Civil groups’ apathy on STI hurts Africa’s SDG progress

Men repairing TV, Somaliland
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Speed read

  • STI cannot tackle Africa’s challenges without social and political groups to guide it
  • But surveys in countries show civil society unaware of policy, parliaments failing to act
  • Getting them involved will take changes, such as putting social issues in policy agenda

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How to get science working for the SDGs? Get political parties and NGOs involved, says John Mugabe.

Africa desperately needs development, and development needs science, technology and innovation (STI). But, despite years of discussion and even legislation, the key groups who could mobilise resources for STI are still not involved.

Civic society organisations, political parties and legislatures are not engaged enough in national and African Union (AU) processes for setting STI priorities and policies. Getting them more involved is crucial for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It’s about STI governance 

What is STI governance really about? It is about ensuring citizens participate in setting priorities, whether for research or technology development; that scientists and institutions are accountable for public investments and the outcomes of their activities; and that STI policy focuses on social issues such as gender equality, poverty reduction and youth employment.

On its own, STI does not have intrinsic powers to solve societal challenges. Social and political institutions need to guide and direct it.

“STI does not have intrinsic powers to solve societal challenges. Social and political institutions need to guide and direct it.”

John Mugabe


As things stand, African countries rely on centralised and technocratic approaches of formulating and implementing national STI policy and AU plans such as the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA).

Involvement in these processes is largely confined to small groups of scientists and science ministries. In many countries, civil society organisations are unaware of, or do not know much about, their STI policy frameworks.

In 2015 I interviewed 37 people from 29 NGOs working in energy, water and agriculture in Kenya and South Africa. At least three-quarters of them had not been involved in the formulation of STI policy, and at least half were not aware of its existence.

A similar exercise in Namibia in mid-2016, involving group discussions with trade union members, private companies and religious organisations showed that at least 80 per cent of them did not know of the National Research, Science and Technology Policy adopted in 1999 or a related law enacted in 2004.

More recently, in January 2017 at a workshop on STI policy in Swaziland, only about a tenth of some 60 participants from universities, government departments and NGOs had been aware of the existence a national STI policy framework that was adopted in 2011.

Political parties and leadership

Political parties are key institutions for STI governance. They are expected to set policy agendas and promote programmes for economic and social development. And they articulate ideological stances that influence how STI is treated on the national stage.

But across Africa, few parties have integrated STI issues into their manifestos and programmes.

In South Africa, the 2012 manifesto of the African National Congress (ANC) commits the governing party to annual expenditure on R&D at a minimum of 1.5 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product). But the party has no programmatic initiatives to ensure the target is attained.

On that front, African political parties can draw lessons from India and South Korea, among others.

In India, the growth of the national R&D and innovation system is largely associated with political activism and leadership. Under the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the old Congress Party coined the phrase ‘modern temples’ to refer to large scientific infrastructures. The party’s leadership spearheaded the creation of India’s Council of Science and Industrial Research (CSIR), one of the biggest research institutes in the developing world.

South Korea boasts relatively high research and development expenditure (4 per cent of GDP in 2014) and a sophisticated network of institutes including the world-renowned Center for Axion and Precision Physics Research. This is because of the political manifesto developed by former dictator Park Chung-hee. His daughter, former President Park Geun-hye, is said to have then mobilised huge investments into AlphaGo, one of the largest artificial intelligence initiatives in the world.

Delaying by national parliaments

Political leadership for STI in Africa should also be provided by national parliaments, which are responsible for approving budgets, enacting legislation and overseeing policy implementation.

A 2006 survey conducted by the UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and my on-going study (to be published in a book next year), both show that these institutions remain inactive in STI policy in many countries. The reasons are many — including weak technical capacities and the limited budgets of STI committees.

Take Kenya’s national parliament. It enacted STI law in early 2013, after a wait of more than five years. Since then, the parliamentary committee has not reviewed or even discussed its implementation.

In Namibia the Research, Science and Technology Act was passed by Parliament in 2004. It required establishing a National Commission on Research, Science and Technology (NCRST) — and this happened nine years later. Prior to the NCRST there was no institutional mechanism to ensure the Act was being implemented.

What scientists can do

Civil society organizations, political parties and parliaments can shore up STI governance. African scientists and ministries need to engage and support them to do just that.

First, they need to deliberately seek the participation of these groups by opening up and decentralising STI policy processes.

Second, ministries should broaden the STI policy agenda to focus more on social issues, such as gender and youth empowerment, instead of being driven by the narrow interests of scientists and research institutes.

Third, international institutions such as UNESCO and the World Bank need to support training on STI policy issues and mechanics for members of parliament, political parties and civil society.

These steps can help direct STI policy and implementation programmes towards the right goals for Africa’s development.

John Ouma-Mugabe is Professor of Science and Innovation Policy at the Graduate School of Technology Management, University of Pretoria. He can be contacted at [email protected]