Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Now it's up to Africa


Delay in the implementation of Africa's plan of action for science and technology suggests commitment to act does not yet go deep enough.

Two years ago a sense of optimism and excitement greeted the decision by a large group of African science and technology ministers, meeting in Dakar, Senegal, to endorse a Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA). It consists of a potential roadmap for improving the scientific and technological infrastructure of the continent (see Donor nations pledge support for African science).

The total cost of the planned projects — US$160 million (since increased to US$200 million) over five years — was significantly less than the expenditure that had been argued for by the Commission for Africa. Nevertheless, hopes were high that the CPA would provide both a magnet for donor funding and a coordinating mechanism to ensure that spending by African countries themselves is harmonised and avoids duplication.

Two years later, that excitement has begun to wear thin. Frustration at delays in the implementation of the CPA is said to have been thick in the air at the third meeting of African Ministers of Science and Technology (AMCOST III) that took place in Mombasa, Kenya, two weeks ago. The participation of less than half of Africa's science ministers — out of more than 50 entitled to attend — was described as a "disaster" by one African politician.

That judgement is too harsh. Participation in such meetings by middle-ranking government officials is just as important when it comes to implementation. The attendance of officials reflects positively on the renewed political interest in science on the African continent.

Nevertheless, a significant gap still exists between the initial ambitious expectations for the CPA, and what has been achieved so far. There seemed to be agreement in Mombasa that African governments must share much of the blame.

Water research

Even without implementation of the full-blooded CPA, significant developments for individual components are taking place on several fronts. In East Africa, for example, the Canadian government is supporting the set up of a network of centres of excellence in biosciences, as well as Master's degree fellowships for African students.

Support from the French government has allowed the science and technology office of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which provides back-up technical advice to AMCOST and was one of the chief architects of the CPA, to study water research needs. Hopes are high that France will be prepared to back a water sciences network comparable to that in the biosciences.

But these initiatives might have taken off even without the CPA being drawn up. Furthermore, each is still heavily — if not entirely — dependent on external donor funding, despite claims from some African countries that they would like to have no need for such support.

And the fact that donors are choosing to continue to operate primarily in a bilateral mode raises questions about the feasibility of a more multilateral approach.

Continued tension

There seem to be several reasons why the CPA has not developed further. One is that in many African countries top-level commitment to science and technology has not penetrated far into the political community.

It doesn't take much to convince science ministers of the need to invest more money in science. More difficult is persuading finance ministers, who face a mass of similar demands, and were notable for their absence from the AU summit. Indeed, one of the major challenges facing African nations is not so much how to organise their science ministries, as how to ensure that these ministries have leverage over financial purse strings.

A second reason is continued tension between the African Union Commission, which is the executive branch of the African Union, and AMCOST members. In Mombasa, this tension surfaced over a suggestion that the brief of a funding facility proposed for CPA projects — the African Science and Innovation Fund (ASIF) — be enlarged to include education.

A failure to agree on how ASIF should operate — a decision that had already been deferred from the AU summit — has itself become a major source of frustration. The Mombasa meeting agreed to commission a new study on the best way forward. That is sensible enough. But it is unclear how much this is likely to add to a similar study carried out only two years ago, or indeed whether the ASIF proposal has much of a future in its present form.

Equally damaging is the clear tension that emerged in Mombasa between the AU Commission and NEPAD's science office, with each claiming responsibility for collecting science and technology indicators.

Significant commitments

Firm leadership is now needed if ASIF is to come into being in a way that meets the collective needs of African states. But this leadership needs to react sensitively to the voices of individual countries on the issue, even if not everyone's desires can be accommodated.

Just as important is the need for African countries to demonstrate that they are prepared to back the political commitment of their heads of state with the necessary financial commitment.

Significant commitments from a couple of African countries would indicate a willingness to put their money where their mouths are.

Making such commitments should be made easier by the trend towards the "domestication" of the CPA that was widely debated in Mombasa. Indeed, the more that countries can be convinced that programmes and projects in the action plans meet their national or regional needs, the more willing they are likely to be to invest.

But neither a continuance of bilateral funding — the most likely scenario in the near future — nor the greater emphasis on national and regional priorities should dilute the overall impact of the CPA initiative as a whole.

That, too, is going to require not only political leadership from the top, but also a willingness to collaborate in the middle ranks of developed and developing countries alike. The challenges ahead remain substantial.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net