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The mature response of many African leaders to the conduct of the Zimbabwean elections bodes well for their efforts to secure regional support for science. But the political challenges they face in doing so should not be dismissed lightly.

At first sight, it's difficult to make an immediate connection between the outcome of this month's general election in Zimbabwe and the future prospects for science in the rest of the African continent. But the link between the two is more direct than might appear. It doesn't lie in either the conduct or the outcome of the election itself, but in the response to both of other African nations.

This response has been expressed in the way that African leaders such as President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria have essentially aligned themselves with non-African critics of the brutality and lack of genuine democracy in the regime established by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. By doing so, they have raised the prospects for a reasoned, regional approach to integrating African nations into the global economy. And current thinking about how this might be done already places science and technology at the core of viable development strategy, as an integral part of any country's 'system of innovation'.

At the same time, however, the unhappy political scene in Zimbabwe provides a reminder that any such strategy will only succeed if the political groundwork has been laid in which it can flourish. If the science and technology that are needed to help drive Africa's development are to succeed in achieving their goal, they must respond to local needs and conditions. They must not be merely an extension of ideas, concepts and strategies designed to meet interests from outside Africa, an accusation that lies at the heart of recent political disputes over globalisation.

This is not just an academic debate. The issues that it raises are central to the success — or otherwise — of the dream of an 'African renaissance' currently being pursued by Mbeki, Obasanjo and other African leaders in the form of their proposals to establish a New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).

NEPAD is described as a pledge by these leaders "to place their countries, both individually and collectively, on a path of sustainable growth and development". It embodies a broad-based strategy of institutional reform that will lay a firm basis on which these leaders can transform their economies, and to do so in ways that allow them simultaneously to participate effectively in the global economy and to develop weapons to fight poverty on their own doorsteps.

The central role that scientific and technological advances can play in this process has already been firmly embedded in NEPAD's approach. For example, the document outlining the project that was adopted last October by the Heads of State and Governments of the Organisation for African Unity endorses the idea that globalisation "is a product of scientific and technological advances", while expressing the desire that NEPAD "will enable Africa to increase her contribution to science, culture and technology".

At the same time, an increasing number of those currently engaged in debates over scientific capacity-building in Africa — particularly where such debates are taking place at a regional level — are accepting the desirability of placing their efforts within the framework of NEPAD. This, for example, was the outcome of a meeting held last November by the Committee for Natural Resources, Science and Technology of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, which agreed that NEPAD "provides a suitable context to address the challenges of science and technology and competitiveness in Africa". Similarly a workshop of African scientists on "Sustainability Science" held shortly afterwards in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, issued a statement recommending that "bold, imaginative, consistent and effective efforts" should be made in this field "to form part of, and support, NEPAD".

So far, so good. But there are also political dimensions to the promotion of NEPAD that must not be ignored, if only because they are likely to play a significant role in its reception and implementation. Last Sunday (24 March), for example, the European Union delegation to the latest meeting of the preparatory committee for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which takes place in Johannesburg in August, explicitly voiced support for initiatives led by Africa "such as NEPAD", while emphasising that "African countries themselves must take the lead".

At the same time, Western nations are already using their willingness to support NEPAD as a political lever in order to achieve other goals. It is widely perceived, for example, that Mbeki decided not to oppose the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth after it had been made clear to him that any overt support for Mugabe (as had been expressed by several other African leaders) would have led to the removal of support for NEPAD from the developed countries, from which most of its funding is expected to come.

Domestically, however, all is not well in South Africa on the NEPAD front. In a dispute which seems destined to spill over into the proceedings of the WSSD itself, a major split has taken place between the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are planning "civil society" activities to take place simultaneously with the summit, and Cosatu, South Africa's largest labour federation. Although the reasons for the split are complex, one central factor is the way the NGO's inherent distrust of the whole process of globalisation has already extended to distrust of NEPAD and much of what it stands for.

So where next? There is widespread agreement in Africa (as well outside) that a regional development strategy such as NEPAD is required. There also seems to be a growing consensus that such a strategy is essential both to provide a setting for continent-wide efforts to promote capacity-building in science, and to push forward any concrete efforts to promote sustainable development that emerge from WSSD.

At the same time, however, it is equally clear that both efforts need to emerge from a self-diagnosis by the countries involved of their own scientific, technical, social and economic needs. Any attempt to graft on solutions devised outside — however effectively they may have worked in other parts of the world — risk rejection if this diagnosis, and the demand that it can lead to, is lacking. The scientific community, which is already beginning to recognise the potential value of NEPAD in reaching its own goals, must remain as sensitive to this danger as other stakeholders in the development process.

© SciDev.Net 2002

Readers' Feedback

From: Dr Esau Masuku ([email protected])
Senior Research Scientist (Building Materials & Structural Engineering)
Botswana Technology Centre (BOTEC)

I agree that indeed there is a real relationship between science & politics. But focusing on the subject of your editorial, one is easily led to the conclusion that Zimbabwe's elections are likely to impact negatively on science in Africa! In fact, that danger exists as long as science in Africa is viewed as a commodity that can be "brought to Africa" by such vehicles as NEPAD in its present version, which requires that that it must be "endorsed" by the Western world, as they would be its "prime" financiers.

There is nothing for nothing in our world. The price is always material and tangible. The Marshall Plan, to which NEPAD has often been likened, was mooted and executed primarily to thwart Soviet expansion westwards, and thus safeguard tangible and material Western interests, such as the capitalist way of life.

What would the Western world get in exchange for Africa's Marshall Plan? The answer is not democracy, transparency, freedom of the press, observance of human rights, independence of the judiciary, or the rule of law, all for the well-being of the Africans! That is merely the packaging of the real prize: namely access to Africa's resources virtually on the Western world's own terms, safeguarded by entrenched "property rights" as they are today - owned to a disproportionately large extent by Western countries or their kith and kin resident in Africa.

Why is this item so high on the agenda? Because the political liberation of Africa, which was completed only in 1994, has for the first time made it a real possibility that, just as it happened during colonization when the colonial powers used political instruments to disown Africans of their birthright, the politically empowered Africans can similarly reverse the situation.

It is imperative, for the sake of science in Africa, that we, the scientists of Africa, support the idea and stand up for the best interests of our condition as a people. Leaders come and go, political parties come and go, but these interests will never betray us.

While it is very important that we interact with our colleagues in the scientific and technical fraternity the world over, we should never lose sight of the fact that only self-reliance will engender genuine progress towards real social, political and economic development. Let us not lose sight of the bigger picture because of a smaller one. Zimbabwe is worth much more than US$64 billion — the price tag attached to NEPAD — let alone Africa!