Nepad Science & Technology Program Needs Political Capital - Interview of Dr. John Mugabe, Director of the NEPAD Office of Science & Technology
Established in November 2003 under the purview of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Union (AU), the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) "is a high-level platform for developing policies and setting priorities on science, technology and innovation for African development" that "provides political and policy leadership for the implementation of Africa’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA)" www.nepadst.org
In addition to promoting science and technology cooperation among African countries, the key objective of AMCOST is to facilitate the harnessing and application of science and technology to transform economies in African countries and contribute efforts to attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As the body responsible for setting continental priorities and policies pertaining to the development and application of science and technology for Africa's socio-economic transformation, AMCOST in collaboration with the AfDB developed and adopted the African Science & Technology Consolidated Plan of Action which, "articulates Africa's common objectives and commitment to collective actions to develop and use science and technology for the socio-economic transformation of the continent and its integration into the world economy".
The subject of Science and Technology and Scientific Research for Development was the theme of the 8th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union in Addis Ababa in January 2007.
In the following interview, Dr. John Mugabe, Director of the NEPAD Office of Science & Technology reviews the achievements and challenges faced by the program and provides insights on the way forward for science and technology in Africa.
Q. Could you briefly describe the role of the Office of Science & Technology (S&T) within the NEPAD framework ?
The Office of Science and Technology (OST) is the technical and administrative secretariat of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST). It develops and oversees the implementation of new concepts, programmes and projects. OST mobilizes technical and financial resources for the implementation of Africa’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA) and related programmes of the African Union (AU). It prepares technical papers and procures evidence-based advice for AMCOST and its subsidiary bodies.
Q. In what ways do the MDGs tie in with the Institutional Framework of the S&T program?
The CPA and its programmes are explicitly focused on harnessing and applying science and technology to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Its programmes are devoted to such areas as health, water, environmental sustainabilitv, energy and climate change, gender, and agriculture and food security. They put emphasis on investing in scientific research and technological innovation to banish poverty and achieve sustainable development.
Q. When we spoke in Pretoria last March, you said that the program needed political capital. Is this still the case? If so, how does the program commit governments to contribute funds for S&T research?
There is growing high-level political commitment to the implementation of the CPA and other regional programmes for science, technology and innovation. This is demonstrated by the January 2007 AU Summit and the decisions made by Heads of State and Government at that event. A growing number of African governments are increasing public expenditure on Research and Development (R&D) and some are designing innovation strategies as well as new institutional arrangements for science and technology. We will, with financial support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), be launching a comprehensive survey of national investments in science, technology and innovation. Specific science, technology and innovation indicators will be integrated into the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) so that when countries review political and economic governance, they take into account the roles of science, technology and innovation in human development and national management.
Q. AMCOST objectives point to the notion that the Action Plan was designed to engage politicians in its implementation. How were African governments sensitized to establish AMCOST and adopt the Consolidated Action Plan (CPA)?
The CPA was developed by African governments, civil society and academic groups through a bottom-up, participatory and knowledge-based process. In 2003 African ministers of science and technology met in Johannesburg and agreed on an outline of the Plan of Action. This outline was then used by experts and regional institutions to develop specific project ideas that we subsequently discussed at workshops in each of the five geographic regions of Africa. The workshops’ inputs were consolidated into the CPA and then submitted to AMCOST for adoption at its second conference in Dakar, Senegal in 2005. In January 2006 Heads of State and Government at the AU Summit in Khartoum endorsed the CPA.
National governments were sensitized of the benefits of regional approaches and programmes for science and technology. This was done at the workshops and through websites.
Q. According to the www.nepadst.org, at least six studies have been carried out and a number of activities are in the implementation phase. Also, the energy program, progress reports on biosciences projects and the training of Africans for masters and doctoral degrees in science and technology are underway. Can you elaborate on these efforts?
There are several research, capacity building, and innovation projects that have been launched. For example, in life sciences we have established an African network of leading centers at which students and African researchers are focused on solving specific health, food production and environmental challenges. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has provided CAD 30 million as seed funds for the network. African governments are starting to make contributions to the initiative.
We have also launched the water sciences and technology network with projects focused on improving water quality and sanitation, development of technologies to anticipate and manage water related disasters such as floods, and building knowledge base to conserve water resources. In November 2006 an inter-ministerial dialogue of science and technology and water ministers adopted criteria and guidelines for establishing the African Network of Centers of Excellence in Water Science and Technology. The Government of France has provided a grant for the establishment of the network.
Q. Innovations in food processing, laptop design and development of malaria drugs are among S&T achievements in Africa since the 1960s—era of independence for many Africa countries. What do you consider other major achievements?
Other achievements are improved techniques for conserving plant and livestock genetic resources, considerable growth or increase in the application of information and communication technologies in schools, businesses and hospitals; and development of new varieties of crops.
Q. Page 7 of the Consolidated Action Plan published in 2006 states, "the continent has failed to invest in Science, Technology and innovation as sources and drivers of economic growth and long term sustainable development". Which factors account for the failure?
Such factors include, (a) limited appreciation and awareness of the role of science and technology in economic change and human development, (b) limited political and public support for science, technology and innovation programmes, and (c) few donors committed to funding science and technology projects.
Q. Do these problems still exist?
There are signs of change. A growing number of African countries are increasing public expenditure on Research and Development.
Q. Can you think of other challenges?
The main challenge is to build and sustain political commitment to invest in science and technology.
Q. The success of a program depends on the continued implementation of clearly defined policies. With regard to the NEPAD mission, this involves collaboration with governments, research administrators and funding agencies and their ability to agree on the terms of reference. What difficulties has the S&T program faced in this regard and how were they addressed?
The main challenges are around getting African governments to make financial contributions to regional and continental S&T projects. They do not have a strong culture of investment in regional programmes. We need to do more to demonstrate to them the benefits of regionalism and cooperation in science and technology.
Q. To accelerate growth in scientific research in Africa, consumers must change their attitude toward scientific and technological goods and services produced and provided in Africa. The private sector needs to strengthen investment in the area and African governments need greater sensitization to have concrete strategies for investing. Can the APRM encourage African leaders to foster the positive branding of S&T products and inventions?
The indicators currently used in the review of political and economic governance do not have explicit references to science and technology. We will change this situation with the new programme for science, technology and innovation indicators. NEPAD Office of Science and Technology will be involved in future APRM exercises in the countries.
Q. You have suggested that the ADB could collaborate with NEPAD S&T to achieve the MDGs and in creating greater awareness on the S&T activities. Describe other ways in which the ADB can liaise with NEPAD S&T.
AMCOST decided that NEPAD, AU Commission and the ADB should establish an African Science and Innovation Fund. This would be a mechanism for funding the implementation of the CPA and related programmes. A process has been launched to explore the establishment of the fund with ADB as a major partner.
Q. To enhance its visibility and capacity to achieve the MDGs, the NEPAD S&T program could develop sustainable relations with distinguished foreign institutions engaged in groundbreaking innovations in science and technology. What types of efforts has the program made so far?
We are getting African centers to forge partnerships with leading universities and research institutes in Asia, America and Europe. In the area of water for example, we have forged a partnership with the French Institute of Research for Development (IRD). IRD is working with us to establish the network on water sciences and technology development. In the area of science and innovation policy, we have concluded a memorandum of understanding with the University of Lund in Sweden for African students and policy-makers to be provided with training. There are several such arrangements made already.
Q. How safe is the future of S&T in Africa?
Science and technology hold the keys to Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Africans and their leaders have recognized this. AU and AMCOST will make sure that ‘science and technology have a safe and bright future’ in Africa!