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Science and technology is one of the priority partnerships adopted by Africa and the European Union (EU) as part of a joint action plan at the EU–Africa Summit in Lisbon, Portugal last week (8–9 December).

Eight 'partnerships' — each with priority action points — were adopted, including one on 'Science, Information Society and Space', which aims to build science and technology (S&T) capacity in Africa to reduce poverty and promote social and economic development.

Proponents say it represents a new era of true partnership in Africa–EU relations. "The partnership on S&T is a major achievement, a historical one. [It] is a great vector of hope regarding development," says Rudolf Meijer, adviser for international cooperation at the Research Directorate General of the European Commission.

The science partnership lays out plans to close the scientific and digital divides between Africa and the EU, and help implement the Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA) for science agreed by the African Union.

Through the CPA, the partnership hopes to increase the number of African researchers, improve infrastructure and forge stronger African Union–EU cooperation on S&T.

The partnership also focuses on information-communication technologies for Africa, promoting investment in infrastructure, encouraging public–private partnerships for affordable and widespread information-communication technology services, and stimulating telemedicine and e-learning.

The role of space science in sustainable development is also highlighted. Agreed activities include jointly analysing the potential of space technology in areas such as natural-resources management, climate-change monitoring and telecommunications.

"With knowledge and innovation being at the heart of the EU's own growth and development strategies, it was accordingly natural that science and technology should also be one of the cornerstones of the Africa–EU Partnership", says Daan du Toit, senior science and technology representative of the European–South African Science and Technology Advancement Programme.

Du Toit says that the action plan is driven by an African agenda. "[The CPA] is the African agenda for S&T — clearly the Africa–EU partnership is therefore already driven by an African agenda, but more than that by a common agenda of both partners to make science and technology work for development."

But others doubt the partnership's operational value. "The little we can expect from the so-called 'strategy' is a profusion of petty projects that will further hurt the image of Europe as a serious development partner," says Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the US-based Harvard University.

He suggests that, "The two continents should put a moratorium on summit diplomacy and work on rebuilding trust as a basis for forging new partnerships."

The next Africa–EU summit is planned for 2010, where the outcomes of the action plan will be evaluated and a replacement plan endorsed.