AFRICA: Does Africa really need new idealism?

Perhaps it is a fear that aid from the financially tumultuous North might be squeezed. Perhaps it is a growing frustration at rich countries' failure to keep their promises to the world's poor. Whatever the cause, a wave of idealism is sweeping through the innovation policy debate, accompanied by that idealist writ - the manifesto.

Last month, the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability Centre, STEPS, at Britain's University of Sussex published a manifesto seeking more equitable and sustainable outcomes from science and innovation in the developing world.

It comes on the heels of the Indian 'Knowledge Swaraj' manifesto, published last December by the EU-funded Science, Ethics and Technological Responsibility in Developing and Emerging Countries project.

And next September, the Nairobi-based African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS) network will publish a third manifesto, making similar demands in Africa.

'Manifesto' conjures images of revolutionaries in smoky bars plotting to overthrow their leaders. Today's manifestos are more peaceful, aiming to influence, rather than tear down, the powerful. But they still attack the motivations behind science and technology investments in developing countries.

The STEPS manifesto says rising investments in research and development have failed to benefit the poor. In India, for example, high-tech centres such as Bangalore exist alongside peasants still living as they did a century ago.

It blames a greedy focus on financial - rather than developmental - results from science investments; and the exclusion of poor people from science and innovation decision making. The manifesto's remedy is a 'new innovation politics' in which communal decision making would allow a focus on outcomes, rather than inputs such as R&D spending.

The manifesto suggests countries establish 'innovation fora' to debate technology investments and choices more broadly. And it wants funding for scientific centres of excellence to give way to support for science that addresses local needs.

Such research might not be published in top international journals, or come up with a money-spinning new drug, but it could have greater trickle-down potential, it argues.

The ATPS manifesto will go a step further in promoting the 'domestication' of science in Africa, says its executive director, Kevin Urama. He says Africa's confidence in its own science - traditional knowledge - dropped with colonialism and the arrival of Western science traditions.

He argues this cultural loss underpins Western-sponsored science's inability to improve the lives of ordinary Africans. Farmers who are used to getting their wisdom from elders might not heed the advice of educated youngsters from the cities. The knowledge systems simply do not match up, says Urama.

Science must be different in Africa, he says. The trappings of international, or Western, science - the pressures to publish in top international journals and travel to international conferences - gets in the way of science that can contribute to development, he argues.

African science policy structures must also change to bring science closer to ordinary Africans, he adds. "At the moment, these are carried out by elites in the North talking to elites in the South - people who have been educated in the North," he says.

Both STEPS and ATPS make valid points about the barriers preventing investments in science and technology from tackling poverty. But is idealism really what Africa needs?

Manifestos, by definition, offer radical fixes for ingrained and often systematic problems. They might lure politicians into believing in 'magic bullets' that will deliver immediate improvements. Most important, they might inspire policy u-turns where smaller modifications, or a bit more patience, could yield better results.

For example, the STEPS manifesto's condemnation of centres of excellence thinking might tempt African ministers to withdraw support for those already set up under the continent's Consolidated Plan of Action in areas such as biology and water science, so undoing years of investment and network-building.

African governments should read the manifestos pragmatically, not idealistically. They should not rush to create whole new structures for supporting this kind of innovation and science, but explore how existing policy channels can provide what the documents call for.

For example, a key stumbling block that must be addressed is isolation among African policy-making organs. The pan-African New Partnership for Africa's Development agency is being restructured to address this problem. Hopefully it will link science programmes more closely to related policy areas such as environment, health and resource management.

Similar consolidating efforts should be encouraged in organisations such as the Addis Ababa-based African Union. And the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) should be better connected to the ministerial councils for finance, education and agriculture, among others.

A good start for AMCOST would be to rename its Decade for African Science, set to start next year, the Decade for African Science and Innovation. And then get other ministries to join

* This article, Does Africa really need new idealism?, by Linda Nordling, was first published by on 28 June. It is reproduced under creative commons licence.