The world’s most successful countries are also those that invest most heavily in research and development. We in Africa are lagging far behind. By Kwame Muzawazi
Yours truly was recently on a full plane from Dubai to Harare, with about 200 passengers on board. 170 were members of a church led by a prophet with a huge following because he performs miracles. They were coming back from a pilgrimage to Israel. They stopped over in Dubai and filled suitcases with smartphones, TV sets, and the latest fashionable clothes and shoes, among other cherished possessions.
I asked one of the devotees what the purpose of the journey was, and she wholeheartedly said that after the trip, God would bless them with more money and all the bondage caused by witchcraft would now be finally defeated. I wondered why our dear ‘prophet’ couldn’t perform the simple miracle that Africa needs the most – the opening of our minds. After all, his Bible says: “My people perish for lack of knowledge”.
There are certain contradictions that Africa must deal with decisively as a matter of urgency. These have to do with a monumental passivity in utilising our heritage, our resources and our contemporary competitive advantage over the rest of the world.
Quick facts. The Guinness Book of World Records says: “The oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world is the University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco.” Documented African civilisations such as Egypt and Ethiopia’s are today widely recognised as the world’s oldest civilisations, which scored many firsts in human progress. Yet Africa remains the most unknown and the least researched region in the world.
In the past, new knowledge, ideas and scientific discoveries were known to mostly come from Africa. This gave birth to the Latin saying: “Out of Africa always comes something new” (Ex Africa semper aliquid novi).
One of the most distinguished African-American civil rights activists in the US, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) observed that to liberate black people from the curses of slavery and colonisation, “knowledge is the prime need of the hour”. Nothing has changed for black people.
Most of Africa’s challenges can be solved through locally generated knowledge. This requires a united effort to allocate resources to stimulate research that is conducted by African research institutions and researchers so that they come up with locally relevant solutions.
Instead of deploying resources to aid, which has been widely judged to be ‘dead aid’, it is in the interests of the international community to develop Africa’s research and application capabilities. Data shows that the countries that are making the most strides in human progress, be it measured by science, technology and innovation or otherwise, are the same countries that heavily invest in research and development.
The UNESCO Institute of Statistics asks: How much does your country invest in R & D? The wider position, it says, is: “Global spending on R&D has reached a record high of almost US$1.7trn. About 10 countries account for 80% of spending.”
The top 10 in order of expenditure as a percentage of GDP are South Korea, Israel, Japan, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and (tenth), the US. It is astonishing to note that Africa, a continent of over one billion people, 55 countries, and which is the Cradle of Mankind, is spending less than 1% of the global expenditure on R&D.
How many times have we heard that solutions proposed for Africa by the IMF, the World Bank or bureaucrats in Europe often miss the point? The gigantic misunderstanding of the African situation is translated into mega concerts that raise money to provide solutions that do not work. That’s why, for comic relief, we were treated to a collaboration between some South African students and a Norwegian aid agency on the (satirical) song ‘Africa for Norway’ – an appeal to Africans to raise money to buy radiators for the freezing people of Norway!
A special international Africa Research Fund (ARF) must be established through which new knowledge is created for the benefit of the people of Africa. Because more often than not, the challenges faced by one African country have the same characteristics as those faced by another, so a coordinated and collective effort is logical, saving time and money. R&D must take the centre-stage of African developmental efforts, involving both the public and private sectors, for without it we will continue sleep-walking through the 21st century. NA