Few participants in the Dakar conference on knowledge management can have had more experience of the challenges facing science in Africa than Amadou-Makhtar M’Bow, a former education minister of Senegal, and director general of UNESCO from 1974 to 1987 — the first black African to head a major UN organisation.
M’Bow reminded his audience that, despite the economic challenges facing the African continent, little had happened over the past 20 years to meet them. “Africa’s share of world trade fell from 5.8 per cent in the early 1960s to 2.8 per cent in 1987,” he pointed out.
“But we are still at roughly the same level as we were in 1987,” adding that a series of brain-storming meetings held under UNESCO’s auspices 20 years ago “had the same concerns as today”.
Although now well into his 80s, M’Bow maintains much of the fiery commitment that led him on a collision course as head of UNESCO with both the United States and the United Kingdom in his promotion of a new world information order.
He acknowledged that progress in promoting science and technology on the continent has been slow. “If the capacity for scientific creativity and technology development is measured by the number of engineers, technicians and researchers, Africa remains far from a minimum threshold,” M’Bow said.
“Too often, African countries maintained a technological dependence on other countries, but also suffered from a lack of modernisation, for example in its agricultural system.”
“That is the situation of Africa today, despite the progress that has been achieved since independence,” M’Bow said. “The causes lie in the fact that Africa has not been able to draw on the enormous possibilities that are offered for its development by scientific and technological knowledge.”
Despite this, he remains optimistic. “Everything is possible if we have the will power, and are bold enough to pull together African intelligence and expertise to do what others can do.”
Collaboration between African countries to promote science and technology was essential “for the destiny of the African people and the future of the continent”.
The solution, said M’Bow, also lay in changing attitudes towards education, and especially in training a new generation of managers “who are proud of being Africans”. It would then be up to these people “to build a new Africa capable of both resolving its own problems, and contributing solutions to the problems faced by the rest of the world”.
But speed is essential. “The African continent must act, and must act quickly, to change the course of history.”
David Dickson, SciDev.Net