Moving African science forward
An continent-wide framework is necessary, argues an advisor to the New Partnership for Africa's Development
To succeed in its aspirations of regional and global economic integration, Africa must develop a true continent-wide knowledge and innovation base rather than rely on fragmented national research efforts. Continental programs for science, technology and innovation can add value to individual national R&D efforts by providing opportunities to mobilize and share financial, technical, and infrastructural resources among countries. Doing so achieves both national and regional public goals.
Continental collaboration in science and technology can also contribute to building the confidence and capacities of weak countries. Such collaboration provides the basis for learning, in R&D and policy-related activities. Countries are likely to be more confident in "collective experimentation" than when doing it on their own. Through collective experimentation, there is also a better likelihood of reducing the risk of failure.
Promoting cooperation for both regional and continental science and technology requires focusing on the construction of trans-national R&D networks, strengthening Regional Economic Communities (RECs) to facilitate design and implementation of related programs, and adopting common science, technology, and innovation policies.
To effectively respond to the changes in scientific research and with the emergence of new techno-economic opportunities, new agreements are needed among institutions.
In particular, by pulling together many country's resources, large facilities can be established and sustained which will enable a greater concentration and impact in African research and innovation.. These are some of the ambitions collectively articulated by African countries in African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST)'s Africa's Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA), adopted by AMCOST at its second conference held in Dakar, Senegal in September 2005.
THE NEED FOR ASIF
The CPA is dedicated to securing regional and continental public goods-knowledge, products, technical innovations, and services. Despite their potentially high rates of return, programs for such public goods are still under-funded in Africa. In response, the CPA creates both a political and institutional challenge for all African countries and the international community of donors. AMCOST has proposed an African Science and Innovation Facility (ASIF) to promote the generation of regional and continental public goods through the implementation of the CPA and related initiatives by AMCOST. It is intended to be a mechanism for mobilizing and targeting financial and technical resources.
There are several ways to set up the ASIF. One option is to incorporate the ASIF as an organization in one of the African Union (AU) member states and use that state's legal framework while ensuring that it accountable to all AU members. A second option is to set up the ASIF as a consortium of national research councils or science funding agencies, members of which would agree on the legal status of the ASIF and their responsibilities.
The third option, which is most favorable, is to establish the ASIF as an intergovernmental organization instituted by AU member states through a charter as the main legal instrument. The charter would be developed and negotiated by African governments with the participation of donors, civil society, scientists and private industry. This option would give countries the opportunity to negotiate and define their obligations. It would build collective ownership of the ASIF.
Whatever the eventual mechanism, the organizational nature of the ASIF will largely influence its effectiveness. In designing the institutional arrangement it is crucial that the ASIF be given full autonomy and flexibility to grow while being accountable to all stakeholders, including donors, the AU, New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) structures, national governments and designated networks of centers of excellence for the implementation of the CPA.
To secure high level political participation in decision-making and overall ownership of the institution it is desirable that the AMCOST be the overall governing body-Governing Council (GC) of ASIF. The GC would need to function in a way that guarantees the independence of the ASIF. It would be largely responsible for political leadership and high level policy matters. Executive decisions would be left to the AMCOST Steering Committee and the chief executive officer of the ASIF.
To ensure that it operates at a high level of scientific excellence and integrity it is necessary for the ASIF to have specialized scientific and technical advisory panels. The panels will bring the best available scientific expertise and knowledge to inform the design and operations of the ASIF, particularly in terms of program development, monitoring and evaluation as well as making decisions on the allocation of financial and technical resources.
To be effective in its mission-that of ensuring successful implementation of the CPA and future science and technology programs of AMCOST-the ASIF will require a solid - eg adequate and predictable - financial base. Ad hoc and unsustainable financing would make the implementation of CPA's programs difficult if not impossible.
Funding required for the ASIF will largely come from African countries and governments themselves and international partners. Major efforts will have to be made to ensure that these governments demonstrate their commitment. This will involve formulating and adopting policies and procedures for ensuring (including monitoring) the contributions of African governments. A legal instrument with clear provisions setting benchmarked or earmarked contributions will be need to be developed and adopted under the auspices of AU and NEPAD. This may be the same instrument to be used for the establishment of the ASIF.
The process that generates ASIF must be carefully configured and governed to ensure that whatever institutional arrangement is agreed upon is legitimate and has the support of as many stakeholders, including political leaders and the international community, as possible. The nature of the process is as important as the outcome. Key principles that should guide it include:
Inclusiveness It is crucial that academics, research and funding agencies, regional economic communities, private sector, development banks, donor agencies, policy-makers from most if not all countries, and politicians be involved in discussions and decision-making regarding the establishment of ASIF.
An evolutionary and gradual process In establishing the ASIF, care must be taken to ensure that the institution's mandate, structures and operations are consistent with long-term science and technology development needs of the African continent. To achieve this adequate time will be needed to carefully think through various options and establish best mechanisms for the development of the ASIF. Institutional development should be managed as a learning process that requires continuous adjustment. It is also crucial for the credibility and sustainability of the ASIF that its creation is gradual, with its funding is secured or at least assured and the right structures are in place before it is formally launched.
Sequencing operations Gradual growth of ASIF will need to be based on a clear sequence of operations. For example, there will be need to have a transitional period during which the ASIF will need to concrete on developing the necessary procedures and management practices. It will need to mobilize and build up the necessary staff and expertise.
THE WAY FORWARD
To consider and take forward the ideas and process outlined above, it is suggested that NEPAD and AU Commission do the following:
Establish an ASIF advisory panel or group This would be a small group of up to nine people with the necessary professional backgrounds and experience in the operations of research councils, preparation of legal instruments for agencies, governance of intergovernmental science and technology processes, and funding mechanisms and agencies. Two of the members should representing the Steering Committee and the AU Commission.
Organize multi-stakeholders' consultations or dialogue It is recommended that an electronic conference be organized guided by the ASIF advisory panel. The conference would be structured around specific questions pertaining to the mission, scope, funding and operations of ASIF. Such a conference would be regulated and held for not more than 2 months during which the panel would collate and analyze emerging views and recommendations.
Prepare background and legal documents The creation and growth of the ASIF will be knowledge based and information intensive. Such growth will need to be based on and guided by updated information and lessons on what institutional models work, what funding opportunities exist, strategies for mobilizing domestic (African) and international resources, and experiences of similar funding mechanisms. Based on recommendations of the advisory panel and decisions of the Bureau of AMCOST appropriate legal instruments (e.g. ASIF charter) will need to be developed.
High-level ASIF roundtable In addition to the stakeholders' conference, a high-level roundtable should be organized to bring together the Bureau of AMCOST, the advisory panel, donors and private sector representatives to review documentation from entire process and make appropriate recommendations to AMCOST. Final documents will then be submitted to all AMCOST members soliciting their approval or adoption.
The establishment and proper functioning of the ASIF will require the support of the international community and strong African leadership. African governments will need to demonstrate their commitment to the CPA by making financial resources available for the ASIF.
John Mugabe is an advisor on science and technology to the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), based in Pretoria. He is a former Executive Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), a science policy research think-tank based in Nairobi.