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Africa's continental science plan still isn't coordinating donor funding. Will a new AMCOST chair meet the challenge, asks Linda Nordling.

When Egypt takes over the two-year rolling chair of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) next month (March), it must blow new life into the continents' Consolidated Science and Technology Plan of Action (CPA).

The CPA is a framework for investments in science and technology in Africa. It was adopted in 2005 by the continent's science ministers with buy-in from development aid agencies and is overseen by AMCOST.

On the face of it, the CPA seems little more than a list of projects. It outlines 'flagship research and development (R&D) programmes' in four areas: biosciences, water, material science and manufacturing, and information communication technologies.

But it was supposed to be more than that — it was meant to better coordinate science aid and put a stop to the tradition of donors cherry-picking projects that fit their own agendas.

Disappointing development

Five years after the CPA's adoption, several donor agencies are disappointed with progress, with some even going so far as to declare it dead. Development experts also say that fewer national-level policymakers support the CPA than when the plan was first agreed.

The bigger picture — coordinating donor funding — is missing, says Paul van Gardingen, director of the International Development Centre at the UK's University of Edinburgh.  

"The big opportunity for the CPA was to be more than just a list of projects, it was to have an integrated approach," he says. "That is what is not happening at the moment."

The CPA's proposed mechanism for channelling donor funding, the African Science and Innovation Facility (ASIF) has not materialised (see Africa Analysis: Continental science fund forgotten?).

Yet African agencies in charge of implementing the CPA contest its failure, giving the plan a clean bill of health. "The CPA is still the framework for science and technology activities on the continent," says Aggrey Ambali, advisor on science and technology for the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

Partial progress

The two views may seem contradictory, but both have merit.

There has indeed been a lot of progress on several individual programmes within the CPA, particularly in biosciences and water research.

And the CPA will meet another of its goals when the African Science and Technology Indicators Initiative, a key part of the CPA, delivers its first set of pan-African R&D statistics, due in the next couple of months (see African R&D survey faces delays).

But the non-appearance of the ASIF remains a major hurdle.   Staff changes in NEPAD, the African Union Commission and the African Development Bank have also contributed to the lost momentum.

Money worries

Some blame a lack of national and donor funding, exacerbated by the financial crisis, for the difficulties in setting up the ASIF. The CPA was not intended to be reliant on donor funding alone — African countries too were meant to contribute five per cent of their R&D budgets to the facility.

A related problem, according to one source who did not want to be named, is that, in 2007, the facility concept was changed to one of a 'fund' for science, technology and education.

According to the source, this change from 'facility' to 'fund' accompanied a change in focus from delivering results to raising money.

"When it got turned around to 'we need X million dollars over the next 5 years, and then we'll decide on where the money should go', that's when it became more difficult to get buy-in from both donors and African governments," says the source.

Bring back the big picture

It is not fair to say that the CPA is dead. Nor is it a failure. Apart from concrete advances made on the ground, it has also brought science and technology to the attention of donors and African politicians.

But the CPA has clearly been a missed opportunity to coordinate and consolidate science and technology funding in Africa.

As Egypt takes up the reins of AMCOST, it should champion a reintroduction of the 'bigger picture' ambitions in the CPA.

Three things are needed to restore the original vision of the CPA, says van Gardingen. First, its implementation needs to refocus on results and coordination. Second, it needs leadership from the African Union and NEPAD. And third, it needs political and financial buy-in from African countries.

Of the three, the national buy-in is the most important, he adds. "That last is the one that would convince donors."

In other words, it is time for AMCOST to step up to the challenge.

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, The Guardian, Nature and others.