It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with it

May 9, 2009
Next stop: Tunis in 2011

Next stop: Tunis in 2011

There’s a famous line in Moliere’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme where the lead character expresses both surprise and pleasure at his discovery that he has “been speaking prose all my life, and [I] didn’t even know it!”

At the end of three days of intensive discussions, a significant proportion of the 300 or so delegates attending this week’s meeting in Dakar, Senegal, may well be returning home with the same feeling about the concept of “knowledge management”.

Some of the presentations to the 3rd Knowledge Management Africa (KMA) meeting applied the term to the new opportunities to put science and technology to productive use that are being opened by, for example, novel communication technologies (including both the Internet and mobile telephone).

Others, however, pointed out during the meering that in areas such as health and food production, finding ways of putting medical and agricultural science to use has been a central concern of development programmes for several decade.

But despite – or perhaps because of — the continuing lack of a precise definition, the meeting ended not only with a consensus that improved knowledge management, within both the public and private sector, is vital for Africa’s future prosperity, but also agreement on steps that will hopefully help this to happen.

One of the most concrete will be setting up of a new foundation, based at least initially in South Africa, that will seek to become a hub for Africa-wide efforts to boost knowledge management, while at the same time providing support for practical activities aimed at this goal in different parts of the continent (See story here).

Importantly, the foundation will provide a mechanism through which a range of African banks will be able to explore ways in which their lending policies can be broadened to include not only conventional investments, but also those aimed at building up Africa’s scientific and technical capacities.

(To be continued)

David Dickson, SciDev.Net

A role for “honorary Africans”?

May 7, 2009
Lee Yee Cheong: Seeking recognition for "friends of Africa"

Lee Yee Cheong: Seeking recognition for "friends of Africa"

It’s relatively rare for a non-African participant to receive a warm round of spontaneous applause from an audience gathered to discuss African solutions to Africa’s problems — a key idea behind the concept of an Africa “renaissance”.

That was the response, however, to a suggestion from Malaysian Lee Yee Cheong that individuals who had lived and worked in Africa should be accepted as honorary members of the African diaspora, even if they do not have blood relations with the continent.

Lee, an engineer by training, is a familiar figure on the “science and technology for development” scene. He was co-chair of a Millennium Project task force which issued a report on the topic four years ago, and also a driving force behind the creation of the International Science, Technology and Innovation Centre for South-South Cooperation (ISTIC) which opened in Malaysia last year.

But, as he reminded his audience, he is currently acting as an adviser to the Kenyan government. He suggested that this entitled him (and others in similar situations) to consider themselves part of an international community dedicated to helping Africa solve its problems.

“Please extend the term diaspora to those who love Africa,” he said. “I suggest that you include those foreigners who have worked and lived in the continent, or generally consider themselves to be ‘friends of Africa’, not just those who were born here.”

His remarks, based on his own experiences  on the support that non-Malaysians have given his own country, went down well in the room, to judge by the warm round of applause with which they were greeted by other participants – almost entirely African.

“It’s a good point,” says Nigerian-born Patrick Ezepue, a researcher in quantitative modelling for business at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom, who is setting up an organisation through which African scientists currently based in Britain can contribute their skills to African development. “We don’t want to be parochial about this kind of thing”.

David Dickson, SciDev.Net

A voice of experience

May 7, 2009
M'Bow: "Africa must act quickly"

M'Bow: "Africa must act quickly"

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

Science journalism makes its mark in Dakar

May 7, 2009
Adding colour: Diran Onifade and Armand Faye

Adding colour: Diran Onifade and Armand Faye

One of the pleasures for a European visitor attending a conference in Africa is the colourful clothes that many delegates occasionally choose to wear — a welcome change from the drabness than usually dominates back in the UK.

Adding to the colour of the proceedings at the 3rd Knowledge Management Africa conference in Dakar this week have two long-standing champions of science journalism in Africa, Diran Onifade from Nigeria, and local science journalist Armand Faye.

Both are active members of the World Federation of Science Journalists, having been actively engaged in finding mentors for young science journalists in Africa. Armand has been one of the pioneers of science journalism in Senegal, which recently set up its own association of science writers.

And Diran is also the chair of the African Federation of Science Journalists, a flourishing body created a couple of years ago whose growing strength reflects the recent resurgence in interest in science — and science journalism — across the continent.

Both express delight — perhaps tinged with surprise — that science journalism appears to be accepted as an important dimension of “knowledge management” in the interests of meeting Africa’s needs.

And Armand also impressed the other delegates with a set of impressive moves as he led the way on to the dance floor at the conference dinner.

Not a typical role for a science journalist, perhaps. But a good reflection of the importance that music plays in life in Senegal.

 David Dickson, SciDev.Net

“Political will is not enough”

May 6, 2009

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

Knowledge management begins at home

May 5, 2009
Knowledge Management Africa is taking place in Dakar, Senegal, on 4-7 May 2009
Knowledge Management Africa is taking place in Dakar, Senegal, on 4-7 May 2009

“Knowledge management” is not a phrase that slips easily off the tongue. Nor, for that matter, does it make attention-grabbing headlines.

There was therefore some confusion among science journalists sent to cover the opening yesterday (4 May) of the third Knowledge Management Africa (KMA) conference, currently taking place in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, about what they were being expected to write.

Some light — but not a lot — was thrown on the topic of the meeting from its title “Knowledge to Re-position Africa in the Global Economy”.

But any doubts about the importance of the meeting were dispelled in the opening session. This heard a message from the President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, in which he suggested that effective knowledge management lay at the heart of one of his pet projects, to help secure an “African renaissance”.

Wade’s idea, widely shared by all participants, is that, if properly handled, science and technology provide the key both to allowing Africa to meet the needs of its people, and to putting it in a strong position to benefit from globalisation and the growth of the global knowledge economy.

Put in these terms, the concept of “knowledge management” soon took on a more concrete form. Speakers suggested that it can cover issues that range from the provision of health services to poor communities in South Africa — where the failure to deliver key services is proving a major political embarrassment to the post-apartheid government — to global concerns ranging from climate change to coping with swine flu.

And delegates to the conference responded warmly to the call from the chief executive officer of the Development Bank of Southern Africa — one of the driving forces behind the KMA initiative — that research relevant to such issues was important, but that the time had come to put ideas into action.

All this made it easier for the science journalists present to understand what the conference is intended to achieve — even though putting this into easily accessible terms for local readers must have presented a major challenge.

But there was one area where the organisers of the conference had failed to provide their own knowledge management. A press conference was held at the end of the day entirely in French — the language spoken in Senegal — with no English translation.

A clutch of South African journalists who have come to cover the event looked somewhat unimpressed. The message was simple: on a multilingual continent, appropriate knowledge management begins at home.

David Dickson, SciDev.Net

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