Celebrating African Unity
By Uzma Alam
As we set out to commemorate Africa Day, a celebration of the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union), there is no better time to reflect on how we can enhance knowledge and capacity effectiveness in Africa. A question more pertinent than ever before given the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the crux of this discourse is how we want to drive equity, diversity and inclusion, how we want to transform lives on the continent and how we want to shift the centre of gravity for funding science, technology & innovation (STI).
This takes strategic investments, understanding gaps, a change in mindset and harnessing of a continent’s capacity. After all, COVID-19 has shown the innovative spirit of Africa, with Africa accounting for 13% of the technologies developed worldwide to support the pandemic.
An obvious strategic investment would be mobilizing funding to build off these innovations with the value proposition that these are de-risked investments that not only support Africa but global health security. Here the change in mindset should be challenging the thinking, that technical expertise flows from north to south only.
Such partnerships grow opportunities beyond seed and transition to scale grants such as Grand Challenges Africa. Implemented through The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) a funding, priority setting, and program management platform.
Such investments should be coupled with a keen focus on investing in Africa’s research and development priorities for climate change, social sciences and humanities (SS&H) and the epidemiological transition amongst others.
The Why of investing in the epidemiological transition?
Africa hosts more than 20% of the world’s infectious disease burden while simultaneously dealing with a rising tide of non-communicable disease (NCDs). The emerging epidemic of NCDs if left unchecked threaten far-reaching socioeconomic effects.
The Why of investing in SS&H?
The lack of Afrocentric data and theory to inform alternative visions of development on the continent hampers addressing the problems our societies face in the postcolonial era.
The Why of investing in Climate Change
Africa contributes the least to global greenhouse gas emissions at 4% yet is hardest hit by climate change. Calling for Africa to strengthen our position in global negotiations by driving African generated evidence into policy.
Not to mention the undue pressure climate-related mass migrations would put on African countries. Indeed, among the factors that have compounded the COVID-19 response in some African countries are the floods across the greater horn of Africa (Kenya, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, South Sudan) and displaced populations within which COVID-19 prevention measures have been hard to enforce (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda & South Sudan).
STI priorities for Africa
Historically, international funders have been giving money to researchers or institutions in the global north who then distribute it to partners on the continent. The result has been that the STI agenda for the continent has been historically defined from outside instead of within. This colonial legacy has meant there is a shameful history of exploitation of the natural and human resources of Africa by other countries.
Therefore, the STI priorities for the continent should be African led. A critical example of the negative consequences when African stakeholders are not involved in setting priorities for their continent is equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, and drugs for all and not for the few as reflected in the looming vaccine apartheid. In which those with the means would have access and those without would be left to defend for themselves.
The African Science, Technology & Innovation priority setting programme (ASP) provides us with a blueprint. ASP engages African scientists and policymakers in evidence-based decision making to identify African priorities that, if addressed, offer the highest return on investment. Driving resources towards discovering, developing, and delivering game-changing interventions that will transform lives on the continent.
Equitable research and development
The post-COVID-19 era should be a rallying call to decolonise science for equity and equitable north/south partnerships as well as south/south partnerships reflected in open sharing of knowledge, data and technology transfer. It should be a call for funding African scientists directly that guarantees timely and equitable access to the fruits of scientific progress for the communities, and economies of Africa. It should be a call to adopt a truly global approach based on solidarity and equitable and equitably applied policy infrastructure that takes account of the right to knowledge for all. Creating an enabling policy environment centred on a new perspective of knowledge and intellectual property management in the public interest.
This can only be achieved by better alignment with country leadership, improving the use of data on investments in research capacity strengthening including funders and stakeholders agreeing on indicators that map to the realities on the ground such as the impact of open access publication platforms that enhance knowledge sharing providing an opportunity to leap-frog beyond the legacy of traditional publishing to optimise science on the Continent.
Opportunities also lie in adopting funding principles that encourage research institution with the developed capacity to strengthen weaker ones through centralised multi-funder pools aimed at improving the efficacy of investments and negating duplication. A roadmap is provided by The Developing Excellence, Leadership and Training in Science in Africa program (DELTAS-Africa). A US$100 million programme supporting development of world-class scientific leaders on the continent: currently supporting 11 collaborative teams headed by world-class researchers and spanning 54 partner institutions from across Africa.
Lastly, and most importantly at a time when the world is counting on excellence, science, diversity, inclusion, and innovation, the logical and strategical move should focus on investing in a sustainable pipeline for women in STEM. No one is better placed than Africa to lead the charge for the equity of women in STEM. Given that approximately 50% of the workforce in Africa are women and that Africa has implemented the most reforms promoting gender equality globally, with 71 reforms over the last decade. Indeed, a legacy to be built on as we celebrate the Union of Africa!