South Africa's new development aid agency should help Africa capitalise on science, not just seek returns on investment, says Linda Nordling.
South Africa made news last month by announcing that it would launch a development aid agency during 2011. In so doing, it will follow in the footsteps of other emerging economies, such as Brazil, China and India, for which south-south cooperation has become a leitmotif when expanding their economic and political influence.
Speaking to the UN-run news service IRIN on 17 January, Ayanda Ntsaluba, director-general of South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation, unashamedly said that the agency would be "not only a reflection of altruistic motives, but of how to advance South Africa's own interest. Aid is not just about reducing poverty, it's a very strategic investment."
Little is known about how the South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA) will operate. But clues from the government suggest that its main role will be to coordinate the country's considerable effort to advance development across the continent.
South African aid sorely needs coordinating. According to government sources, SADPA will take over the country's African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund, set up in 2001 to promote conflict resolution and peacekeeping.
But the country's development assistance is spread much wider than that, across a large number of agencies and government departments. For instance, cooperation with the rest of Africa is a priority for the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST) and also for the departments of health, water and environment.
Individually, they all do much good. The DST links scientists in the rest of Africa with funding sources and colleagues in developed countries, for instance through the EU framework programmes. It has also seconded an official to start up a science desk for the Southern African Development Community.
And government funding makes South Africa the lynchpin in many regional research networks, such as the Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (SANBIO), which gives researchers in neighbouring countries access to cutting-edge equipment and training.
But while South African support for the continent's scientists does help African researchers secure funding and make a bigger professional impact, the country's wider economic policies stifle job-creation and entrepreneurship on the continent. At least, this is the conclusion of a report published in May 2010 by The Reality of Aid Network, an international non-governmental organisation.
The report, titled South-South Cooperation: A Challenge to the Aid System?, says that South Africa's overall development efforts have focused on getting a "return on investment" to the detriment of positive development outcomes. The rapid spread of South African businesses across Africa — many of which receive state support — has turned into a form of "hegemony", which hampers local industry, it says.
This restricts African countries' ability to capitalise on their growing science base. Weak institutional structures and a lack of support for local businesses hinders innovation in the health sector, according to research published in the journal Science last year.
In other words, South Africa's overall development policies stifle the desired outcomes of its science and technology initiatives — which should be social, environmental and economic benefits, not simply raised citation rates in scientific journals.
Will the new agency add value to South Africa's existing efforts for science and technology cooperation in Africa?
A kinder big brother
It is not yet clear how big a priority science and innovation will be for SADPA.
Officials in the DST have previously worried that so-called technical cooperation — which includes science and technology support — might be overlooked by the agency in favour of other duties, jeopardising the department's current support activities.
But Lindiwe Lusenga, deputy director general of international cooperation in the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, and a former member of staff in the DST, expects the agency to respect the current priorities of departments.
"My view is that it will be inter-institutional. If it does something on innovation, it should partner with the Technology Innovation Agency [an agency of the DST]. On water, it could partner with the Water Research Commission. All these institutions will have to have a say, " she says.
Technical cooperation should certainly play a key part in SADPA's work, as it does for other development agencies. For example, technical cooperation accounts for a third of Brazil's US$1.5 million development assistance for 2010, according to the UK-based The Economist magazine.
But SADPA should also help African countries capitalise on their science and technology by lending a hand to local businesses and innovators as part of a wider strategy to empower African businesses. It's time to change South Africa from a big brother who steals its siblings' toys to one that teaches them to ride their bikes.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, The Guardian, Nature and others.