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Africa needs smart partnership with the developed and emerging economies to spur economic growth

A common complaint in Africa is that the continent's leaders are selling its bountiful natural resources too cheaply.

Last weekend saw international dignitaries converge on Tanzania to discuss 'smart partnerships' to produce more win-win collaborations between Africa and the rest of the world, especially developed and emerging economies such as China.

These 'Smart Partnership Dialogues' started in the 1990s as a platform for scientists to discuss global challenges. Over the years, they have evolved into a forum for rich and poor countries to discuss how to combine sustained economic growth with green and equitable development.

This year's dialogue focused on technology transfer from more developed countries, as well as in-country technology development, as key elements of successful deals in Africa. The meeting discussed how poor countries on the continent could use natural resource-related sectors such as mining or oil extraction to build up their technological and intellectual capacity through training and technology sharing.

Large infrastructure projects — such as new roads or power stations — were also highlighted as important catalysts for skills and technological development in Africa.

Patchy progress

Technology and skills exchange are already part of some countries' partnership deals with Africa.

China, for all the bad press it receives for its conduct in the continent, has a large programme of scholarships, agricultural technology transfer and other training components as part of its formal engagement with Africa.

For instance, a year ago, China's then president, Hu Jintao, announced a programme to "train 30,000 personnel in various sectors for Africa, offer 18,000 government scholarships, and build cultural and vocational skills training facilities".

Brazil, another fast-growing emerging economy, also has programmes to transfer technology to — and train locals in — African countries, for instance in cotton production.

However, these deals are too few and far between. Many Chinese infrastructure projects — such as road building — still use exclusively foreign materials and workers, leaving the host countries no more able to build their own roads than before.

It seems that, while smart partnerships are popular on paper, they are still far from the norm in Africa. This is what the Smart Partnership Dialogues are trying to change ­— and so the discussion that took place in Dar es Salaam last weekend is as relevant as it ever was.

Healing academic division

But it is not only resource deals and development projects that would benefit from the 'smart partnerships' approach of creating win-win scenarios. They could also help knit together Africa's academic community, which currently is divided.

Broadly speaking, African research is two-tiered. Th

e top tier is made up of a handful of researchers whose work appears in international, peer-reviewed journals and is often mainly paid for by foreign donors or funders.

The second tier consists of researchers whose work tends not to reach an international audience. These researchers often lack the resources and know-how to apply for, not to mention win, internationally competitive grants.

First-tier researchers tend to flock together. Outside South Africa, they include those at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, Sfax University in Tunisia, Cairo University in Egypt and Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania.

A result of neglect

Africa's fractured academic community is a result of decades of neglect of higher education and research that led to the continent's universities getting by on skeleton funding from national governments. Those who wanted to do research were forced to look to foreign funding — but such support was often piecemeal and irregular.

In recent years, there have been several programmes to rebuild the capacity of African academia, through training and refurbishment. But while these initiatives have noticeably boosted the amount of research Africa produces, they still haven't significantly increased the amount of money allocated nationally to research.

Indeed, according to Hassan Mshinda, director-general of the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology, which helped put together the programme for the Smart Partnerships Dialogue in the country last weekend, the project-support model has acted as a disincentive for African governments to fund science and research from their own pockets.

Smart research funding

Mshinda says that more foreign science and research funding should be channelled through local funding bodies such as his, to build up the national capacity for grant-making.

This would also encourage national governments to invest more money in science, since they would have more confidence that it would be well spent, and national funders would have a stronger profile to lobby for more government funding.

Mshinda has pioneered this approach in the TASENE programme, a collaboration between research funders in Tanzania, Sweden and the Netherlands that was launched last year. The US$2.1 million programme not only supports joint research projects between the three countries, it helps research funders in the countries to share research management know-how.

Mshinda has a point. National funding and grant-making capacity is key to building vibrant universities with happy researchers producing relevant knowledge in Africa. Donor funding from overseas is all well and good if you can get it, but should be supplementary to the national funding base.

National funding is particularly important for scientists starting out and for researchers whose work may not meet the priorities of international research funders — but it is also important to solve national challenges.

A smart Africa requires smarter partnerships.

Linda Nording

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, Nature and others.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.