Those keen for Africa to develop its scientific potential often argue that the continent has all the resources and brainpower that it needs for a scientific renaissance. All that is lacking, they claim, is the political commitment to make science a high priority.
But several speakers at the 3rd Knowledge Management Africa meeting, currently taking place in Dakar, Senegal, have been challenging this interpretation.
They claim that it is contradicted by the frequency with which the continent’s political leaders have signed up to ambitious plans to promote science and technology, only for these commitments that rapidly get forgotten.
Indeed a notable absence from the discussions in Dakar has been any significant mention of the Consolidated Plan of Action, a wide-ranging set of continent-wide scientific projects endorsed only two years ago by the heads of state of member countries of the African Union at a widely-publicised summit.
Mustafa El Tayeb, head of science policy at the United Nations Education and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) pointed to similar commitments made in various Africa-wide meetings on science in the 1970s. These culminated in the Lagos Plan of Action of 1980, at which earlier heads of state had promised to raise spending on research and development to one per cent of their gross national product.
“They even promised to be spending three per cent by 2000,” said Tayeb. “But look at the situation today; at present, most African nations are spending less than 0.25 per cent of GNP on R&D.”
The problem, said El Tayeb, was not in the lack of political commitment to a plan – but in the lack of commitment to any follow-through. “When it comes to implementation, we tend to start all over again working on a new plan.”
He suggested that the Consolidated Plan of Action, initially drawn up with much fanfare under the auspices of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development — of which Senegal has been a keen supporter — had suffered a similar fate. “It is only a few years old, but it is already forgotten”.
Similar concerns about the limits of political will power were openly expressed by Ousmane Kane, executive director, African Regional Centre for Technology, and one of the main organisers of the Dakar meeting.
“The problem in Africa is not a lack of political willpower as such,” he told one of yesterday’s sessions. Referring to the African Union summit of 2007, he pointed out that Africa is the only continent where heads of state have met and made a joint statement on boosting their spending on research.
“Unfortunately Africa is very strong at expressing political will power, but it is not so good at implementing it,” said Kane. “In fact, that is the big difference with Asia; there, when they take a decision, they implement it.”
But politicians were not the only ones to blame for this situation. “We researchers are also responsible for all this,” Kane added. “We need to submit concrete programmes that decision-makers can identify with; then they can react.”
In concrete terms, the challenge is to get finance ministries — and not just heads of state — in on the act. Indeed a representative from the UN Economic Commission for Africa, which is ramping up its own interest in promoting science and technology in Africa, said that his agency had plans to get the continent’s finance ministers engaged in such discussions.
Until that happens, and such discussions start coming up with concrete agreements on funding for science, ambitious continent-wide plans are likely to continue to fall under the curse identified on the first day of the meeting: too much rhetoric, not enough action.
David Dickson, SciDev.Net