Debating Science and Technology for Development in Africa

By Ian Scoones, Director of the STEPS Centre

At an event today we will be debating the STISA-2024 (Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa) initiative by the African Union (AU), the latest attempt to bring science and technology to the centre of the development debate in Africa. The STISA-2024 document opens with a rousing speech – with echoes of Nehru before him – by Kwame Nkrumah at the foundation summit of the OAU in 1963:

“We shall accumulate machinery and establish steel works, iron foundries and factories; we shall link the   various states of our continent with communications; we shall astound the world with our hydroelectric power; we shall drain marshes and swamps, clear infested areas, feed the undernourished, and rid our people of parasites and disease. It is within the possibility of science and technology to make even the Sahara bloom into a vast field with verdant vegetation for agricultural and industrial developments”.

This modernist vision of S and T transforming Africa is very much present in the AU’s STISA document. And has echoes of the efforts of philanthro-capitalists such as Bill Gates, and aid and development advocates such as Jeff Sachs. Not surprisingly, the rather top-down, technocratic vision has garnered considerable critique.

Interestingly S and T appears very prominently in the SDG outcomes document published 10 days ago for ratification of heads of government in New York next month. There’s a plan to establish a Technology Facilitation Mechanism and UN Interagency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs, a collaborative Multistakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs and an on-line platform.

We should see STISA therefore as part of these wider efforts – as part of a political moment, around which to debate science and technology for development, and garner fresh, radical ideas.

But it’s over 50 years since Nkrumah’s speech. What have we learned? I suggested five things in my opening remarks:

  • S and T cannot solve everything – big schemes too often fail.
  • Building capabilities and capacities is central – simple transfer of technology models don’t work.
  • Technology is not just hardware – software matters too. It’s socio-technical transitions that are important, and these may have to be slow and patient.
  • Knowledge for development doesn’t just come from accredited science – local knowledge cultures are important too.
  • Technology has to be owned, embedded in social-cultural settings and democratised through more inclusive, participatory approaches that set agendas and priorities.

In 2010, the STEPS Centre facilitated a process of discussion about these issues globally, which became the New Manifesto for Innovation, Sustainability and Development. It was a follow up to the famed Sussex Manifesto of 1970, and ran together with other manifesto processes in Africa (led by ATPS) and India.

Our collectively produced manifestos, based on extensive roundtable discussions across the world, recommended a much more open approach to S and T issues. Old questions of building capabilities, facilitating tech transfer, finance and training were all there, but there was much more emphasis on politics and the democratisation of policy processes. It matters what technology, for whom.

In our discussions today we took this broader picture, injecting our discussions with an understanding of the real challenges in Africa, thinking about how to go beyond critique to constructive engagement, as Chux Daniels suggests. This crucially means bringing new voices and perspectives to the table, while not rejecting the political potential of STISA and associated processes, such as the SDGs.

This event, jointly convened by the STEPS Centre, was an important step in that direction, as it brought together a wide group of Africans based in Europe and the US to discuss these questions. This included researchers, policy people, NGO reps, media professionals and more. These broader diaspora perspectives are important as this helps ground the debate, and encourages us to ask questions about what Africans can contribute to the future of development across the continent.