Six African Nations Build a Vision for Regional Prosperity Powered by Science and Science Education
KIGALI, Rwanda—With their economies gaining strength and their governments looking to build sustainable long-term development, East African science leaders agreed to expand their promising collaboration in science and science education to advance economic and human development in their region.
At a landmark meeting organized by the Rwandan Ministry of Education and AAAS, leaders from the East African nations of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo, pledged to establish a permanent forum that will allow their science ministers to align and harmonize their efforts to expand the region’s science capacity.
But underlying the agreement is a strategic vision for the future of six nations that span from the Indian Ocean west to the Atlantic, with a population of 200 million. Education will be crucial. So will efforts to bring women into science and engineering, beginning at an early age. Science and education leaders at the conference said that by integrating their efforts—by pooling expertise, schools, laboratories, and information—the nations will be better equipped to address profound, longstanding challenges such as hunger, infectious disease, and environmental degradation.
“The integration spirit in the region is very high,” said Charles Murigande, Rwanda’s minister of education. “The objective of this conference was to bring us together. We did not want to come together once and end it there, and so I expected a commitment that we should continue to meet and exchange ideas on how we can promote science and technology.”
The establishment of a ministers’ forum provides a crucial opportunity for harmonizing science and education goals and policies in the region, said AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner, who led a delegation to the conference.
“This is a very important and promising development,” said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science. “If we’re going to be able to work for the betterment of humankind on a global scale, the scientific community has to be able to function as a global community in and of itself.”
The conference, held 8-9 December 2010 in Rwanda’s bustling capital city, reflected the energy and optimism of a region that is beginning to emerge from the chronic poverty, political instability, and global indifference that have often tarnished the prospects for development since Independence. The progress thus far is uneven and significant challenges remain. But the conference offered a candid assessment of challenges and a collegial recognition that the nations may be stronger if they work together to address issues that transcend borders.
“The key issue is quite straightforward: Our continent has reached the milestone of 1 billion people,” said Boukary Savadogo, division manager for education, science, and technology at the African Development Bank. “These 1 billion brains constitute a tremendous resource that can be tapped for the purposes of development of our continent…. To unlock the potential in these 1 billion brains, we need education, we need science, we need technology, and we need innovation.”
The issues confronting East Africa, spelled out in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, have long seemed intractable. Hunger, a lack of clean water, environmental stress, and infectious diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS are interconnected, and they affect tens of millions of people in East Africa alone. The impact goes beyond the region to the African continent and the world beyond.
None of the six nations, alone, has the scientists, labs, or schools to address the challenges effectively, Murigande said. And yet he and others at the conference appear committed to taking them on together. Romain Murenzi, formerly science and education minister in the administration of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, embraces an approach that is both pragmatic and systematic.
“To address these issues, knowledge is very, very important,” said Murenzi, now director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Sustainable Development. “And each of the challenges we face corresponds to opportunities for the future.”
Building Sustainable S&T Relationships
Murenzi and others see harmonization as a critical step for supporting science and regional integration. How to do that—how to have the science and engineering communities from six nations singing in the same key—was a central topic of the two-day conference.
The conference represented a deepening engagement between AAAS and the African science community. It attracted about 60 influential science leaders—government science and education ministers, leaders of national science organizations, and university rectors, along with top officials from the African Development Bank and UNESCO. W. Stuart Symington, the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, also spoke at the event. About 40 African undergraduate and graduate students were invited to present research posters and sit in on the discussions.
In addition to Leshner and Murenzi, the AAAS delegation included:
Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS Education and Human Resources; Vaughan Turekian, AAAS chief international officer and director of the Center for Science Diplomacy; Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061, AAAS’s pioneering science literacy initiative; and Maxmillian Angerholzer III, executive director of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation. The conference was supported by Lounsbery and the William T. Golden Endowment Fund for Program Innovation.
