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Science policy experts from African countries have proposed a new 'roadmap' for the future of science on the continent. Their plan has many strengths, but also faces major challenges. SciDev.Net readers are invited to comment.

Figures produced last year by UNESCO as part of its regular overview of the state of world science paint a gloomy picture for Africa. While support for research and development continues to grow in many parts of the world — most noticeably within developed nations — in much of Africa such support has been at best stagnating, and at worst declining, over the past two decades. Military conflicts, corrupt or ineffective management, and reductions in public spending to meet the costs of the 'structural adjustment' required by external aid donors, have each taken their toll. As a result, the 'knowledge gap' between rich and poor is widening at precisely the time it needs to be reduced.

All the more reason, therefore, to welcome an ambitious initiative to boost support for science and technology across the continent that was sketched out in Pretoria last week by a group of science advisers, policy experts and politicians from across the continent (see 'Roadmap' proposed for science in Africa). The initiative is being put together by representatives from a group of countries -most significantly South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal and Nigeria - who are at the heart of planning for the African Union's New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). This is a strategy for promoting the social and economic development of the whole continent through collaboration on key areas of common interest, among which science and technology figure prominently on the agenda.

By describing their initiative as a 'framework' for science and technology on the continent, the designers of this strategy make clear that they are — sensibly — drawing lessons from the success of the European Commission's Framework Programme, a package of collaborative research programmes that has been put together every five years since the early 1980s. The money spent through this programme is used to support a wide range of research that, directly or indirectly, enhances the objectives of member states of the European Union at the same time as boosting the competitiveness of their high-technology industries. Hopefully the African Union can stimulate its own, embryonic, technological potential in the same way.

Major obstacles

If it does manage to do so, however, this will be a significant achievement. For Africa faces several hurdles that are considerably higher than those in Europe. One is its sheer size, combined with geographical, cultural and political diversity. Collaboration is much easier to achieve when such factors are absent. Providing a unified strategy for a continent that is far from unified itself would be not far short of miraculous.

Secondly there is the fact that, unlike in Europe, much of the funding for Africa's own 'framework programme' will need to come from external sources. In practice, this will mean meeting performance criteria laid down by potential donor countries (a reflection of the broader fact that the fate of NEPAD itself rests heavily on the extent to which African states are seen by the industrialised world to be dealing effectively with their own recalcitrants, most notably Zimbabwe).

Related to this — and reflecting the political tensions still faced on the continent as it comes to terms not only with the legacies of colonialism but with the dictatorships that so often followed it — is the need to secure ownership of the science and technology programme by the people that it is intended to serve.

Success in the third of these alone will be no mean feat. The very fact that most of the money will come from the industrialised north, and on terms approved by such donor nations, means that there will inevitably be some suspicion, particularly if these terms are contested as not necessarily in the best interests of the nations receiving the funding. It was noticeable that last week's workshop, for example, skirted around sensitive issues such as intellectual property rights — where the interests of north and south do not coincide — and stayed well within the dominant philosophies of globalisation.

A solid agenda

None of this should cast doubt on the value of some of the concrete measures whose need is now being "acknowledged". It makes sense, for example, to reinforce what capacity already exists by drawing individual institutions into 'networks of excellence'. The institutions linked through such networks can mutually reinforce each other's activities, ensuring a focusing of scarce resources while at the same time avoiding unnecessary duplication.

Secondly, the commitment to ensuring that science and technology are established as a "cross-cutting and multisectoral theme" within the framework and implementation plans for NEPAD is also to be applauded. Neither science nor technology can be isolated drivers of development strategies (a wrong turning that several countries have taken in the past); both will only be of value if they can contribute significantly to, and be integrated into, mainstream development goals.

Thirdly, the new forum of African ministers of science and technology, and/or presidential sciences advisers, could, at least in principle (and providing it does not get bogged down in inter-state rivalry) become a new source of dynamic collaboration, playing a similar role to the regular meetings of European science ministers that guide the activities of the European Commission in Brussels.

Forging a democratic technological culture

But if NEPAD's science framework — like NEPAD itself — is going to succeed, it requires not only the political will of a relatively small handful of African leaders, or the enthusiasm of their top advisers, but also broader popular endorsement. This requires much more than a theoretical demonstration of the benefits of the framework to the technological programmes of the countries that participate. It also requires an active commitment to the framework by those at all levels of society who are intended to benefit from it.

Europe has certainly learnt this lesson. In its early days, the European Framework programme came under political fire for being excessively dominated by the interests of the private sector, particularly in fields such as information technology and biotechnology. Over the years, partly in response to such criticism, the programme has embraced a growing number of social goals, not only in fields like health and environment research — where the social value of its results can be easily seen — but also increasingly in research on controversial areas related to the ethical and environmental impacts of modern science and technology, as well as efforts to promote better public understanding of science.

Hopefully NEPAD too will avoid an excessively technocratic agenda, and accept that one of its goals must be to develop a properly democratic technological culture within Africa, one that remains sensitive to the continent's own social and cultural traditions. The new framework programme will not be the only way of achieving this; but it certainly needs to be central to such an effort.

Last week's workshop took a step in this direction by proposing the creation of an 'electronic forum' — in addition to other meetings and workshops — intended to facilitate dialogue and "engage all stakeholders to develop a common vision, agenda and action plan to promote and sustain Africa's scientific and technological development".

SciDev.Net is keen to play a part in this process. We have launched a discussion forum in which users of this website are asked to voice their own opinions about the difficulties facing science in Africa, and whether NEPAD's proposals are an appropriate response. You are invited to send us your views, particularly on where you feel that the main problems lie, and what needs to be done about them. We have been promised that these will be carefully considered by the NEPAD secretariat in Pretoria. If you live in Africa — or care about the state of science on that continent — now is the time to make your voice heard.

© SciDev.Net 2003

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