Science capacity ‘imperative’ for Africa’s development

University of Cape Town Copyright: University of Cape Town

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A 17-member international commission set up to review the challenges facing Africa has concluded that science and technology have a critical role to play in promoting economic growth and social progress.

The Commission for Africa, set up last year by British prime minister Tony Blair, acknowledges that scientific skills and knowledge bring about "step-changes" in areas ranging from health, water supply, sanitation and energy to the new challenges of urbanisation and climate change.

But the report — published in London this morning (11 March) — also says that "critically, [scientific skills] unlock the potential of innovation and technology to accelerate economic growth and enter the global economy".

As a result, says the commission, specific action for strengthening science, engineering and technology capacity "is an imperative for Africa".

Strengthening universities across the continent will be important in meeting this need, says the commission. In particular, it proposes that rich countries commit themselves to providing a combined sum of US$500 million a year over a ten-year period to this end (see Commission to seek US$5 billion for African universities).

The commission also supports the idea that a range of centres of research excellence should be created across Africa, each focusing on developing a strong research base and teaching the technical skills required in particular areas of high technology.

It recommends that the international community "should commit in 2005 to provide up to US$3 billion over ten years to develop centres of excellence in science and technology, including African institutes of technology".

Identifying the most promising areas of research for such centres, as well as their location, would be carried out in collaboration with the science and technology commission of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the African Union.

The report is based on close analysis of all aspects of the social and economic challenges facing the African continent. The significance of its conclusions is that they are likely to be presented by Blair for endorsement by the leaders of the G8 group of advanced industrialised nations at their annual meeting in Scotland this July.

Britain is currently chair of the G8 group of most industrialised nations (and will also hold the presidency of the European Union during the second half of this year), a position that presents a unique window of opportunity for the British government to ensure the commission’s conclusions are effectively implemented.

The main message of the report focuses first on the need for donor countries to substantially increase their aid to African countries, and secondly on the need for African countries themselves to develop effective mechanisms for making productive use of such aid (which, for example, will require reducing the level of political corruption on the continent).

Ugandan scientist
researching HIV/AIDS
(USAID/R. Buckley)

An earlier draft of its conclusions has been widely distributed and discussed, both at meetings of the commission itself, and in a series of stakeholder forums that were held throughout Africa at the end of last year (see, for example, Development aid ‘must boost science in Africa’).

This preliminary version emphasised the need for research in specific fields, such as raising agricultural productivity, or developing vaccines and treatments for HIV/AIDS and malaria. However, relatively little was said about the need for Africa to develop the skills and capacity to address the underlying science and technology.

This omission drew strong criticism from various directions, particularly after the publication of a report from the UK House of Commons science and technology committee. The committee accused the government of paying inadequate attention to science and technology within its foreign aid efforts (see Are you listening, Mr Blair?).

The importance of providing support for science and technology was emphasised by an African finance ministers meeting in Nigeria in November 2004 to discuss the initial draft of the report. This meeting identified "infrastructure, agriculture, science, technology and related tertiary education" as "top priorities towards realising Africa’s development aspirations".


Cassava – one of Africa’s
staple crops
(R. Faidutti / FAO)

Partly as a result of such pressures — as well as prodding from the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, David King — the final report contains significantly greater emphasis than many had been led to expect on the importance of science and technology to meeting Africa’s development goals.

This emphasis is reflected, for example, in the statement in the commission’s report that "Africa has become increasingly uncompetitive, as a result of its weaknesses in governance and infrastructure, low capacity in science and technology and lack of innovation and diversification from primary products" (emphasis added).

Furthermore, the section on governance and capacity building emphasises that Africa "needs higher education and research institutes that attract students, researchers and teachers to study and work in Africa".

The report points out, for example, that at present there are more African scientists and engineers working in the United States than there are in Africa. "A long-term programme of investment is needed, both to revitalise African universities and to support the development of centres of excellence in science, engineering and technology, including African institutes of technology," it says.

In stressing the need for a substantial increase in donor support for universities, the commission endorses an initiative being put together jointly by the Association of African Universities (AAU) — the body that brings together representatives of almost 140 universities from across the African continent — with the London-based Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), and the South African vice-chancellors’ association.

These three bodies have already drafted a proposal for a ten-year investment strategy to address the weaknesses of African universities, many of which have been experiencing dramatic resource shortage in recent years.

Commenting on the recommendations made by the Africa Commission, Akilagpa Sawyerr, secretary general of the AAU, told SciDev.Net that he was "very positive" about its proposals, and said that his organisation was prepared to find ways of putting these into practice.

Sawyerr points out that although the amount of money being proposed by the commission for building up African universities is substantial, it should be seen as a "preventative" expenditure that represents only a small proportion of the funding currently being spent on "curative" measures, such as disaster relief and eliminating corruption.

"But even more important than the sums of money involved is that this report has put the issue of higher education in Africa at the top of the political agenda," says Sawyerr, pointing out that much now depends on whether the commission’s conclusions are endorsed at the G8 meeting in July.

Commenting on commission’s report, Julia Higgins, foreign secretary of Britain’s Royal Society, said that the society welcomed its recognition of the fundamental importance of science, technology and innovation to meeting the many challenges facing Africa.

"We were initially concerned that the importance of science, technology and innovation might have been overlooked by the Commission," said Higgins. "But the report demonstrates a proper recognition of their role."

She urged the G8 leaders to commit themselves at the Gleneagles Summit to acting on the report’s recommendations. "In particular, we would like to see a commitment that all new initiatives aimed at African countries, from increases in overall aid to specific development projects, should include explicit measures to build their capacity in science, technology and innovation.”

Njabulo Ndebele
(University of Cape Town)

Njabulo Ndebele, vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and president of the AAU, told SciDev.Net that the commission’s call for the developed world to support the development process in Africa in a significant manner was welcome, particularly "in the light of positive trends in Africa’s development agenda in the last decade".

"African governments are showing a new appreciation for the role of higher education in promoting development through advanced human capacity," says Ndebele. He adds that the revival of the African university "is a crucial aspect of state revival", and that the commission’s support of the AAU plans to significantly enhance the social impact of higher education across the continent "will be most timely".

According to Ndelebe, recent political developments in Africa — such as the firmer political leadership provided by the African Union, and the role of NEPAD in overseeing a process of economic revival based on the notion of stable and viable states — means that Africa "has a greater leverage to determine what the development agenda should be, and what kind of aid is required to promote it".

And he comments: "One hopes that the aid galvanised through the African Commission will be less prescriptive than past interventions".

Link to full report

Link to extracts from Our Common Future relevant to science and technology