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After decades of so-so attempts to harness Africa's scientific diaspora, a model for collaboration remains elusive, says Linda Nordling.

Many thousands of scientists who have left Africa are passionate about giving something back to the continent. But finding the right model for such engagement has not been straightforward.

For more than a decade, various networking schemes have cropped up. Spearheaded either by individuals, African governments or overseas funders, they have aimed to harness the 'scientific diaspora' to help with the continent's development.

The schemes have set up several directories of contacts and promoted get-togethers. But facilitating link-ups has been the easy part. Trickier has been ensuring these lead to fruitful collaborations such as joint projects, equipment sharing or PhD student supervision.

Many of the early networks petered out as initial funding and enthusiasm ebbed. Others ended up being mere 'friendship networks', contributing little to developing joint science projects or technology transfer (see Can the scientific diaspora save African science?).

But despite the many setbacks, interest in harnessing the diaspora remains as strong as ever.

Renewed enthusiasm

The African Scientific Institute (ASI), a California-based networking organisation, recently hosted a conference to discuss how best to mobilise the diaspora. The meeting, held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, from 29 June to 1 July, asked the African Union (AU) to give the ASI a formal role in this mobilisation.

ASI's wish may be granted. This week (26 July–1 August) AU research, technology and human resources commissioner, Jean-Pierre Ezin, will visit ASI representatives in the United States to discuss how ASI can help overseas African scientists contribute to the continent's science programmes.

If the ASI gets that honour, it may be joined by South Africa. The AU and other African institutions — including the Economic Commission for Africa and the local branch of UNESCO — are all endorsing a South Africa-funded project to promote networking with the diaspora.

The project, funded by the South African National Research Foundation and administrated by the African office of the International Council for Science (ICSU), will not only create an international database of researchers but also source actual funding for joint projects.

Initial funding is expected to come from African countries rather than overseas donors, says Sospeter Muhongo, director of ICSU Africa. His organisation is collecting registrations from researchers and hopes the project will be up and running by January 2010.

Unintended consequences?

Muhongo's words reflect an increasing concern about the unintended effects of engaging the diaspora. For example, although Africans abroad are full of good intentions, they could — using their connections to overseas funders — inadvertently hijack the African science agenda.

The Nelson Mandela Institution's African Institute of Science and Technology (AIST) offers an example of this growing sensitivity.

The AIST is one of the most ambitious collaborations between international donors and African scientists on and off the continent. The brainchild of senior African scientists living mainly in the United States, it was supposed to be modelled on the Indian Institute of Technology, with a campus in each African region: north, south, east, west and central.

The first campus was launched in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in 2007 with backing from the World Bank. But then the project seemed to stall.

When it regained momentum this year, it was with the appointment of top management staff and dedication of land for the second campus in Arusha, Tanzania. But where the Abuja campus has been led by a team appointed by the World Bank, the new campus will have an all-Tanzanian management team.

The shift coincides with a more overarching concern about diaspora networks. As they are often driven, or at least funded, by overseas researchers or donors they tend to reinforce international links, sometimes recreating colonial ties.

For example, there are successful networks linking researchers in France with researchers in Francophone Africa. Likewise, Brazil is interested in setting up networks with Portuguese-speaking (Lusophone) countries like Angola and Mozambique.

African collaboration first

Such networks, although beneficial to some degree, prevent African scientists from connecting with each other, says Mammo Muchie, an Ethiopian scientist who is back in Africa — albeit South Africa — after years in Denmark and Britain.

Muchie is busy trying to set up an African PhD academy drawing on Africans at universities all over the world. But rather than approaching rich international funders to back it, he is approaching the continent's economic powerhouse.

"A country like South Africa does not have to think in terms of Lusophone or Francophone, it only has to think in terms of Africa," he says.

Fears that South Africa might alienate other African countries by appearing as the continent's 'big brother' should not be a problem, he adds. "It's better that South Africa becomes the big brother than other far away rising powers, whose intentions or practices are not fully evident when it comes to dealing with Africa."

There is no doubt that African science would be better off with more international connections. But these must not be at the expense of efforts to create an African research community where scientists of all backgrounds can forge durable alliances.

It's something the French-speaking Ezin should keep in mind when he tours Washington.

Linda Nordling is former editor of Research Africa.