Before I travelled to Brussels for the European Foundation Centre’ Foundation Week and Conference, I was inundated by the number of sessions on offer. I was however intrigued by the Conference theme: ‘A Conversation with the Institutions’. I knew this was going to be a different conference – one that would reach out to others outside the foundation world. Of course being nearer to the European Commission and the very fact that European foundations have been working hard in the recent past to get a Statute necessarily implied a conversation with the Commission and some of its partners. It was in this context that I was drawn to an opening session on the first day of the Foundation Week on Science and Technology partnerships with Africa: Opportunities for European Foundations.
Somewhat expectedly, the session was organised and chaired by the South African Embassy in Brussels within the context of the European South African Science and Technology Advancement Programme (www.esastap.org.za). Its main objective was to present and show case some of the programme’s initiatives to potential European partners and at the same time demonstrate some of the impact that these initiatives have generated in Africa. Of course, the South Africans know the resentment there is regarding their big brother status. So the session included other African states-Egypt and Kenya. But Africa is bigger than these three countries; and so an illusion should not be created that this session represented what goes on in Africa as a whole.
Nonetheless, this was an important step for civil society as a whole. More often in the African context, there are few occasions when government officials come to civil society to present their programmes-it is always the other way round. Hopefully this will not end in Brussels but would be conducted at the country levels too given the ever shrinking space for civil society in most African states.
So much for my political views on the state-civil society relations. Honestly though, I was put off from the beginning by the programme. It was a three hours sprint with no stops, comprising eleven speakers. Three came from the three African governments; Egypt, Kenya and South Africa. The rest were from projects of the EU or the EU itself. In addition to a long programme, the content of the discussions was very technical for many in the foundation world. It ranged from issues of astronomy, satellite developments, clinical trials for communicable diseases to robotics and the other concepts one can think of in science and technology.
When the session began, I counted more than seventy participants. Many seemed to endure the scientific jargon up to a point when a presentation was made on the MeerKAT Precursor Array radio telescope programme-a South African programme of the Square Kilometre Array. A few participants began making their way out. I could not blame them because I also felt at various moments that maybe I should just pack my stuff and look for a friendlier and familiar topic. This is the problem we have created in the foundation world-of working closely with those we are familiar with and at best comfortable with. I was thus challenged by this somewhat awkward conversation on issues that I knew I was interested in but had difficulties grasping. I wonder if many in the room understood the meaning of that session or even began relating it to their programs or areas of work. I for one thought that the various presentations were proposals for funding-seeing that the room was full of foundation executives. However looking at the amounts coming from the EU towards these projects, it was clear that funding cannot be the only reason for these governments to reach out to the foundation world. Indeed very few foundations would meet the budgets presented.
So what was the purpose of the session? Why did the South Africans plan this session on behalf of Africa? I reduced all their ambitions to at least the following messages:
- The establishment of science and technology infrastructure is key to solving vexing developmental challenges facing Africa. This cannot be the responsibility of governments alone-various stakeholders can take part. And this includes development partners and foundations working in various regions of Africa.
- The generation of scientific knowledge lies at the heart of solutions to Africa’s challenges. However Africa lacks research and technological capacity. This is an area that governments and development partners can work on, in particular by strengthening civil society and the private sector on many innovations that can respond to issues of health, environment, infrastructure and transport among others.
- Africa is prioritising science and technology in its development plans both at national and regional levels. Many of the countries in the continent are now science and technology driven economies. As one presenter put it, ‘Africa is hoping to regain leadership in science and technology which historically was begun in the continent any way’.
- However for all this to have resonance there is a need to bring science and society together. Only by embedding science and technology in the society can its innovations become tools for development. This for me was perhaps the main reason for the session and the principal message I am taking home.