving the sick and needy in Africa without
having to leave their American offices.

As director of Southern University’s new International
Center for Information Technology and Development, Mbarika is setting up
infrastructure in developing countries to provide greater health care access
there through “telemedicine.”

Telemedicine allows doctors here to use patient photos and
lists of symptoms sent online to make diagnoses and prescribe treatments
through village nurses to patients on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean,
said Mbarika, a Cameroon native.

Information technology, or IT, is the equipment and
expertise that links computer-based information systems.

Mbarika, a Southern e-business assistant professor
specializing in information technology, said the deplorable health care
situation in Africa is a nightmare.

“Coming from a developing nation myself, I feel
obligated to contribute back,” he said.

The international center intends to impact much more than
health care, he said, by helping to set up IT infrastructure and to spur
business growth.

“You can’t run an e-business if the phone lines aren’t
working well,” Mbarika said. “So we’re trying to set up more fiber
optics and satellite Internet.”

It is very much part of the old “teach a person how to
fish” adage, he said.

The business aid is more than just building a Web site, he
said. It is developing continued Internet presence and controls from ordering
raw materials to ensuring post-delivery customer satisfaction, Mbarika said.

When Mbarika came to Southern University in 2004, he and his
students helped set up Web sites for small businesses such as barbershops near
the university.

Now he is setting up technology infrastructure in poor
African nations like Cameroon,
Ethiopia, Rwanda,
Kenya and Eritrea.

Citing the many corrupt African governments, Mbarika said he
is hopeful the growth of “e-democracy” in developing nations can put
open political discussion and open political practices online for all to see.

“Government contracts can go online rather than under
the table,” he said, “as is often the case.”

Mbarika has taken on two new postdoctoral researchers to
join him and other collaborators in running the international center. The
center started in June and is funded through the National Science Foundation.

Margaret Ambrose, interim Southern chancellor, said she is
optimistic the center will help internationalize Southern’s academic
curriculum.

“A number of new initiatives can grow like students and
faculty exchange,” Ambrose said, noting the decline of international
students at Southern since the 1990s.

“It’s very timely,” Ambrose continued, “and
it’s really going to help underdeveloped countries.”

There may be a focus on developing African nations, Mbarika
said, but Southern also is developing partnerships with nations in South
America, Europe and Asia.

Some poor rural Louisiana areas are even less developed than
much of Africa, Mbarika said, so the center also will work locally, starting
with impoverished neighborhoods in Jackson and St. Francisville.

The center strongly emphasizes preparing his students for a
global world constantly seeming smaller, and ever-advancing in technologies.

Mbarika is one of the lead professors for Southern’s new
e-business master of business administration program. In that capacity, he is
eager to break the mold of traditional teaching.

Mbarika is a major proponent of distance learning and in
utilizing technologies such as video iPods to broadcast his lectures without
students having to attend in classrooms.

“I think about 99 percent of most classes are
boring,” Mbarika said, an attitude he knows makes some of his older
colleagues bristle.

“A lot of professors don’t want to change the way
they’ve been doing things for 30-40 years and it’s problematic,” he said.

In December, Mbarika graduated his first doctoral student,
whom he physically met only three times. The student was in Sweden.

That student graduated with a doctorate of information
technology with a focus in telemedicine.

– Associated Press



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