Next year's African Union summit on science and technology is a real opportunity, says Alex Tindimubona, but leaders must debate openly and listen to the research community.
Since 2003, Africa's strategy for science and technology has been led by the New Partnership for Africa's Development's science and technology action plan. This intergovernmental process appears to be running well, with a robust governing and management structure and powerful projects in the pipeline.
So what more can we expect from the upcoming African Union summit on science and technology?
It may be worth noting that it will not be the first such gathering in Africa, but the fourth. The three previous summits are less well known because they were not convened by a political body — such as the African Union — but by a group of science activists led by the African Academy of Sciences. The meetings were held in Gaborone, Botswana in 1993, Maputo, Mozambique in 1994 and Kampala, Uganda in 1995, and each brought together about ten interested and like-minded heads of state to deliberate on science and technology (S&T).
Their power lay in the fact that they were attended by the highest level of leadership from the continent — people with the power to direct the development of their nations.
But if they are to direct Africa's S&T agenda sensibly, the leaders must understand what science and technology can achieve.
Presidents at the summit will need to know how S&T fits with their own vision for their country. Some are already talking of an African Renaissance — of ambitions to transform their economies from backward agrarian societies to medium industrial powers; of agriculture-led industrialisation; of an African 'green revolution'; of eliminating poverty, ignorance and disease.
At previous summits, I found that only a few leaders had an enhanced understanding of S&T and how it can help achieve their goals. Most were not aware of the S&T strategies, policies, systems, institutions, capacities and programmes that are needed. The 2007 crop of leaders will probably not be very different. They will be unsure what they can achieve independently in their own country, what collaboration they need, and what best practices can be copied and applied. But they will be willing to learn, and some learning and sharing will definitely be achieved.
In advance of the summit, and in its aftermath, leaders will receive reports from their NEPAD S&T ministers and be asked to sign protocols to move S&T forward. In doing so, they should note the weaknesses that are evident at the ministerial level.
They might notice, for example, that the few flagship projects of NEPAD's S&T Action Plan appear to be dominated by outside interests in a top-down manner. They should ask themselves how the plan will succeed if it is not developed with the African S&T community. This will become particularly important when business plans are drawn up for flagship projects. And the leaders might notice that the NEPAD S&T plan, although negotiated by their ministers, does not sufficiently address their national priorities.
One way of dealing with these shortfalls is to allow others outside the NEPAD S&T ministerial 'party' to comment on the plans.
The previous three summits benefited from direct addresses by the scientific community — organised as informal roundtables of science advisors that were led by the African Academy of Sciences — and by face-to-face debate among national leaders. This was an unusual but useful form of debate, which gave researchers the opportunity to update their leaders on emerging issues in science and technology not yet absorbed by the political pipeline.
Moreover, the fact that African leaders were seen to think together on S&T issues and come to a common understanding was a significant step. In one instance, a leader convinced the meeting that water resources are best managed together, as they transcend national borders. There has subsequently been enhanced regional cooperation in water and power — such as the Nile Basin Initiative, which links about ten countries.
The Congress of African Scientists and Policy Makers, which will take place in Alexandria, Egypt on 27-29 October is a commendable initiative and will hopefully provide the necessary updates for next year's summit. Such a conference should be an integral part of future summits.
Finally, the African Union should commit itself to convening a science and technology summit every four or five years to provide sustained guidance. These meetings have the power to inspire: I myself am aware of several scientists and policy experts who participated in the 1993-95 summits and are now ministers, presidents, and advisors, promoting and implementing African science and technology. Building up these human resources is a major achievement in itself.
Alex Tindimubona is head of the Science and Technology Section at the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In the early 1990s he worked at the African Academy of Sciences. The views expressed here are his and do not reflect the thinking of the organisations to which he is affiliated.