Closing the genetic and digital divide: Towards Africa's common agenda

Dr John Mugabe, Kenya

Africa's Sustainable Development Challenges Africa is today confronted with increasing food insecurity, a deteriorating public health, environmental degradation, and intense political and ethnic conflicts. The region's economies have performed dismally in the past two decades and poverty is a marked feature of more than three quarters of Africa's human population. In 1998 more than 301 million Africans were living on less than US$ 1 per day compared to 217 million in 1987. Africa has the largest share of people living on less than $1 per day. In contrast, poverty declined most rapidly in South and East Asia during the 1990s. In Vietnam, for example, the incidence of poverty dropped from 58 percent in 1993 to 37 percent in 1998. This was mainly as a result of economic growth from agricultural diversification.

Africa's poor economic performance and growth in poverty are closely linked to deepening environmental degradation. Soil depletion, deforestation and associated loss of genetic capital, unsafe water, over-fishing, and inadequate sanitation are some of the environmental problems that the region and its poor population are faced with. Agriculture which is the mainstay of the economies and majority of the poor has witnessed slow growth and in some countries rapid deterioration. Its capital stock per hectare of land is less than one quarter of that in Latin America and one-sixth of that in Asia. More than one-third of Africa's population is faced with starvation. 

The region's telecommunications infrastructure is the least developed in the world. Africa has less than 2 percent of the world's telephone mainlines. By 1999 it had just about 10 million telephones. Of the 400 million Internet users in the world in 2000 less than 500,000 were in Africa. Many of the region's economies are yet to be linked to global e-commerce.

In terms of public health, recent estimates show that less than 35 percent of Africa's population has access to basic health or medical care facilities. Malaria and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) are now major destroyers of human life on the continent. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates show that at least 0.4 million adults and 1.6 million infants died of AIDS or related HIV in Africa. In Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana HIV/AIDS is destroying a growing percentage of skilled labour force. Malaria is known to be responsible for at least 75 percent of rural deaths in tropical Africa. At least half of the region's one-year olds have not been immunized against polio, measles and tetanus. Such simple life-saving therapies as rehydration are not used in more than 50% of diarrhoea cases in Africa.

On the whole, Africa is sustaining a deep crisis: increasing poverty, worsening environmental problems, dismal industrial productivity, growing food insecurity and a deteriorating public health. These problems have led to a variety of policy responses, ranging from structural adjustment to the ongoing efforts at formulating poverty reduction strategies. Emphasis is largely on focused on getting macroeconomic conditions right. While sound macroeconomic management is crucial for achieving economic growth, it is the ability of African countries to generate and manage technological change that ultimately determines its success in fighting poverty and enlarging competitiveness in the world market. Growth is the most powerful weapon in the fight against poverty. But accelerating and achieving it will require policies that deliberately promote endogenous scientific and technological development. This is the point that many of those responsible for development policy and planning for African countries often fail to grasp or sometimes lack the necessary analytical tools to engage with.

More than 90% of technologies-products and processes-used by African countries are produced elsewhere: in Asia, the United States of America, and Europe. Technological dependence undermines efforts of African countries to transform their economies and meet needs of the majority of the population. It does so in a number of ways. First, it undermines the autonomy of the developing countries to determine their technological needs. Most of these countries tend to react to global technological trends without identifying and articulating their economic needs. Secondly, it inhibits processes of local technological learning essential for development. It also tends to devalue the activities of local scientific and technology institutions. Emerging Technological Opportunities  Recent great strides in technological development, particularly in biotechnology and information technology, present enormous new opportunities for solving problems of poor and low agricultural production, health insecurity and environmental degradation. Biotechnology "provides potential to produce new, improved, safer, and less expensive products and processes. Pharmaceuticals and diagnostics for humans and animals, seeds, entire plants, animals, fertilizers, food additives, industrial enzymes, and oil-eating and other pollution degrading microbes are just a few of the things than can be created or enhanced through the use of biotechnology."  In agriculture, at least 70 genetically modified (transgenic) varieties of crops were registered for commercial cultivation worldwide in 1999. These include new varieties of cotton, potato, tobacco, tomato and clove. More than 15,000 field trials have been undertaken globally. New genetic modifications of more than 100 plant species are growing in laboratories, greenhouses, or in the field, providing farmers with new agronomic traits, particularly herbicide tolerance and pest resistance. In 2000 the global area under genetically improved crops was 44 million hectares mainly of maize, soya bean, cotton, canola (rappelled) and potatoes. Eighty five percent of this area is in North America (USA and Canada) and the remaining fifteen percent in developing countries notably Argentina, China, Mexico and South Africa. 