“This dialogue that took place at the conference is the perfect example of how science, technology, and education can help build relationships between partners from different nations,” Angerholzer said. “That’s an important goal for Lounsbery. The best way for these countries to move forward with building science and technology infrastructure is to do it together—to do it as partners.”
Also attending from the United States were Sara E. Farley, chief operating officer of the Global Knowledge Initiative, and V.S. Subrahmanian, director of the Center for Digital International Government and co-director of the Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics at the University of Maryland.
During the five-day visit to Rwanda, Leshner and others in the AAAS delegation met for an hour with Kagame, where discussion focused on the nation’s investment in science, technology, and education to propel development. Roseman provided Rwandan education officials with a collection of Project 2061 science education resources; at Rwanda’s National Curriculum Development Centre, she met with top administrators and about 40 staff and made an introductory two-hour presentation on using the resources effectively.
In addition, the AAAS delegation visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre and placed flowers on a mass grave for some of the 800,000 Rwandans who died in the nation’s 1994 genocide. They also met with staff from the Karisoke Research Centre founded by the late zoologist Dian Fossey, known for her long efforts to understand and protect the dwindling population of mountain gorillas.
AAAS has had continual engagement with Rwanda since 2007, when Nobel Laureate David Baltimore visited during his term as AAAS president. A few months later, Kagame delivered a plenary address at the 2008 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston. Malcom and Turekian were part of a delegation that visited Rwanda in late 2008, and Malcom returned in 2009 to attend a science policy meeting.
This year’s conference, “Regional Integration and Human Resources Development in S&T Fields,” was the centerpiece of the AAAS delegation’s visit. It was a follow-up to a December 2009 meeting that brought a half-dozen East African leaders to AAAS headquarters for a discussion of science and science education.
Science as a Strategy for Prosperity and Peace
In the past, regional disputes, internal strife, poor leadership, and the dynamics of the Cold War all created pressures to drive the six nations apart. Poverty, especially, has been a relentless brake on progress: Average per capita income in the nations is under $500 a year. While the world’s leading developed nations invest as much as 3% or more of their gross domestic product in research and development, the investment by most African nations is well under 1%.
In recent decades, however, a nightmarish series of conflicts has profoundly aggravated the conditions of poverty and instability.
Under Idi Amin Dada in the 1970s, as many as a half-million Ugandans lost their lives in a climate of repression and human rights abuses. In Rwanda, genocide in 1994 killed an estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus; the nation’s workforce was decimated and its economy, already one of the poorest in the world, was shattered.
Burundi endured 12 years of civil war that ended in 2005. Kenya had experienced an era of political stability, but contested election results in 2007 sparked a wave of political and ethnic violence that left an estimated 800 people dead and as many as 600,000 displaced.
And the Democratic Republic of Congo has since 1998 been the battleground for one of the most deadly wars in human history. Though peace accords were signed in 2003, armed anti-government militias are continuing the fight. Hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of the conflict, often from disease and famine. By some estimates, 200,000 women have been raped by the militias.
Today, threats continue and the peace remains fragile, but the overall regional climate has improved. Several of the East African countries, acting individually, have embraced a vision in which S&T are crucial for the future. Kenya has a blueprint for science, technology, and communication development in its Kenya 2030 plan. Rwanda’s 2020 Vision development framework sets transformation to a knowledge-based economy as a key goal.
And in 1999, five nations joined to form the East African Community, which has been an important guide to regional integration and emerging S&T cooperation.
In the span of a decade, Rwanda has emerged as a global role model for nations that want to use science, technology, and education to aid recovery and drive development. The government has pressed forward with comprehensive plans that stress self-reliance and eschew traditional foreign aid. That has brought increasing interest from investors and innovative non-governmental organizations.
