Today I spoke at the African Union Headquarters during the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, to continue to make the case for investment in science during the Post 2015 process.
“I am absolutely delighted to be here, and honoured to be in the company of such a distinguished panel. I must also pay particular thanks to the African Union, their pioneering Chairperson Ms Dlamini-Zuma and the Ambassador Tete Antonio here in NYC and for so generously hosting us. Today is a crucial opportunity to continue to build support and share ideas on the issues of science, technology and innovation in Africa and across the world.
As some of you may know, the Planet Earth Institute is an international NGO working for the ‘Scientific Independence of Africa’. So what does scientific independence mean?
Well, for us at the PEI, scientific independence means ending the dependency that is causing such a lag on the continent’s rise. Independence means having science, technology and innovation embedded in our government policies alongside resourced and empowered institutions. Independence means the ability to produce – and keep! – more brilliant scientists on our continent. Ultimately, it means Africa’s problems can be solved by African-led solutions. Yes, supported by working in partnership with others around the globe, but independent to design and deliver its own sustainable future.
At the Planet Earth Institute, we have developed our three ‘pathways’ to scientific independence, of Higher Education, Technological Innovation and Advocacy and Policy. Put simply, that means working with higher education institutes to build a new network of African PhD Centres, understanding and mapping how the continent’s technology boom can best be applied to scientific development and effectively making the case for the African science agenda on the international stage. We want to build a movement for science in Africa – and that is what today is all about.
SCIENCE, AFRICA & POST 2015 – A WELCOME SHIFT IN THINKING
We meet during one of the busiest and most high profile UNGA weeks in recent history. While there is much going on, I particularly welcome the first meeting of the High Level Political Forum, who will now be charged with carrying on the good work of the UN High Level Panel.
We know there are many challenges in front of us and the task of the High Level Political Forum – and all of those working on the Post 2015 agenda – is not a straightforward one. The Millennium Development Goals achieved much, especially in Africa, but there is much more to do. And on the issues science, technology and innovation – sadly largely ignored by the MDG process – we have some catching up to do.
While 14% of the world’s population live in Africa, only 1% of the world’s scientists do, meaning that as a whole, the African continent has around the same scientific research output as the Netherlands. And that’s including the North Africa, and Egypt. Such low scientific output is crippling our continent – leaving us dependent to consume others knowledge rather than create our own.
As those we work with every single day will tell you, the scientific development of Africa has enormous challenges to overcome. Challenges of resource and quality, of integration into local economies and communities and of working with the private sector, sitting alongside the even grander social, economic and political issues we all face.
Yet there is great reason for optimism. I am hugely encouraged by the recent change in mood on issues of science, technology and innovation on my continent. Across Africa and beyond through the international system, there has been a shift in perception toward the role of science in development, with leaders from Mozambique to Nigeria and Kenya championing the cause. In my own home, Angola, we now have an ambitious science and technology strategy announced last year and our work at the Planet Earth Institute is help making Angola a leading science hub in the region.
Key institutions, like the African Union, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank are also now prioritising this agenda – and in March this year jointly took the position that science, technology and innovation was an ‘urgent priority’ for the Post 2015 process in Africa. Outside the continent, the international community are playing an important supporting role, and the United Nations and World Bank amongst others must be congratulated too. As the UN High Level Panel report said this summer:
“The innovation, diffusion and transfer of technology is critical to realising true transformation. Whether in information, transportation, communications or life-saving medicines, new technologies can help countries leapfrog to new levels of sustainable development”.
That technological innovation must be rooted in local scientific knowledge.
TURNING SUPPORT INTO ACTION & CHANGE
So, while we have great challenges, I believe Africa is increasingly rising to meet them. Yet, today – and the other activities of this week – will only be a success if they drive the change in behaviour and action we need to see. Promises and pledges are one thing, but delivering sustained action is quite another. Change is hard to achieve, particularly in this areas of science, technology and innovation, because it won’t give you an instant return on investment. It won’t feed people today or take people off the streets next week.
But what it will do is save many, many more in the future.
It is about a long-term investment in the nation and in the continent, to build a sustainable future where immediate need will start to decline, replaced by stronger economies with more, better jobs, robust infrastructure systems and smarter healthcare and food usage. This is all possible, but only if we all shift our mindset in how we view science, technology and innovation. Not as a nice to have but as a must have. Not as lower down the priorities than immediate need but sitting alongside them on the agenda of every discussion about the future of our continent.
That is what I hope UNGA will continue to build on. This growing realisation that science, technology and innovation – spurred on by higher education and skills training – are crucial to Africa fulfilling it’s promise and to contributing to the global community.
We at the Planet Earth Institute will continue to make this case for many more years to come. We will be visible and we will be loud. And we hope you will join us.