A gleam of hope for African science? (http://www.scidev.net/archives/editorial/comment53.html)
Science policy experts from African countries have proposed a
new 'roadmap' for the future of science on the continent. Their
plan has many strengths, but also faces major challenges. SciDev.Net
readers are invited to comment.
Figures produced last year by UNESCO as part of its regular overview
of the state of world science paint a gloomy picture for Africa.
While support for research and development continues to grow
in many parts of the world — most noticeably within developed
nations — in much of Africa such support has been at best stagnating,
and at worst declining, over the past two decades. Military conflicts,
corrupt or ineffective management, and reductions in public spending
to meet the costs of the 'structural adjustment' required by
external aid donors, have each taken their toll. As a result,
the 'knowledge gap' between rich and poor is widening at precisely
the time it needs to be reduced.
All the more reason, therefore, to welcome an ambitious initiative
to boost support for science and technology across the continent
that was sketched out in Pretoria last week by a group of science
advisers, policy experts and politicians from across the continent
(see 'Roadmap' proposed for science in Africa). The initiative
is being put together by representatives from a group of countries
-most significantly South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal and
Nigeria - who are at the heart of planning for the African Union's
New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). This is a strategy
for promoting the social and economic development of the whole
continent through collaboration on key areas of common interest,
among which science and technology figure prominently on the
By describing their initiative as a 'framework' for science and
technology on the continent, the designers of this strategy make
clear that they are — sensibly — drawing lessons from the success
of the European Commission's Framework Programme, a package of
collaborative research programmes that has been put together
every five years since the early 1980s. The money spent through
this programme is used to support a wide range of research that,
directly or indirectly, enhances the objectives of member states
of the European Union at the same time as boosting the competitiveness
of their high-technology industries. Hopefully the African Union
can stimulate its own, embryonic, technological potential in
the same way.
If it does manage to do so, however, this will be a significant
achievement. For Africa faces several hurdles that are considerably
higher than those in Europe. One is its sheer size, combined
with geographical, cultural and political diversity. Collaboration
is much easier to achieve when such factors are absent. Providing
a unified strategy for a continent that is far from unified itself
would be not far short of miraculous.
Secondly there is the fact that, unlike in Europe, much of the
funding for Africa's own 'framework programme' will need to come
from external sources. In practice, this will mean meeting performance
criteria laid down by potential donor countries (a reflection
of the broader fact that the fate of NEPAD itself rests heavily
on the extent to which African states are seen by the industrialised
world to be dealing effectively with their own recalcitrants,
most notably Zimbabwe).
Related to this — and reflecting the political tensions still
faced on the continent as it comes to terms not only with the
legacies of colonialism but with the dictatorships that so often
followed it — is the need to secure ownership of the science
and technology programme by the people that it is intended to
Success in the third of these alone will be no mean feat. The
very fact that most of the money will come from the industrialised
north, and on terms approved by such donor nations, means that
there will inevitably be some suspicion, particularly if these
terms are contested as not necessarily in the best interests
of the nations receiving the funding. It was noticeable that
last week's workshop, for example, skirted around sensitive issues
such as intellectual property rights — where the interests of
north and south do not coincide — and stayed well within the
dominant philosophies of globalisation.
A solid agenda
None of this should cast doubt on the value of some of the concrete
measures whose need is now being "acknowledged". It makes sense,
for example, to reinforce what capacity already exists by drawing
individual institutions into 'networks of excellence'. The institutions
linked through such networks can mutually reinforce each other's
activities, ensuring a focusing of scarce resources while at
the same time avoiding unnecessary duplication.
Secondly, the commitment to ensuring that science and technology
are established as a "cross-cutting and multisectoral theme"
within the framework and implementation plans for NEPAD is also
to be applauded. Neither science nor technology can be isolated
drivers of development strategies (a wrong turning that several
countries have taken in the past); both will only be of value
if they can contribute significantly to, and be integrated into,
mainstream development goals.
Thirdly, the new forum of African ministers of science and technology,
and/or presidential sciences advisers, could, at least in principle
(and providing it does not get bogged down in inter-state rivalry)
become a new source of dynamic collaboration, playing a similar
role to the regular meetings of European science ministers that
guide the activities of the European Commission in Brussels.
Forging a democratic technological culture
But if NEPAD's science framework — like NEPAD itself — is going
to succeed, it requires not only the political will of a relatively
small handful of African leaders, or the enthusiasm of their
top advisers, but also broader popular endorsement. This requires
much more than a theoretical demonstration of the benefits of
the framework to the technological programmes of the countries
that participate. It also requires an active commitment to the
framework by those at all levels of society who are intended
to benefit from it.
Europe has certainly learnt this lesson. In its early days, the
European Framework programme came under political fire for being
excessively dominated by the interests of the private sector,
particularly in fields such as information technology and biotechnology.
Over the years, partly in response to such criticism, the programme
has embraced a growing number of social goals, not only in fields
like health and environment research — where the social value
of its results can be easily seen — but also increasingly in
research on controversial areas related to the ethical and environmental
impacts of modern science and technology, as well as efforts
to promote better public understanding of science.
Hopefully NEPAD too will avoid an excessively technocratic agenda,
and accept that one of its goals must be to develop a properly
democratic technological culture within Africa, one that remains
sensitive to the continent's own social and cultural traditions.
The new framework programme will not be the only way of achieving
this; but it certainly needs to be central to such an effort.
Last week's workshop took a step in this direction by proposing
the creation of an 'electronic forum' — in addition to other
meetings and workshops — intended to facilitate dialogue and
"engage all stakeholders to develop a common vision, agenda and
action plan to promote and sustain Africa's scientific and technological
SciDev.Net is keen to play a part in this process. We have launched
a discussion forum in which users of this website are asked to
voice their own opinions about the difficulties facing science
in Africa, and whether NEPAD's proposals are an appropriate response.
You are invited to send us your views, particularly on where
you feel that the main problems lie, and what needs to be done
about them. We have been promised that these will be carefully
considered by the NEPAD secretariat in Pretoria. If you live
in Africa — or care about the state of science on that continent
— now is the time to make your voice heard.
© SciDev.Net 2003
24 February 2003