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  • Commission 'to seek US$5 billion for African universities'


An international commission set up by British prime minister Tony Blair to examine development priorities for Africa is expected to recommend that developed countries provide an additional US$500 million a year for the next ten years to strengthen the continent's institutions of higher education.

The Commission for Africa, which is due to release its final report on Friday (11 March), is also expected to recommend that US$3 billion be spent over the same period to create centres of excellence in a range of fields of technology-related research.

Both recommendations are reported to be included in a 'final draft' of the commission's findings, according to a London-based newsletter, Africa Confidential, which says that it is in possession of a copy of the document.

The commission was set up by Blair last year. Its conclusions — which also include calls on rich countries to double their aid budgets and open their markets to African goods — are expected to form the basis of proposals to be submitted by the British government to other members of the G8 group of most industrialised nations at their annual meeting, which this year takes place in Scotland.

Although an initial outline of the commission's conclusions, which was circulated last autumn, refers to the need for more research in areas such as agriculture and health, little explicit reference was made to broader aspects of capacity building in science and technology.

However this shortcoming was criticised both by scientific organisations within the United Kingdom (including the Royal Society in a letter to Blair), as well as by African leaders and organisations themselves in various meetings held on the African continent over the past six months.

A meeting of African finance ministers, for example, which was held in Nigeria in November to discuss the initial draft of the report, identified "infrastructure, agriculture, science, technology and related tertiary education" as "top priorities towards realising Africa's development aspirations".

Representatives of non-governmental organisations made similar demands when they gathered to discuss the initial conclusions at a meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, in December (see Development aid 'must boost science in Africa).

Reflecting such comments, Britain's chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, told a meeting in London last month that in a revised draft of the report that was circulating at that time, science and technology had been given greater attention than in the earlier version.

This appears to be confirmed by the extracts from the 'final draft' quoted by Africa Confidential. (A spokesperson for the commission declined to confirm whether the draft obtained by the newsletter was identical to the final version, but others contacted by the newsletter said that they expected to see little change).

The broader recommendations listed in the final draft include a permanent United Nations commission to probe the links between resource exploitation and conflict in Africa, a 100 per cent debt cancellation, and new aid flows of US$25 billion to finance better education and health provision in Africa over the next three years.

It describes governance as "Africa's core problem", and also recommends that African media, both public and private, form partnership consortia with international media groups to create and finance an African media development facility.

The recommendation that there should be a significant increase in funding for tertiary education suggests overturning two decades of thinking about the role of universities in Africa, which many donor agencies have been putting at the bottom of their priorities, on the grounds that the continent had previously been producing too many unemployed graduates, particularly in the social sciences.

At the same time, the commission also challenges the dominant thinking within the World Bank by suggesting that African governments should remove school fees for basic education, and that donors should be asked to fund the cost of primary education — as is currently happening in Kenya — until African governments can absorb the costs themselves.

According to reports of the final draft, the commission is expected to ask donors to meet the US$3.2 billion shortfall anticipated in 2006 for the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It also proposes that donors should "develop incentives for research and development that fit the health requirements in Africa". This is said to include setting up advance purchase agreements for medicines, as well as increases in direct funding for African-led research.

SciDev.Net will carry a full report on the conclusions of the Commission for Africa when theses are published on Friday.

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