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A high-level meeting in Senegal later this week provides African states with an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to integrating science and technology into development plans. The opportunity must not be wasted.

Over the past decades, numerous attempts have been made to revive the fortunes of science and technology on the African continent. Some have focussed on specific institutions or initiatives. Others, such as the Lagos Plan of Action, agreed in 1979, have sketched out ambitious schemes for promoting a range of scientific activities — often in the hope that, merely by doing so, donors will be persuaded to provide the substantial sums of money required to implement them.

Some of these efforts have had limited success. But the continent is littered with the carcasses of failed experiments in scientific regeneration, and official statistics underline the reality that, despite all the fine words and promises, investment in research and development in Africa has been falling for the past two decades.

Later this week, science ministers and senior government officials from 45 African states will be gathering in the Senegalese capital of Dakar to discuss the latest attempt to reverse this trend. The focus of their attention is a proposed five-year 'consolidated plan of action' which would draw together a range of projects and initiatives costing an estimated US$157 million over the period 2006–2010 (see Support urged for US$160m plan for African science).

There are many reasons to be optimistic that this new plan may succeed where earlier efforts have failed. One is that African leaders are increasingly realising that investment in science and technology capacity is a prerequisite for their future economic prosperity. A second is that the attitude of donor countries towards such investment is more positive that it has been for decades. This has been reinforced by agreement reached at the G8 summit meeting in Gleneagles in July to double aid to Africa from US$25 billion in 2004 to US$50 billion in 2010.

Thirdly, the plan of action is firmly based on projects that have been individually assessed both for their viability and for the extent to which they meet genuine African needs and goals. Officials with the science and technology commission of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), under whose auspices the plan of action has been drawn up, point out that it is not a 'wish list'. Rather, it is a set of concrete proposals based on what African governments themselves have identified as their own priorities.

Meeting expectations

But there remains, as always in Africa, the possibility of a major gap between expectation and fulfilment. Filling this gap will depend partly on the extent to which Western governments are prepared to show their confidence in the current efforts by providing the funds needed to put them into practice (either as grants or as long-term, low interest loans).

Equally if not more important however, African governments must demonstrate their own belief in and commitment to the strategies embodied by the plan of action. Partly this requires that a funding commitment to science and technology must be evident in national budgets (and not remain as vague promises to increase spending on research and development).

But political leaders must also demonstrate that they are not just interested in a few prestige projects. Just as important is a commitment to the all-round enhancement of the systems of innovation on which Africa's development depends, as well as the democratic processes that are essential if it is to be both accepted and put into effect.

Political leadership is required if the activities outlined in the plan — which range from promoting biotechnology to space science — are to receive the priority they require in the programmes of individual countries.

Such leadership is also essential if individual projects are to be carried out in ways that maintain the confidence of donor agencies. If large amounts of funding disappear into private bank accounts, or appear to have been dedicated to promoting the influence of a few powerful individuals, the overall project could end up sharing the fate of its predecessors.

Systems of innovation

Similarly, the commitment to enhancing systems of innovation is needed to ensure that efforts to promote research are integrated into broader economic and social policy. If there is a weakness in the plan of action as it currently stands, it is the extent to which it focuses on the 'supply' end of the innovation process — reflected, for example, in the omission of the word 'innovation' from the plan's title, which speaks merely of 'science and technology'.

The new efforts to promote capacity building, however, will fail if they are not integrated into national, regional and continent-wide innovation strategies. This means paying attention to strengthening all aspects of the innovation process.

There are some reassuring signs that this message has been taken on board. For example, where the plan of action proposes spending US$45 million on promoting biotechnology over the next five years, it specifies that this is needed not only for boosting research, but also promoting its "safe development and application".

Equally, the plan's endorsement of the creation of networks of centres of excellence emphasises that these need to be developed in close collaboration with the private sector. Africa has no need for more ivory towers.

Nevertheless, there are aspects that still suggest that those responsible for drawing up the plan see economic development as a science-driven process, rather than one in which science and technology are merely essential components. This is a belief that has been firmly rejected by the industrialised world over the past two decades, and it would be a crime if it were to re-surface where it is least needed.

Window of opportunity

Those who gather in Dakar later this week for the Second African Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology face a unique opportunity to put into action the fine words that have already been spoken this year about the importance of science and technology for development (the most recent being in the final statement agreed at the end of the World Summit held at the United Nations in New York earlier this month).

The easy bit will be for the African science and technology ministers and their officials to sign their names to texts that promise a wealth of new initiatives. Few doubt that this will be done, and in good faith.

More challenging will be the task of bringing on board the Western government and donor agencies that will be providing much of the cash needed to enable these initiatives to happen. They will need convincing not only that the proposals are sound and that high-level political support is genuine, but that this commitment has a good chance of being translated into action.

If this can be achieved, then the prospects for science and technology in Africa are brighter than they have been for decades. As the UK-sponsored Commission for Africa reported earlier this year, there is now sufficient political stability and democratic rule on the continent to give credibility to NEPAD's ambitious plans for social and economic development. There is also a broad recognition that science and technology must be embedded in these plans, at all levels, if they are to succeed.

But none of this can be taken for granted. There remain concerns within many African countries that the benefits of such development programmes will not reach the poor sufficiently quickly (reflected in the view that even NEPAD is likely to be of greatest benefit to richer African states). This could lead to a crisis in credibility that would undermine even the best-laid plans.

It is now up to African governments — not international agencies or donor nations — to ensure that this does not happen. The opportunity to do so must not be wasted.