In the pharmaceutical sector there are currently more than 100 biotechnology drugs and vaccines approved by the FDA and more than 350 in the pipeline. By 1996 there were at least 220 diagnostic kits using monoclonal antibodies and 8 using DNA probes on the market. Total sales for MAb products were projected at US$ 3,800 in 1998 and US$ 720 million for DNA diagnostics by 2000. The first gene therapy was approved in 1990 to treat Severe Combined Immune Deficiency. Gene therapy techniques for cystic fibrosis have also been approved. 

Advances in information and communications technology are creating faster ways of acquiring, storing and disseminating information. They are breaking barriers to knowledge and integration into the global economy. For example, the Internet is boosting efficiency and enhancing the ability of some developing countries to integrate better into the world economy. For countries such as Brazil it has raised productivity of both public and private institutions in very profound ways. In Latin America Internet use is growing by at least 30% a year. Some of the region's countries are tapping the technological opportunities to improve their agriculture, health and education sectors. 

The rapid technological developments are creating public expectations, anxiety and uncertainty. While in the industrialized world households' expectations revolve around new and higher quality gadgets, services and foods-essentially an enlarged range of choices, in Africa expectations focus on having basic (sometimes lower range) technologies to respond to immediate and urgent basic needs. The current Europe-United States debate over genetically modified crops ignores the concerns and needs of Africa. European and American households are faced with anxiety and uncertainty associated with many food choices, and many better and better drugs, while those in Africa are faced with food shortages and increasing malnutrition. Discussions of anticipated and largely perceived of technology risks should not erode prospects of feeding the poor and treating HIV/AIDS in Africa. However, Africa should not ignore anticipated risks. Its challenge is to establish policies, laws and institutions that will enable it to manage the risks while at the same time using the technologies to fight poverty. This challenge cannot be left to scientists and policy analysts. It is a political one requiring the full engagement of African political leadership. But policy analysis will be required to guide technology choice and management.

Renewing Science and Technology Policy In the industrialized world the number of agencies and programmes concerned with the study of social, political and economic issues raised by science and new technologies has grown considerably in the last two decades or so. Science and technology policy studies have acquired academic status and are constitute a growing part of economic and political governance in developed countries. This is largely in response to the rapid technological developments. By contrast, many African countries have not devoted resources to science and technology policy. Universities in the region do not have organized research and teaching on social, economic and political issues emerging with rapid technological advances and globalization.

Most of the industrialized country governments have made deliberate efforts to create new fiscal, foreign investment regulations, competition policies and government procurement measures aimed at promoting technological innovation. In some of these countries there is increasing public-private sector partnership in funding basic research and technological innovation. They have also modified and strengthened their intellectual property protection regimes to cover new technologies. These measures are undertaken in order to strengthen and protect national techno-economic competitiveness. The OECD countries have been the first to pursue new policy initiatives at the national level to promote technological innovation and have been at the forefront of the international effort to secure more effective protection of technology. The governments of most OECD countries have intensified their protection of technological innovation and of basic pre-competitive research, including participation in inter-governmental research programmes.

