Plans to funnel much of the science, technology and education aid bound for Africa into a single fund are taking shape. Such a move could boost the flow of cash from donors and improve coordination of science development activities on the continent.

African Union members could get development aid through a central fund. Credit: A. Waguih/Reuters

But critics say that the proposed central fund — which could manage billions of dollars in aid — is simply being used as a pawn in a power struggle between agencies coordinating development spending on the continent.

Since an African science and technology fund was mooted in an action plan adopted by the continent's science ministers in 2005, progress to that end has been slow. However, a pan-African science-policy meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, on 3–5 December heard that the African Development Bank is investigating whether it can host the fund, with a decision expected around March 2009.

Hakim Elwaer heads the science directorate of the African Union (AU), the confederation representing 53 African states. He told the Abuja meeting that the lack of a transparent mechanism for African funding is a key reason why many millions of dollars pledged for science by donors, such as the G8 (Group of 8) leading industrialized nations, have been slow to reach African researchers.

"The moment you have a fund structure, with an efficient, transparent and credible management system, this gives more credibility for donors to put money in — especially the big development partners from Europe, Japan, America and the World Bank," he says. He expects the majority of the contributions to the centralized fund to come from governmental and intergovernmental donors, aid agencies and African countries themselves, and emphasizes that the fund will not replace bilateral funding arrangements with individual countries.

A centralized funding system could strengthen Africa's role in defining its own development priorities, says Myles Wickstead, senior adviser with the Africa Unit of the Association of Commonwealth Universities and visiting professor of international relations at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK.

“Many organizations are simply seeking to control financial flows.”

And Elwaer hopes that the fund could also improve coordination of science development activities on the continent, which range from financial support of individual research projects to science-literacy programmes in African parliaments. This should counter an increasing duplication of efforts as intergovernmental agencies, eager to capitalize on the willingness of donors to spend money on African science, have drawn up science strategies independently.

Astonishing duplication

Researchers from the Network of African Science Academies are already working on identifying the overlaps between the three biggest science strategies: the 2005 action plan nurtured by the AU and its implementing partner, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD); a second drawn up by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa; and a third produced by the African Development Bank.

"We were absolutely astonished that these three major initiatives had been developed rather independently," says Mohammed Hassan, executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.

But Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor of international development at Harvard University, says that efforts to coordinate development activities are not tackling the root of the problem: big agencies are jostling to set the science agenda on the continent.

"Is duplication the reason why little is being achieved? I don't think so," he says. "Many of the organizations using this language are simply seeking to control financial flows, not necessarily to get anything done."

Elwaer rejects the notion that the AU is exerting improper control over Africa's science agenda. But there are certainly tensions between the AU and NEPAD that have hampered progress on their joint strategy. In November 2007, a growing dispute between the AU science directorate and the NEPAD science office went public when officials engaged in a vocal row during a ministerial meeting in Mombasa, Kenya, over rival efforts to measure science activity on the continent.

One reason for the tensions is historical. NEPAD was created in 2001, with the encouragement of G8 donors, whereas the AU was established in 2002 and took several years to find its feet. By the time that the AU was put in charge of policy, with NEPAD handling implementation, NEPAD had already spent years doing both. "We've never understood if the AU or NEPAD should take the lead," says Jimmy Whitworth, director of international activities at the Wellcome Trust, a UK medical-research charity.

But in a closed meeting at the Abuja conference, representatives of the two agencies met to try to bury the hatchet. "The meeting in Abuja seems to have been marked by a recognition that the AU and NEPAD have to work together," says Wickstead.

That should significantly improve the prospects of the African Development Bank fund getting off the ground, although there are many hurdles still to clear. By mid-2009, the AU hopes to have a clearer idea of how the fund would be managed and what sorts of programmes it would support. This would then be discussed and signed off by African science and education ministers.

And there is the added pressure of the economic downturn, which could cause donor contributions to dry up. "The timing is awkward," admits Sibry Tapsoba, the African Development Bank manager for science. "Because of the financial crisis, everybody could be saying that resources are lacking. We are very positive, but we are also very cautious."