Last year's row between two pan-African policy bodies is feeding a split between regional and federal approaches to science, says Linda Nordling.
Research and innovation is an area that could benefit from coordinating projects and pooling resources between nations. So it was disappointing last year when a row between the two main pan-African policy bodies threatened to derail plans for continental science programmes. Now, the disagreement threatens to feed tensions over whether a federal or a regional approach would be best for Africa.
Last year's row
Rumours of tensions between the African Union (AU) science secretariat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the science office of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) in Pretoria, South Africa, circulated for some time before the row went public in November 2007.
It came to a head in Mombasa, Kenya, where delegates attending the African Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology (AMCOST) witnessed a spectacular mudslinging match.
The friction sprung partly from disagreement over who should lead on setting continental science policy — with both the AU and NEPAD vying for the upper hand.
Communications between the two had broken down. The AU accused NEPAD of trying to sneak a project (its African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators project) on to the meeting agenda and of not consulting with the AU, which was preparing a similar project.
The public brawl shook African science policy to the core. One prominent observer accused it of killing enthusiasm for science for development on the continent.
Afterwards, the two sides sat down to clarify their roles. They decided the AU would take the lead on policymaking while NEPAD would be responsible for implementation.
Next month we will see whether this new division of labour is working, when the AMCOST bureau meets in Abuja, Nigeria (3–5 December). Before that, on 2 December, a new science policy 'cluster' will gather various players, including international donors, to create a 'calendar' of African science programmes for 2009. The aim is to prevent duplication between the AU, NEPAD and other agencies such as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
But the fracas has fanned skepticism of the current setup. Many are worried that the AU's influence in setting the continental science agenda extends too far. In principle, the AU simply draws up policy documents for African ministers to consider. But, in practice, AMCOST fails to rein it in, possibly because of poor attendance by ministers and a tendency for discussions to veer off the agenda.
Some also worry about the AU's capacity to take the lead on policy, questioning its administrative resources for the role.
"There seems to be a problem [at the AU], maybe because they have very few staff. They don't seem to respond to communications very quickly," says Umar Bindir, director of technology acquisition and assessment at Nigeria's federal science ministry.
Like many others, Bindir thinks the AU should delegate some of its policy responsibility to Africa's existing political and economic blocs, called regional economic communities.
This would be in line with the Consolidated Plan of Action, a continental science plan drawn up in consultation with all major policy actorsand adopted in 2005 by African countries and the AU. The plan includes aims for strengthening regional science capacity, for example through regional bioscience networks like SANBio in Southern Africa.
Yet there has been little regional progress, says Bindir. "I'm not aware that we have a functioning science and technology system at the Economic Community of West African States," he says. The regional science desks have been invited to attend the cluster meeting in Abuja. If their responsibilities can be clarified, it could ease the disagreements between the AU and NEPAD, he suggests.
Federalism v. regionalism
But this is unlikely to happen while federalists in the AU have the power to hinder regional initiatives. For example, the AU has refused to endorse a report that proposes a regional approach to fighting poverty with biotechnology. So the report's authors, Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor at US-based Harvard University, and Ismail Serageldin, the director of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, are now promoting the idea independently.
Regional approaches for biotechnology are being promoted independently of the AU and NEPAD
The divide between regional and central approaches will do little to help AU-NEPAD relations. But how and when to tackle the problem? According to Bindir, it should be the Abuja meeting. "These are things we have to table very openly in Abuja to make sure we solve this", he says. Otherwise the gaps will get wider.
Not everyone agrees. Crispus Kiamba, private secretary of Kenya's ministry of science and technology, and chair of the AMCOST steering committee, wants the meeting to focus on achievements. And Calestous Juma says nothing will happen if the feuding is all that is discussed.
It would be a shame if all the effort and money poured into pan-African science programmes crumbles while policy actors bicker over who should do what.
Unfortunately, even the funders seem to be picking sides. The European Union allegedly prefers central management while Japan, which recently created its own African development programme, is said to be choosing a more multilateral approach. This seems to be resonating with African science ministers. Thirty-two of them attended the first Japan-Africa science ministerial in October 2008, signaling a lack confidence in the AU way of running things.AMCOST meetings are deemed successful if 10 or more ministers turn up.
Caught between federalists and regionalists, it is not surprising that African countries are eyeing new ways to boost science through alternative bilateral or multilateral agreements. But can this happen without undoing the good that NEPAD and the AU have accomplished together — such as getting governments to seek to increase their science and technology spend to 1 per cent of GDP by 2010? The current setup may not be ideal, but tearing it down and starting afresh will not guarantee a better replacement.
Linda Nordling is former editor of Research Africa.