And it has brought results: Productivity gains in Rwandan agriculture have turned the nation from a food importer to a food exporter. The number of people with access to improved sanitation facilities has risen sharply. The mortality rate for children under 5 has been cut by more than half; average life expectancy in the nation is rising steadily. Some 95% of elementary school-aged children—2.4 million in all—are now enrolled in classes; the literacy rate has risen to 70%, up from 58% in 1991, the World Bank reports. A nationwide fiber-optic network is being laid to connect centers of health, education, science, business, and government—and to connect Rwanda with neighboring countries.
Rwanda’s economy grew a stunning 11.8% in 2008, and continued at 6% in 2009 despite the global economic crisis. Government officials forecast 7% growth for 2010.
Such growth far outpaces the rate in the United States and Western Europe. And it is not just limited to Rwanda—according to World Bank reports, it is a regional phenomenon. Burundi’s growth rate was only 0.9% in 2005; between 2006 and 2009, it averaged 4.2%. In Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, growth was 6% or more before slumping as a result of the worldwide financial crisis; Tanzania averaged growth of 7.2% from 2005 through 2008.
In Uganda, growth averaged 8.6% from 2005 through 2008—and the pace has hardly been slowed by the recession.
“Harmonizing” Nations Through Science
Even so, the economic growth has only begun to address poverty and other regional problems. Here’s one measure: According to the latest World Bank figures, the poverty rate among Rwanda’s 10 million people remained at 56.9% in 2006, an improvement on the 60.3% rate in 2000.
Shaukat Abdulrazak, Executive Secretary of the Kenya National Council for Science and Technology, offered others: Some 925 million people in the world are critically hungry—239 million of them, or 30%, are Africans. Globally, there are nearly 10 physicians for every 10,000 people; in Africa, there are two doctors per 10,000 people, with one doctor per 10,000 people in Kenya and Uganda. In Rwanda, there is only one doctor for every 20,000 people. Nearly 75% of the population Sub-Saharan Africa has no access to electricity.
For science leaders at the Kigali conference, such numbers tell of an urgent need to bring science and science education to bear in ways that will directly improve people’s lives.
“It’s high time we think of a systems approach, a holistic approach,” Abdulrazak said.
Murenzi offered a similar perspective: Less than 1% of the population in the region—about 2 million people—has a college degree, and only a fraction of those degrees are in science or engineering. “Regional integration is therefore critical to efficiently use this scarce resource,” he said. “Having a science and technology policy for each country is not a luxury we can afford.”
“There is a very strong relation between science and technology on the one hand and regional integration on the other hand,” added Joseph Massaquoi, director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science in Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya. “Science and technology can facilitate the process of regional integration by providing knowledge and skills for the joint exploration of shared resources, such as natural resources, the rich biodiversity of the region’s rainforests, and shared aquifers, lakes, and rivers.”
Indeed, speakers said, such cooperative efforts already are underway in a range of areas, including teacher training, energy development, and biodiversity management. The long-term, however, will require a deeper integration to connect the nations of the region, and to connect the region with the world.
“We need global codes of conduct, scientific norms and values, principles of scientific ethics, integrity, and peer-review systems that are common around the world,” explained Leshner. “We need these commonalities so that researchers can work with each other with confidence and comfort.”
Four Key Areas for Regional Collaboration
Four areas emerged at the Kigali conference as crucial for building a strong foundation to support the region’s science capacity:
Education. Conference organizers structured the events to emphasize the importance of education, and participants suggested that no issue is more important to the region’s expanding science power.
Even before the conference formally opened, Leshner met with Murigande to present science learning resources from AAAS’s Project 2061. Roseman, Murenzi, and Malcom met with Rwanda’s curriculum development staff to summarize the materials, and officials from Rwanda and other nations at the conference indicated that they would ask Roseman to return for a more extensive briefing.
As the conference opened on the night of 8 December, nearly 40 university students from the six nations presented research posters to an audience that included many of the conference organizers and participants.
