Africa entered the new millennium with renewed determination to secure its sustainable development. After many decades of economic marginalisation, political instability, and overdependence on the rest of the world for knowledge and finance, the continent and its people are now determined to eradicate poverty and become fully integrated into the global knowledge economy.
To achieve this, African leaders and their people have committed themselves to a set of ambitious but realisable goals. Many of these are embodied in the new socio-economic development framework of the African Union (AU), known as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).
The creation and evolution of NEPAD demonstrates the determination of African leaders to institute measures designed to meet the needs of the continent. These include efforts to increase agricultural production and food security, to stem environmental degradation, to improve infrastructure and communications, to combat diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, to end conflicts and wars, and to increase industrial production.
In other words, NEPAD is Africa's framework of programmes for achieving its human development goals. In addition, African countries have drawn up Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRPs), and committed themselves to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
In doing so, it has become clear that achieving the objectives of NEPAD, the PRPs and the MDGs will require increased national, continental and international support for Africa's capacity to harness, develop and apply science and technology for development.
At present, the continent's scientific and technological base is too weak to stimulate and sustain economic change and sustainable development. It is characterised by low public expenditure on research and development (R&D), weak links between research institutions and industry, low (and falling) enrolment in science and engineering courses at tertiary education levels, and outdated science and technology policies and institutions.
Addressing these shortcomings requires leadership and commitment at the highest political levels in Africa. It also needs concerted international support.
Commitments and actions by Africa
Many African leaders have already recognised explicitly that their countries must build a strong science and technology base — both collectively and individually — if they are to achieve the objectives of NEPAD, as well as the MDGs. This recognition is expressed in the NEPAD framework documents, as well as in the decisions — and actions — that the countries have taken over the past few years.
Specific African commitments and actions include:
1. African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST)
This is a high-level political and policy platform for science and technology set up to provide leadership in agreeing and implementing specific research and technology development projects.
The council, which is made up of ministers responsible for science and technology in all African countries, held its first meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, in November 2003, when it adopted 12 specific flagship programmes for science and technology.
Supported by a technical steering committee and advisory panels on specific policy and technical issues, the council acts as a high-level forum that has already begun to stimulate both a critical examination and active dialogue on emerging science and technology questions, and their implications for Africa's sustainable development.
2. Networks of centres of excellence
NEPAD has been actively engaged in establishing of networks of 'centres of excellence' dedicated to the development and application of science and technology to address specific food production, human health and environmental challenges.
The NEPAD Biosciences Network has four 'hubs' consisting of leading laboratories in Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Senegal. African countries have also adopted a strategic framework for establishing regional centres for water sciences and technology development. These will be similar hubs intended to produce and apply scientific as well as technical skills.
3. A commitment to policy and institutional reforms
NEPAD has been supporting the efforts of a growing number of African countries that are currently redesigning their science and technology policies, and reforming their science and technology institutions.
Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda are examples of countries with ongoing efforts to review their science and technology systems.
In addition, Egypt has just adopted a comprehensive plan for developing science and technology. South Africa adopted its science and technology strategy in 2002 and is making the necessary institutional reforms.
4, A commitment to solicit and institutionalise science policy advice
African leaders have recognised the importance of ensuring that their policies and political statements on science and technology matters are well informed. To achieve this, specialised advisory panels are being set up on specific issues.
Two such mechanisms have been created. One is high-level panel of eminent persons, set up jointly by NEPAD and the AU, to advise on issues related to biotechnology. The second is an experts' working group on science, technology and innovation indicators.
The above commitments and actions are already being taken to ensure that African countries develop sound foundations for their science and technology. But there is much more that these countries need to do.
With this in mind, the ministerial council is currently drawing up a long-term plan for science and technology. As a result, a comprehensive NEPAD/AU strategic plan for science and technology will be proposed at its second meeting, which takes place in Dakar, Senegal in September 2005.
Future actions are likely to include the setting up by the AU of a 'presidential forum' on science and technology, as well as the creation of regional financial mechanisms for R&D.
The G8 and Commission for Africa
The support of the international community is likely to be a key factor in determining the success of the activities described above. In this context, leaders of the G8 nations, as well as the recent report of the Commission for Africa, have each outlined commitments and actions that the international community — particularly the industrialised countries — should take to support Africa's efforts to achieve scientific and technological development.
Three years ago, for example, the G8 summit held in Kananaskis, Canada, adopted an Africa Action Plan that focused on supporting the implementation of NEPAD. The action plan contains commitments on promoting peace and security; strengthening institutions and governance; fostering trade, economic growth and sustainable development; implementing debt relief; expanding knowledge; improving health and confronting HIV/AIDS; increasing agricultural productivity; and improving water resource management.
There is growing awareness that most of these commitments cannot be realised without the application of science and technology. It was with this in mind that at the following year's summit meeting, held in Evian, France, that the G8 countries endorsed a new action plan concerned with science and technology for sustainable development. This contains specific commitments to help developing countries — particularly in Africa — strengthen their capacities for scientific research and technological innovation.
The same themes have emerged in the report published earlier this year by the Commission for Africa. Set up by British prime minister Tony Blair, this acknowledges that Africa's economic transformation and sustainable development cannot be achieved without the development and application of science and technology
The report contains a number of recommendations on ways of unlocking Africa's potential for generating and applying the science and related technological innovations needed to reduce poverty, accelerate economic growth, and enter the global economy.
In particular, the Commission for Africa proposes that rich countries should agree to provide a total of US$500 million a year over a ten-year period to strengthen African universities, and US$3 billion over ten years to develop centres of excellence in science and technology. Identifying specific research priorities for — and mechanisms of — establishing such centres would, the commission suggests, be carried out by NEPAD and the AU, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
As indicated above, African countries have already started to develop research and innovation programmes based on specific common priorities. They are also creating networks of centres of excellence in specific research areas.
Translating the recommendations of the Commission for Africa into concrete actions — and in particular ensuring that the necessary financial resources are allocated and utilised efficiently to strengthen Africa's science and technology base — will go a long way towards enabling the continent both to attain the MDGs, and integrate itself into the global knowledge economy.
Both steps will provide a stronger foundation for the international community's efforts to end conflict, eradicate corruption and promote democracy in Africa.
Pulling together for our common future
But all of this will only work if Africa provides overall leadership for the implementation of the science and technology programmes that it is designing under NEPAD and the AU.
To do this, its heads of state and government need to continue to demonstrate that they are prepared to increase their efforts to move from statements of intent to concrete actions. In particular, they need to help generate international support for well-designed programmes for building science institutions and skills in the region.
Such programmes should be developed by African themselves, and be based on existing capabilities, in particular existing infrastructure, human resources and experiences. They do not need to involve creating new institutes for science and technology; much can be achieved by mobilising and transforming those that already exist.
Above all, the recommendations of the Commission for Africa should be adopted both by the G8 at its summit meeting in Gleneagles later this week, and by the United Nations General Assembly, when it meets in New York in September to address progress towards achieving the MDGS.
The international community now needs to take bold steps to support Africa's own efforts to create a continent-wide programme for building science and technology capacity.
The author is advisor on science and technology to the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), and helped to set up its Forum on Science and Technology for Development.