Putting into effect the ambitious goals for Africa agreed in Canada last week by the heads of the world's leading industrialised nations requires both resources and political commitment.
Many inches of newspaper copy were spent last week praising the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the latest social and economic plan for the African continent. Conceived by a clutch of African leaders — including in particular Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal — NEPAD has been thrust into the international limelight by its endorsement at the G8 meeting in Kananaskis, Canada, by the heads of the world's leading industrialised nations.
Anyone turning to the Internet for more information about NEPAD, however, is heading for a disappointment. A flashy and imaginative display of typography on the homepage (http://www.nepad.org/), with titles that appear to explode when they are touched with the cursor, promises much. But try to get much further — for example, to find out what specific priorities are planned on the infrastructure front — and a consistent refrain appears: "no documents available".
It is, perhaps, slightly unfair to level criticism of slow progress against a project that started being seriously discussed less than one year ago. The economic, social and political problems of the African continent run deep, and are not susceptible to quick fixes. A coherent and effective strategy will take time to develop. NEPAD, as even its most enthusiastic supporters admit, is only a framework; what counts is what this framework eventually contains.
Yet it is also essential that concrete proposals for action materialise rapidly. Too many plans for African development have become mired in squabbling between partners. NEPAD itself is not without it critics on the continent, who are concerned — with some justification — that the greatest benefits may accrue to external investors and foreign corporations motivated primarily by the prospects of new markets in the continent.
Among the many issues at stake is the future of science and technology in Africa. It would be melodramatic to suggest that NEPAD is the only way forward for research. Many countries in Africa — Nigeria and South Africa among them — are already aware that a strong scientific and technological capability, combined with effective innovation policies, need to be at the centre of their development strategy, and that this requirement must be backed by appropriate budgetary commitments.
However, the implementation of such a strategy, even at a national level, is likely to be made easier if NEPAD comes to fruition. Firstly, it will provide a continent-wide political endorsement of this approach; indeed the importance of science and technology is already a central theme of those policy documents that have been released. And initial planning is already underway for a meeting of science and technology ministers, held under the NEPAD umbrella, later this year.
Secondly, NEPAD could become a focal point for donor assistance for science. A statement in support of the programme issued at the end of last week's G8 meeting in Canada, for example, contains an explicit reference to the need to support higher education and research. To achieve this, the G8 leaders advocate "the development of research centres and the establishment of chairs of excellence" in areas relevant to NEPAD's practical concerns, such as health and food security.
Meeting the promise of NEPAD, however, will require substantial efforts on several fronts. One of the most prominent is the urgent need to generate a stronger political consensus behind it within Africa. To achieve this, those who currently feel excluded, both nationally and internationally, from the preparatory negotiations must be given a greater voice and a genuine engagement in how the strategy develops.
Then there is the need for greater clarity about concrete plans (symbolised by the current silence about such plans on the NEPAD website). Proposals are already being drawn up, for example, to create a Commission on Science and Technology. The role and responsibilities of such a commission, particularly in linking together research centres and identifying those deserving targeted support, need wide dissemination and discussion before — not after — key decisions are made.
Behind both of these is the need for greater funding. This need comes in two halves; one is for the developed nations to give a higher priority to support for research within their aid budgets. Some already do this; Sweden and Canada set a powerful example that others, in particular the United States, have yet to follow (see Canada boosts support for African research). The new commitment, endorsed at the G8 summit, to boosting research in Africa provides an ideal opportunity for others to follow suit.
But if outside assistance is necessary, it is not sufficient. It needs to be complemented by a comparable commitment to the importance of science and technology by individual African states themselves. Such a commitment is only convincing once it appears to be a domestic budget priority, together with the appropriate policy mechanisms to ensure that such money is wisely spent.
The timing is propitious. Growing enthusiasm for NEPAD, both within and outside Africa, coincides with preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which opens in Johannesburg at the end of August. This meeting could give an important political boost to the idea that economic and social priorities are (together with environmental concerns) at the core of sustainable development, that science and technology hold an important key to both of these, and that for Africa, at least, NEPAD is the best path forward currently on offer for making these promises manifest.
In practical terms, the WSSD will also offer a framework within which concrete plans for science and technology in Africa can not only be openly discussed, but also forged into practical programmes through targeted research partnerships. This, for example, will be one of the key goals of the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation, being organised by the South African government during the WSSD with the support of several international scientific and technological organisations (see WSSD science forum launches website ).
At the end of the day, however, success will not depend on the fine words of world leaders issued from remote locations in Canada, or negotiations in the corridors and meeting rooms of international conferences. It will only come from the practical engagement of individuals on the ground. The real challenge facing NEPAD is how to mobilise this engagement. Hopefully the current lack of substance behind the enticing promises of NEPAD's website will not prove to be an inauspicious omen.
© SciDev.Net 2002