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  • Uganda should rethink its decision on World Bank funding

Millennium Science Initiative funding has produced an impressive range of projects in Uganda. The government is wrong to bring it to an end.

For the past five years, winds of change have been blowing through Ugandan science. Funded largely by a US$30-million loan from the World Bank under its Millennium Science Initiative (MSI), a large number of projects have taken place aimed at boosting the country's capacity to use science and technology in agriculture and industry to meet its development needs.

Their diversity is impressive. They range from research on methods for farming the Nile perch and processing bananas — both important sources of protein — to the development of a malaria vaccine, and from renovating facilities for industrial research to funding university research groups, doctoral students and undergraduate courses.

Sadly, the momentum that has built up is now under threat. According to the 2012 budget proposed by the government and passed by parliament in June — and despite invitations from the World Bank — Uganda is not seeking further funds when the current phase of the initiative finishes at the end of this year.

The government's justification for the move has some plausibility. It claims to be reluctant to depend on international donors for funding projects that should, it says, be a national responsibility.

But with little indication that domestic funding will become available, the Ugandan scientific community is concerned that the decision reflects a new apathy towards science, and that ongoing research initiatives will lose their lifeline.

This could be disastrous for the country at a time when many of its neighbours, such as Rwanda and Tanzania, are moving in the opposite direction, keen to embrace the social and economic benefits of a thriving knowledge economy.

"A dream come true"

When the World Bank's loan to Uganda was announced in 2006 — supplemented by a further US$3.3 million from the Ugandan government itself — it represented a radical new approach to funding science through the MSI.

Previous loans under the MSI banner, in particular to Chile and other countries in Latin America, had sought to build scientific capacity primarily through establishing centres of research excellence. The hope was that such centres would have a wider positive impact on other scientific activities by, for example, discouraging brain drain.

Uganda's MSI loan uses a different approach. It was structured to support all aspects of the country's innovation system, from training for research to supporting mechanisms for injecting research findings into the marketplace, for example by providing a US$4-million upgrade for the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI).

This approach has won support both inside and outside Uganda's research community (and, at least initially, even from President Museveni himself). Describing the impact of the MSI-funded upgrade on the UIRI's work, its executive director, Charles Kwesiga, said it was "a dream come true". [1]

Dismay

Unsurprisingly, Uganda's scientific community has expressed dismay at the government's decision not to seek renewed funding.

The Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), the government-funded agency responsible for handling the funds, is putting a brave face on the decision, saying it does not necessarily reflect a move to reduce funding for science but is merely a political decision about where the funds should come from.

Others have been less charitable. Writing last year in one of Uganda's leading newspapers, the Daily Monitor, Thomas Egwang, director of Med Biotech Laboratories in Kampala and a recipient of MSI funding for his work on a potential malaria vaccine, warned of the impact of the imminent decision.

According to Egwang, the government's attitude towards science reflected apathy within the Department of Finance, which has direct control over the science budget, as there is no science ministry.

Calling for the creation of a science and technology ministry, he described the current situation as "a death knell for science in Uganda".

A tragic waste

It would certainly be tragic for the country's development if the gains made through MSI funding in recent years are allowed to go to waste.

In the past, certain World Bank-funded projects, such as large dams, have been criticised for destroying local communities and habitats without either meeting local needs or fulfilling their promise.

But Uganda's MSI initiative has been different. From the start, both its designers and those responsible for implementing it have tried to ensure that local needs were at the core of every activity financed. And progress reports over the past five years indicate that it has met its goals, even if at a slightly slower rate than planned.

Successful projects range from an investigation into the causes of cassava brown streak disease, which is caused by a virus that causes the roots to rot and costs the central African region an estimated US$100 million a year, to an outreach programme to support community wireless networks based at telecentres in cities and rural areas.

The MSI has also shown the merits of a comprehensive funding strategy to support research and its applications, rather than a strategy focused on funding isolated projects without considering the need to develop markets for their results.

Commentators on science projects in Africa have pointed out that the continent is littered with the carcasses of donor-funded initiatives that have been left to die through a lack of sustained funding once the initial donor support dried up.

In the case of Uganda's MSI initiative, the problem is (unusually) not money, but a lack of political will. The government should reconsider its decision, in the interests of the country and its future, before the MSI funding runs out at the end of the year.

David Dickson
Editor, SciDev.Net

References

[1] MSI: Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI) (Science Initiative Group, 2010)

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