What must Africa do to host a conference like WCSJ?

Africa WCSJ conference CIFOR
Copyright: Flickr/CIFOR

Speed read

  • Fundraising potential may be one reason why Africa missed out on hosting WCSJ 2015
  • But it has what it takes — great conference venues, hotels and event organisers
  • It needs to improve its fundraising and hold a showpiece science event

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Africa has the venues, but it needs to work on its governance and fundraising, says Diran Onifade.

Kenya and South Africa were surprised and disappointed when it was announced in June that South Korea had won the bidding to host the next World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ 2015).

So was I.

But we took the disappointment calmly, perhaps because the organisers limited the initial justification for their choice to "superior programme content", which, in the end, is their call and no one else's.

I'm biased, of course. Between 2004 and 2009, I was secretary and then vice-president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) as well as point man at the beginning of its intervention in Africa when there was no SjCOOP — as the federation's science journalism cooperative mentoring project is called — and no science journalism associations in Africa.

As president of the African Federation of Science Journalists, I have seen science journalists and their associations emerge in Africa and understand their struggles. I want the best for both WFSJ and Africa.

Controversial reasoning

So why was Korea awarded the next WCSJ? The then outgoing president of the WFSJ, Vesa Niinikangas, was reported by the Nairobi-based publication ScienceAfrica as saying that the bid was successful because it came from a strong association, with important sponsors, a good programme and the capacity to handle the huge responsibility of hosting the event.

If things had been left at that, there would have been no problem — but Niinikangas also made two more controversial points that sounded like excuses.

One was that the two Kenyan associations were too young to host the conference. That can be dismissed by stating that the Arab Science Journalists Association was only formed in 2006 yet it was awarded the 2011 Cairo conference, which ended up in Doha, Qatar, following Egypt's revolution.

His second point frowned on the racial composition of the South African bid team. This speaks of unfamiliarity with how the 'rainbow nation' has been transformed since Nelson Mandela's release from Robben Island prison.

For example, South Africa's football team is almost entirely non-white, while its rugby team is almost entirely non-black. But South Africans cheer both as one nation. That's how their evolving society works and it would be inappropriate for the international bodies that govern these sports to dictate the colour of the players who take to the field. The WFSJ is a world federation and should understand that is how the world works.

Asia's time

So let's look at what I consider the real reasons why South Korea won the bid.

Before SjCOOP began in 2006, there was virtually no respectable science journalism in Africa. Africa now has associations that are bold enough to bid for the WCSJ. So the WFSJ has probably done enough for Africa and is right to be moving on to Asia.

“Let African science journalists hold a truly African conference that will be a showpiece for the continent.”

Diran Onifade, AfricaSTI.com

Part of the thinking behind the decision to award the conference to South Korea may have been that Africa needs to build on the benefits of SjCOOP before it can be deemed ready for the world stage.

Money is also important. The conference is a source of income for the WFSJ. Korea's bid looks like a money-spinner, in that it was endorsed by the president of Samsung, the CEO of LG Electronics and other global corporations. That is backing that anyone serious about fundraising cannot ignore. Having such corporate giants on board is good for future world conferences — and for the WFSJ.

But Africa has all it takes to host the WCSJ, even though the world has been slow to realise the transformation.

As Lynne Smit, leader of the South African bid, told me: "I have realised over the years that being an African is like being a woman: you have to do things better than anyone else in order to prove yourself."

World-class facilities

For example, Africa too can raise money. Though the world continues to be fixated with images of hunger, the continent has great conference venues and hotels, and world-class event organisers.

I have attended all WCSJs since Montreal 2004 and — except for the Education City in Doha — none of the venues match the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, the UN's Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa or the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi for grandeur and functionality.

Furthermore, the WCSJ sister conference, the Public Communication of Science and Technology, has been hosted in Cape Town, South Africa.

Many African countries now have science journalist associations, and there is the African Federation of Science Journalists.

One action remains: we need to put our house in order by improving the governance of our associations. They must be strengthened as organisations rather being one-man shows. And more time and resources must be invested in regional networking — to help identify potential donors and speakers across the continent, and to carry out more joint activities.

Most importantly, we need to sharpen our grant-writing and fundraising skills. The money is there but often we lack the skills to persuade donors and corporations to hand it over.

We also open ourselves to ridicule when a national association holds a low-key meeting and proclaims it an 'African conference'. In the latter part of last year, three country associations held such meetings that were anything but African in their content, speakers and participants.

Let African science journalists hold a truly African conference that will be a showpiece for the continent. Let the world see that the Africa that held a successful football World Cup can host a conference of less than 1,000 people.

Diran Onifade is editor-in-chief of AfricaSTI.com, a website for African science, technology and innovation news based in Abuja, Nigeria. He can be reached at [email protected]