Aid to Enhance Africa's Skills

Science  20 Oct 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5798, pp. 385
DOI: 10.1126/science.1133498

The past 18 months have been important for Africa, with the emergence of a new vision for how to eliminate the continent's poverty for good. Last year's Gleneagles G8 summit made unprecedented commitments to eliminating debt and providing levels of aid that could finally make a difference. In particular, both the Commission for Africa and Gleneagles emphasized science and technology as a central plank in this effort. Unfortunately, little attention has been paid to the need for highly trained scientists, engineers, medical practitioners, and agriculturalists as a developmental priority. This is a recipe for disappointment.


Simply bringing Western technology and dumping it in the middle of Africa is not the answer. I have recently been working with Brazil and several southern African countries to examine the potential transfer to Africa of Brazil's highly effective technology for converting sugarcane into fuel. Our recent analysis showed that key southern African countries could use this approach to revive their sugarcane industry and reduce oil imports by a factor of 2 by 2020. However, it will not work unless those same countries can produce the chemists and engineers to generate this new fuel, sustain its production, and distribute it.

And bringing Westerners in to remedy the shortage of African skills in science and engineering cannot be a long-term solution. Take access to hygenic water, which can revolutionize both life expectancy and the standard of living. Thanks to civil engineering projects, every citizen of a medium-sized city in the United Kingdom or the United States can drink clean water. But if you took enough UK or U.S. civil engineers to Africa to do that for one medium-sized city every week, fitting out the entire continent would take 20 years. No Western country could or should provide personnel on that scale, meaning that the engineers will have to come from Africa itself.

It may seem perverse to be worrying about how many scientists and engineers a country produces when adult literacy is so low. But we need to ensure that at least a proportion of people develop high-standard scientific and technological skills relevant to their home countries. This is not elitism. Even a relatively small number of people who are well-educated in science and technology can make a significant difference to their communities. The key will be partnerships under African leadership; for example, provided by the New Partnership for African Development; under the auspices of the African Union. Skill development has been a key objective at the behest of Africans, reflected in plans for networking and centers of excellence of the kind that have been successful in similar situations.

These realistic proposals require assurance that money will be in place to fulfill them. The trouble now is that foreign aid is both insufficient and wrongly directed. A major defect is that most aid to Africa is tied to the condition that it be spent using only the donor countries' contractors and companies. This self-serving rule weakens local decision-making and undermines prospects that the recipient country can follow its own strategy for growth. The British government has taken a bold lead in untying its development assistance. For example, in Botswana, the United Kingdom untied all its aid in 1998, stimulating strengthened growth under Botswana's own national leadership. In Rwanda, the United Kingdom untied £200 million of development assistance, which is helping to create a base for both general education and for scientifically and technologically trained Rwandans, allowing that shattered country to rebuild and then grow her economy.

I am an African. And when I look at where my home continent sits on the global map of life expectancies, I find it heartbreaking. Whereas modern technological benefits have brought high life expectancies to the rest of the world, for most of sub-Saharan Africa the figure is between 40 and 55. The continent of Africa is the greatest tragedy on Earth. We in the United Kingdom are working with governments around the world to reverse that tragedy. And we are calling especially on the United States and our other G8 partners to stand with us in this vital endeavor. Africa has her vision. What she needs now is the means.

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