Since science and technology are essential components of any development effort, policies relating to them should be integral to all programmes and politics aimed at promoting sustainable development in Africa. They should be at the center of public policy and politics. In 1992 the International Council for Science Policy Studies (ICSPS) stressed that technological developments "cannot have their socially beneficial effects if the cultural and political contexts are not prepared to absorb and incorporate them, and to achieve the structural transformations which will be required-a process which is more difficult and complex than a mere transfer of resources …from the rich to the poor as a way of correcting imbalances. It is built on a social consensus about goals and values."

Science and technology policies of African countries were formulated in the 1980s when development imperatives were different. They focus on agency creation and many are statements of intent-the aspirations to embrace science and technology. What they have generated are institutional structures with cognition of by-gone times. They are not capable of responding to the emerging global political economy and associated technological advances. In addition, these policies are divorced from the poverty eradication agenda of many of the countries.

Also of concern are processes and the structures of science and technology policy-making in Africa. They are not participatory and keep away stakeholders. Interests and technological needs of rural populations are rarely well taken into account in technology policy-making. In fact it is difficult to determine the central locus of technology policy formulation in most African countries. The existence of institutes, departments or ministries of science and technology does not necessarily show where the policies are formulated and implemented. On the whole, science and technology policies of many African countries lack public ownership and are not problem-based.

A COMMON POLICY PROCESS FOR A COMMON AGENDA In order to tap opportunities raised by the new technologies and address such associated policy issues as the impact of intellectual property protection and biosafety, Africa needs a coherent, knowledge based and political linked mechanism to undertake technology assessment and to establish a clear agenda. We propose the establish a region-wide policy process-one that would enable Africa to formulate strategic ways of benefiting from global scientific and technological advances while at the same time responding to any risks. It would give the African public a forum to engage in technology needs assessment and to understand opportunities that new technologies-biotechnology and information technologies-offer to the solution of the region's persistent food production, environmental degradation and public health problems. The process would recommend and promote a set of common measures designed to maximize benefits and reduce risks from these technologies. It would give African political leaders and policy-makers an opportunity to develop and own strategies to target the region's resources and global science and technology to the solution of problems. The goal is also to reduce the genetic and digital divides between Africa and the rest of the world. Findings and recommendations of the process would be consolidated into a final report that would be disseminated to the international community, ministers responsible for agriculture, health, science and technology, industry and the environment. The report would articulate a common Africa led and owned agenda on biotechnology and information technology.

The rationale for establishing a common policy process is that any of the science and technology policies required to close the genetic and digital divides will only be effectively implemented if they have political legitimacy and are owned by African public. In addition, many of the challenges can be better handled through regional cooperation founded on a common agenda and strategy.

Specific objectives of the process would include: (a) Enlarging political leadership for and public interest in science and new technologies, with emphasis on biotechnology and information technologies; (b) Enhancing public understanding of opportunities and challenges posed by biotechnology and information technology; (c) Establishing and promoting a common target oriented agenda that would enable Africa to tap the new technologies to solve its pressing problems; (d) Building a regional strategy and capacity to respond to technological issues associated globalization; and (e) Promoting the sharing of skills and experiences for long-term technology management. The proposed process could be organized in form of a commission of 24 members, an international advisory board, a Secretariat, and working groups. Members would include leading African policymakers, scientists and industrialized from a diverse intellectual background. Among the members would be some former president, representatives of the Economic Commission for Africa, regional trade blocs, and a leading African journalist. The working groups would undertake Development Needs Assessment (DNA), Technology Assessment (TA), assessment of national and region's scientific and technological status, build future 10, 25 and 50 years scenarios of Africa's technological status, assess public perceptions and responses to new technologies, evaluate international policy changes, and identify specific African responses.

The Commission and its working groups would deploy participatory policy development to arrive at their results/outputs. They would organize roundtables, conferences, public hearings, consultative sessions with leaders, media forums, and commission national, sub-regional and regional studies.


August 2001