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African countries pledge to use debt relief for science

29 June 1999

[BUDAPEST] The Africa group of countries has agreed on what could be the conference's most innovative proposal so far: creating a science fund for poor countries from the debt relief that was agreed earlier this month by the G8 nations, meeting in Cologne, for the 40 least developed countries of the world.

The proposal was agreed by ministers of science and education from Africa at a meeting yesterday here in Budapest. It will be put to the drafting group by Senegal, which is representing Africa on the group.

Under the proposal agreed yesterday, highly indebted countries will be urged to agree to set up a science fund from money, originally earmarked for debt repayments, which will be waived under the plan agreed recently by the Group of Seven industrialized countries.

Support could also come from the 50-country Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), whose ministers also met yesterday (see page below). At this meeting, Atta ur Rahman, coordinator-general of the OIC's Ministerial Standing Committee on Science and Technology (Comstech), proposed the setting up of a separate intergovernmental fund in which countries would be repaid - for example through the commercialization of research -- according to the size of their contributions.

Ministers from Africa, in addition, agreed that the draft conference documents need to put additional emphasis on two other issues. The first is "that science is the common heritage of mankind, whose results and benefits should be shared equitably". The second is the need for a more clearly defined mechanism to follow up implementation of the conference resolutions among Unesco's member countries.

"The idea that some countries are producers of science while others are consumers, cannot be allowed to continue into the next century," says Hogbe Nlend, Cameroon's minister for science.

The fund idea has emerged unexpectedly, and will take conference delegates - from both developed and developing countries -- by surprise. Many - if not most - had come to Budapest expecting little or no tangible outcome from the meeting. Indeed, some important developed countries have said that they will resist firmly any calls for funds.

This is partly a result of the experience of the last major UN world science conference, which took place in Vienna in 1979, where a hard fought battle between rich and poor countries over a science-for-development fund ended in stalemate. The Vienna experience is also believed to be a reason why there is no mention of funds in any of the draft conference documents.

"The draft agenda only deals with [funding] vaguely," says Nlend, one of Africa's longest serving science ministers and his country's former representative to the United Nations. "But for poor countries, the lack of funds is a critical issue." This is echoed by Rahman of Comstech who told yesterday's meeting of OIC ministers that "without a fund, nothing will happen".

Nlend reveals that officials from African and OIC countries came to Budapest having carefully studied the lessons from Vienna, one of which, was not to push too hard for a fund that relies largely on donations from developed countries - but rather to explore ways in which developing countries can help themselves.


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