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Supporting the African Science and Innovation Fund is essential to improving science and technology on the continent, argues John Mugabe.

Africa desperately needs an effective mechanism for mobilising and directing resources to regional and continental programmes for science, technology and innovation.

The African Science and Innovation Fund (ASIF) — proposed by the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) in 2005 — could implement Africa's consolidated plan of action for science and technology and related African Union (AU) programmes.

Indeed, without ASIF, the continent will struggle to secure regional public goods such as public health, environmental sustainability and technological innovation, or achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Since early 2006, the AU and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) have been building a broad consensus on the need for ASIF — engaging stakeholders such as academics, donors and the private sector to determine how the fund should operate.

A choice of models

But there has been disagreement on the form ASIF should take. At least five institutional models have been proposed: a trust fund in an existing development bank, a new intergovernmental facility with a secretariat and governing body, a consortium of existing regional organisations, a nongovernmental body and a limited company.

Each of these has merits and disadvantages. For example, a nongovernmental organisation would be cushioned against geopolitics and unnecessary interference by governments. But there is no culture or precedence of African governments donating research funds to such organisations and it would be difficult to get solid financial commitments. It is also difficult to imagine a nongovernmental entity having the authority to lead the continent's science and technology plan of action. As a private company, the fund would face similar challenges.

ASIF as a new intergovernmental facility would incur unnecessary economic and political costs and so is also undesirable. It would not necessarily add value to the efforts of existing bodies like the AU Commission, NEPAD, AMCOST or the African Development Bank (AfDB) and may create new financial burdens on African governments and international donors. It could also lead to potential conflicts with existing bodies. Not to mention the cumbersome and protracted negotiations it would entail.

An incremental approach

Given the disadvantages above, AMCOST has decided ASIF should be developed and managed through existing intergovernmental bodies. But how to legally establish the fund remains undecided — until AMCOST meets in Nairobi, Kenya later this year.

An incremental approach is needed, beginning with a 3-5 year pilot phase where the AU Commission, AfDB and NEPAD jointly manage ASIF. At this stage, the fund should be governed by AMCOST and supported by an international scientific and technical advisory panel to review and provide independent advice on how programmes are developed and implemented.

The AU Commission could build African political leadership and leverage contributions. The AfDB could manage the funds — receiving and dispersing contributions to centres implementing the science and technology plan of action. NEPAD could mobilise research institutes and private companies to develop and implement specific research and innovation programmes, and could also give administrative support to the advisory panel.

At the end of the pilot phase an independent evaluation — sanctioned by the AU Summit — would make specific recommendations on whether, and how, ASIF should continue to operate.

African leadership and commitment needed

But before the pilot phase can start, the AU Commission, NEPAD and AfDB must develop and submit a specific memorandum of understanding for AMCOST to endorse at its Nairobi conference. African governments must also demonstrate their commitment to the project by endorsing the proposed pilot phase and making voluntary financial contributions to the fund.

They will also need to develop and use a coherent mix of national policy, administrative and legal instruments such as intellectual property protection to invest in regional science and technology development programmes.

Africa's commitment would be more easily secured if the international community endorsed ASIF. For example, the UK Department for International Development's support in exploring the fund's feasibility will help Africa settle on the right institutional configuration. Other government agencies in Canada, France and Sweden — together with donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — are already helping by supporting NEPAD implement specific science and technology programmes.

But, in the long run, African leadership and commitment will determine whether ASIF is created and sustained.

John Mugabe is an advisor on science and technology to NEPAD and former executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi.