Africa Analysis: Does Africa really need new idealism?

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African innovation policy needs pragmatism and cooperation, not the wave of idealism sweeping through development science, argues Linda Nordling.

Perhaps it is a fear that aid from the financially-tumultuous North might be squeezed. Perhaps it is a growing frustration at rich countries' failure to keep their promises to the world's poor. Whatever the cause, a wave of idealism is sweeping through the innovation policy debate, accompanied by that idealist writ — the manifesto.

This month, the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom published a manifesto seeking more equitable and sustainable outcomes from science and innovation in the developing world (see Manifesto calls for bottom-up science in poor countries).

It comes on the heels of the Indian 'Knowledge Swaraj' manifesto, published in December 2009 by the EU-funded Science, Ethics and Technological Responsibility in Developing and Emerging Countries project.

And in September, the Nairobi-based African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS) network will publish a third manifesto, making similar demands in Africa. 

Revolutionary enough

'Manifesto' conjures images of revolutionaries in smoky bars plotting to overthrow their leaders. Today's manifestos are more peaceful, aiming to influence, rather than tear down, the powerful. But they still attack the motivations behind science and technology investments in developing countries.

The STEPS manifesto, published on 15 June, says that rising investments in research and development (R&D) have failed to benefit the poor. In India, for example, high-tech centres such as Bangalore exist alongside peasants still living as they did a century ago.

It blames a greedy focus on financial — rather than developmental — results from science investments; and the exclusion of poor people from science and innovation decision-making.

The STEPS manifesto's remedy is a 'new innovation politics'. Communal decision-making would allow a focus on outcomes, rather than inputs such as R&D spend.

The manifesto suggests countries establish 'innovation fora' to debate technology investments and choices more broadly. And it wants funding for scientific 'centres of excellence' to give way to support for science that addresses local needs.

Such research may not be published in top international journals, or come up with a money-spinning new drug, but it could have greater trickle-down potential, it argues. 

A step further

The ATPS manifesto will go a step further in promoting the 'domestication' of science in Africa, says ATPS executive director, Kevin Urama.

He says that Africa's confidence in its own science — traditional knowledge — dropped with colonialism and the arrival of Western science traditions. He argues that this cultural loss underpins Western-sponsored science's inability to improve the lives of ordinary Africans.

Farmers who are used to getting their wisdom from elders may not heed the advice of educated youngsters from the cities. The knowledge systems simply do not match up, says Urama.

Science must be different in Africa, he says. The trappings of international, or Western, science­ — the pressures to publish in top international journals and travel to international conferences — gets in the way of science that can contribute to development, he argues.

African science policy structures must also change to bring science closer to ordinary Africans, he adds. "At the moment, these are carried out by elites in the North talking to elites in the South — people who have been educated in the North," he says.

But is it useful?

Both STEPS and ATPS make valid points about the barriers preventing investments in science and technology from tackling poverty. But is idealism really what Africa needs?

Manifestos, by definition, offer radical fixes for ingrained and often systematic problems. They might lure politicians into believing in 'magic bullets' that will deliver immediate improvements.

Most importantly, they might inspire policy u-turns where smaller modifications, or a bit more patience, could yield better results. For example, the STEPS manifesto's condemnation of 'centres of excellence thinking' may tempt African ministers to withdraw support for those already set up under the continent's Consolidated Plan of Action in areas like biology and water science, so undoing years of investment and network-building.

African governments should read the manifestos pragmatically, not idealistically. They should not rush to create whole new structures for supporting this kind of innovation and science, but explore how existing policy channels can provide what the documents call for.

Getting connected

For example, a key stumbling block that must be addressed is isolation among African policymaking organs. The pan-African New Partnership for Africa's Development agency is being restructured to address this problem. Hopefully it will link science programmes more closely to related policy areas such as environment, health and resource management.

Similar consolidating efforts should be encouraged in organisations such as the Addis Ababa-based African Union. And the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) should be better connected to the ministerial councils for finance, education and agriculture, among others.

A good start for AMCOST would be to re-name its 'Decade for African Science', set to start next year, the 'Decade for African Science and Innovation'. And then get other ministries to join.

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.