» Harnessing the potential of science for sustainable development in Africa
02.03.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

Harnessing the potential of science for sustainable development in Africa

© UNESCO/ Pavel Kroupkine Muataz Musa, Sudanese Minister of Water Resources, Irrigation and Electricity, and Flavia Schlegel, UNESCO Assistant General for Natural Sciences

Promoting quality scientific solutions that shape and improve the daily lives of all people has been a long-standing priority of UNESCO, stemming from the belief that science is a main driver of peace and sustainable development. This was reaffirmed by the recognition of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in the recently adopted 2030 Agenda. In this context, UNESCO’s Secretariat participated in a series of workshops, conferences and consultations with key national stakeholders in Kenya, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe to discuss how the Organization can best help these Member States harness the potential of STI to implement their sustainable development strategies. Led by UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Natural Sciences, Flavia Schlegel, they took place from 20 February to 02 March 2016.

The recently issued UNESCO Science Report, Towards 2030 emphasizes that Africa is currently experiencing a period of historical growth, redefining objectives through an increasing policy focus on science, technology and industry, with emerging examples of good practice in this area. Technology parks, innovation hubs and cybervillages are emerging and stimulating research and innovation in all corners of the continent through the efforts of numerous stakeholders. The success of these initiatives is, in turn, encouraging African governments to invest more in research and development, in a trend that is creating a virtuous cycle. Yet, for this game-changing scenario to gain momentum and take flight in a lasting way, sound and inclusive science policy strategies must be developed, engaging public authorities, the private sector and NGOs.

The consultations provided an opportunity to define priorities and identify opportunities for further collaboration with national Ministers of Education, Science, Technology, Research and the Environment in Kenya, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Another consultation will take place in Senegal on 7-9 March 2016. UNESCO has been accompanying African countries in domestic reform through its Global Observatory of Science, Technology and Policy Instruments (GO-SPIN). Over the past four years, this programme has developed a methodology for mapping the different components of national innovation systems, with an emphasis on policy instruments. Such instruments, including funding mechanisms, are crucial to ensure policies’ implementation and effectiveness. Countries participate in GO-SPIN, in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their domestic science system and put in place a reliable information system to monitor policy implementation. To date, more than 22 countries have benefited from from the GO-SPIN data survey.

Several steps must be taken to ensure that the full potential of STI for sustainable socio-economic growth is realized, explained Flavia Schlegel. “Firstly, there must be investment in improving higher education to promote innovative solutions to local problems that support sustainable development. Secondly, the linkages must be strengthened between these innovative outcomes and policy formation to ensure that research-based solutions target the right areas and thereby foster broader development and better living conditions for everyone. Finally, the mechanisms of implementation for the successful delivery of the Agenda 2030 must be reinforced at national and regional levels, in line with the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) – to which UNESCO is one of the convening UN agencies.”

Links between research and policy but be improved because, in their absence, policies are unlikely to attain their objectives. Noting that the international landscape of science advice is highly fragmented in her presentation during the Science Advice Workshop for African Scientists organized by the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), Flavia Schlegel highlighted INGSA’s efforts to develop strong mechanisms of cooperation between the stakeholders.

Promoting innovative solutions to local problems

Ensuring long-term global sustainability and the environmentally sound use of energy are two sides of a single problem that touch on issues of central importance to Africa: poverty alleviation and access to a reliable and affordable energy supply. No development can occur without access to basic energy services, and unequal access to electricity results in social inequality. UNESCO plays a catalytic role in promoting comprehensive, holistic approaches to energy, climate change and sustainable development. In its contribution to UN efforts, UNESCO launched a “solar electrification of rural schools” project in five sub-Saharan countries that also includes the use of modern ICT tools. By using locally available renewable energy resources, this initiative addresses energy poverty while improving educational capacity and quality. Education is the first step: if STI are to be used to their full potential over the coming decades, young girls and boys will need to master science, technology, engineering and mathematics today.  

Unlocking STEM for Sustainable Development in Africa

Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) hold important answers to key questions like climate change and sustainable development that we must address today. An estimated 2.5 million new engineers and technicians are required in sub-Saharan Africa alone to achieve the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to increase the livelihood of the world wide population. To achieve such goals there is need to attract every young mind to the (STEM) fields, especially in Africa, where the continent faces challenges of food insecurity, water stress, limited energy access, unemployment, exploding urbanization and over exploitation of our natural resources. This was the focus of a Public Lecture and High Level STEM Education Dialogue organized by UNESCO in partnership with Bindura University of Science Education and the Higher Life Foundation under the theme ‘Unlocking STEM for Sustainable Development in Africa’, in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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