African ministers urge science cash injection to target poverty

September 24, 1999

Research and education ministers from 50 African countries will meet in Cairo next January under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity to discuss drawing up a protocol for scientific collaboration.

The political will to draft the protocol represents African commitment towards promoting science. According to Henri Hogbe Nlend, Cameroon's minister for science and technology, who will chair the Cairo meeting, lack of attention to science and technology has been central to the rapid increase of poverty in Africa.

"Apart from South Africa and the Seychelles, no other country in the continent spends even 1 per cent of its gross domestic product on science and technology," Mr Nlend said.

Most countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, allocate an average 0.3 per cent GDP.

Most finances for research and development in Africa come from foreign loans and grants. According to Paul Vitta, Unesco's chief of mission in Nairobi, 64 per cent of Kenya's research and development programme is donor funded. Tanzania and Uganda are even more donor-funded - by 68 and 98 per cent respectively.

Sub-Saharan Africa risked remaining a society of traders and consumers of foreign commodities. To avert such marginalisation, Mr Vitta said, Africa's economies have to be more creative and focus on training in basic and applied sciences.

But the task of training in research and technology will not be an easy one. Authoritative figures show that sub-Saharan Africa has only one research and development scientist or engineer for 10,000 people, compared with 47 in Japan, 40 in the United States,23 in Australia and New Zealand, 19 in the European Union and five in Latin America. Most African countries have not gone beyond assembling industrial products on the basis of components and technical expertise, usually under foreign control.

"The manufacturing sector is in its infancy and most industrial activities are restricted to assembly," said Khotso Mokhele, president of the South African Foundation for Research and Development.

The Cairo meeting is meant to discuss ways towards bridging the scientific gap. But Unesco warns that if sub-Saharan Africa wants to make progress then countries must commit more than 1 per cent of GDP to science and technology.

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