Not whether, but how: that’s the question now facing both African governments, and the international finance organisations that back many of their activities, about investing in science and technology.
The change in attitude on both sides over the past decade has been dramatic. Ten years ago, few African governments took the need to build capacity in science and technology seriously.
Today it is widely accepted as essential for priorities that range from increasing food production to providing jobs for young people.
How far things have progressed, and how much further there is to go, will be on the table at a three-day meeting in Nairobi next week, the First Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovations for Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive Growth, which will be attended on its final day by more than 30 ministers from across the continent.
In the past, these would have been primarily science and technology ministers.
This time, according to Lidia Brito, head of science policy at UNESCO — one of the main sponsors of the meeting — the goal has been to bring together ministers from different departments, including higher education, finance and planning, to discuss how to make science “one of the building blocks of national development agendas”.
Before that, she explains, there will be two days of meetings with experts from outside Africa. “They will ask questions such as: Where is the innovation? Where is the new knowledge? Where is the capacity?”
In each case, there will be a specific focus on youth employment, inclusive growth and human development.
“Is Africa getting moving, where should it being moving, what are the barriers?” are the questions that the experts will be addressing, says Brito.
The first part of the conference will put the answers to these questions together, she says. They will then be presented to the ministers.
“We hope to achieve a commitment to the idea that we need to integrate policies,” she explains.
“Science ministers need to work more closely with finance ministers, and we want to reaffirm some of the commitments of heads of state to invest more strongly in science, technology and innovation.”
More than 250 delegates are expected to attend the forum, which in addition to UNESCO has been sponsored by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the African Union (AU), and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) , and will end with a declaration on what the continent needs to do to integrate science more fully into its development agenda.
There have been many such declarations in the past. Most have fallen by the wayside, often because of the absence of finance ministers who are able to commit the funds that allow things to happen (a criticism of, for example, the AU science summit of 2007).
This time, with the finance ministers attending and fully engaged in the process, the anticipated Nairobi Declaration will hopefully have a longer shelf life.