Better prospects for Africa and the Arab states?

According to the UNESCO Science Report 2005, the African continent and the Arab States make a very modest, if stable, contribution to world expenditure on research and development (GERD): 0.4% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 0.1% in North Africa and 0.2% in the Arab States of Asia. They make a greater contribution to world GDP: 2.3% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1.4% in North Africa and 1.2% in the Arab States of Asia.

Africa remains a continent of stark contrasts. Whereas 'many countries are struggling simply to get back to where they were in the 1970s and 1980s', South Africa and Egypt can boast of more solid research systems.

In 2002, South Africa devoted US$3.1 billion to R&D, or 0.7% of GDP. The country contributes 90% of GERD south of the Sahara, with research capabilities that span aeronautics, nuclear engineering, chemistry, metallurgy, agriculture and medicine. By contrast, research in Median Africa tends to be circumscribed to the two latter fields.

Egypt stands out in North Africa for the strength of its research apparatus, most productive in chemistry and engineering. Egypt invested US$400 million in R&D in 2000 (0.1% of the world total). Scientific output in the rest of the sub-region, where countries have only been developing their national research systems since the 1970s, is growing however by 10% a year. These countries are most visible in medicine, agriculture, physics, chemistry and engineering. The lack of an R&D environment on campus poses a big problem in the Arab States, notes the report, where the relationship between university research, teaching and industry is 'a three-way divorce'.

Trends in scientific output would seem to suggest that Africa is struggling to keep up in an increasingly competitive global environment. Between 1991 and 2001, the continent lost ground in scientific publications, with Egypt's world share dropping from 0.4% to 0.3% and that of South Africa from 0.6% to 0.4%. For the continent as a whole, this translates into a drop from 1.6% to 1.4% of the world total. The situation in the Arab States of Asia remains stable (0.3%).

The persistent problem of brain drain

It is well-known that Africa's pool of human resources is grossly underexploited: the African continent represents 13.4% of the world population, yet just 1.1% of the world's researchers. The Arab States of Asia (1.7% of the world population) are hardly better off: they make up just 0.2% of the world stock of researchers.

The free market ethos which accompanied globalization after 1980 has been particularly devastating for Africa, having led to a disengagement of government on a continent where the private sector was unable to fill the void. 'To avoid humiliation and a huge downgrading of their social position, many academic figures emigrated', either to the North or to 'other African countries where pay was higher', recalls the report. Although African scientists acknowledge a high degree of job security, 52% of them in the Republic of South Africa are dissatisfied with their salaries, according to a 1999 survey, compared to 69% in North Africa and 92% in Median Africa.

'By creating attractive conditions for highly trained personnel, the report suggests, 'countries can incite their "human capital" to stay home, or return, to contribute to the development of their country or region'.

In this connection, the report welcomes the fact that South Africa (as also China, Japan, Mexico and the Russian Federation) is beginning to acknowledge that professional research councils which allocate grants on the basis of merit make an important contribution to a thriving university system - which is one bulwark against brain drain. Higher development at home does of course constitute the single most effective magnet for attracting researchers back to their country of birth. Can Africa look forward to a brighter future?

A brighter future?

A relative newcomer to the African landscape, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) encompassing 53 countries was launched by the African Union in 2001. The report argues that NEPAD has greater prospects for success than previous reform efforts because it 'emphasizes sensible goals'. NEPAD's plan of action for S&T ties investments to such immediate needs as poverty elimination, improvements in public health, access to safe drinking water and environmental protection. It also promotes regional centres of excellence as a key strategy for boosting African collaboration and both South-South and North-South cooperation.

Of note is the growing number of Academies of Science on the African continent, including the Arab Academy of Sciences founded at the initiative of UNESCO in 2002 and headquartered in Lebanon. The founding of the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences in 2004 brought the number of Sub-Saharan Academies to ten (the others being in Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda). Unfortunately, many of these Academies are 'starved of cash, recognition and influence'.

The Arab Science and Technology Foundation launched in 2000 'seeks to forge the missing link in the Arab world between the research community and business'. By pooling the talents of Arab scientists living in both the Arab region and beyond, the Foundation aims to improve the quality of Arab research through a combination of networking and collaborative research in strategic areas.

The importance of a national vision

The report underscores the importance of a national vision. In Africa, the S&T market is dominated by international donors, aid programmes and multinational companies. The incentives they provide to African researchers bear little fruit because they are not matched by national S&T systems capable of offering careers.

Similarly, in the Arab region, the main input to technology comes from turnkey investments by large foreign companies and the technology thus acquired fails to take root. 'In the past three decades, the Arab world has spent US$1 000 billion on turnkey projects, more than 20 times the amount spent within the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the Second World War', states the report. It warns that 'Arab economies dependent on oil and mineral resources will not be able to sustain development as resources become depleted' because S&T are not a priority item on the agenda of Arab political leaders.

It would seem that Nigeria has got the message. 'Since the transition to civilian rule in 1999… Nigeria has certainly given signs of renewed interest in S&T', states the report. Africa's most populous country (133 million inhabitants) and a major oil producer, Nigeria launched a low Earth orbit remote-sensing micro-satellite to monitor the environment and provide information for infrastructure development in 2003 and a year later requested UNESCO to establish an international advisory board for the reform of the country's science, technology and innovation system. 'A core activity of the reform programme is a joint review of investment, industry and innovation involving UNESCO, UNCTAD, UNIDO and WIPO'. The reform comes at an auspicious time: GDP rose by nearly 10% in 2003, driven by strong oil receipts and agricultural growth of 7%. Public spending has grown markedly, from 19% of GDP in 1997 to 50% in 2001. 'One aim of the science system reform will be to use this growth to diversify Nigeria's economy' states the report, 'in order to reduce the country's dependence on fluctuating oil prices'.

This summary of the current state of science and technology in Africa and the Arab states is drawn from an article on the findings of the UNESCO Science Report 2005, which appeared in UNESCO's quarterly journal, A World of Science, in April 2006

Read also two short texts on the outcome of the First (2003) and Second (2005) African Ministerial Conferences on Science and Technology.

Read a summary of the findings in the UNESCO Science Report 2005 concerning other regions:

Science is booming in Asia 

Europe and the USA face a more competitive environment

‘Latin America and the Caribbean just not getting it together’

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