Soter Ndihokubwayo, a student at the Université de Burundi, discussed his research on underground water resources in the Rusizi River basin, explaining that the work could have applications in agriculture and assessing climate change. Ingrid Kasende Tshituta from the Université de Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo discussed the use of data mining to support more effective treatment for arterial hypertension. Celestine Gashayija from the Higher Institute for Agriculture and Animal Husbandry in Rwanda discussed the effect of supplementary irrigation on Rwandan maize crops. And Terese Umuhoza from the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) presented her research on laboratory surveillance of avian influenza in Rwandan poultry.
Certainly, science and engineering programs at some East African universities are growing stronger, and more students are interested. Sibry Tapsoba, head of the African Development Institute (which focuses on capacity development for the African Development Bank), noted that students from throughout Africa are enrolling at Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salaam to study water resources. At Umutara Polytechnic in Rwanda, enrollment has grown from about 500 students a few years ago to nearly 4000 today.
But a number of speakers suggested that more must be done to build bonds between universities and scholars in the region.
UNESCO’s regional bureau for science and technology hosts and supports a network of African science teachers, which pulls together training and resources from 125 colleges and universities in the region. Massaquoi said UNESCO has trained over 100 young staff who have gone back to their home countries to teach in universities.
Under programs designed to increase the mobility of scientists, he said, “weaker institutions can benefit from the resources of stronger institutions for the purpose of research and the purpose of training scientists.”
Both Murigande and Savadogo, from the African Development Bank, stressed the importance of building regional centers of excellence, focused on specific fields and distributed through the region. The benefit, according to Murigande, is that the centers allow for an efficient use of limited resources and create cross-border research networks.
Removing Gender Barriers. Science leaders made the point repeatedly during the conference: No educational system will be fully effective at supporting science capacity unless there are ambitious efforts to bring women into science and engineering studies.
As in the developed world, speakers said, Africa needs to find and nurture all of its science talent. That was a key message delivered by AAAS’s Shirley Malcom, who has traveled extensively in Africa to discuss education issues. She stressed the need for recruitment of women, plus mentoring and other programs that address cultural traditions that still hold women back from science education and careers. Women must be trained for leadership, she said.
Just as important is the need to demonstrate why it is important to bring African women into S&T fields. “We have not made the best case for women in science,” Malcom said. “We haven’t made the case for the economic impact of women in science.”
Already, speakers said, some East African nations are making a dramatic commitment:
In Kenya and Uganda, one-third of university enrollment in science and engineering must go to women. In Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology has a pool of research grants available only to women.
Mabel Imbuga, the university’s vice chancellor, said women now comprise 35% of enrollees in agriculture, engineering and technology fields, up from 29% in 2006.
Such efforts help develop new research talent, but Malcom and others noted an important cultural effect, as well. When women receive a strong education in science and health, that knowledge is passed from women to their children, whether in better health care or a more scientific world-view.
“The importance of a woman to the family, the importance of the woman on the child, from the day it is born—this is what makes somebody a scientist, or someone who is not a scientist,” said Ugandan Trade Minister Nelson G. Gagawala.
Symington, the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, offered a similar message in a moving story that focused on his mother, who had a long and productive career in science. “Don’t talk about women in science,” he told the audience. “Rather, make it clear to every young girl that the world will be made better if women play a role in understanding those principles that unite us, and work to make sure that that unity of principles, and research, and ideas brings us together around the world.”
Collecting and Sharing Data. Data can help define a region—it can help a region to see and understand itself. If a nation wants to improve science education, or the engagement of women in science, or public health, data are essential for making investments or measuring progress.
“Monitoring results—this itself should be a joint activity,” said Tapsoba. “You can’t manage it if you can’t measure it.”
But for much of Africa today, including the nations represented at the conference, such data are lacking. In Tapsoba’s view, the lack of information has a direct bearing on collaboration and economic development. For example, he said, there are resources for financing science and technology in Africa, but because researchers, institutions, and ministries may not be aware of them, opportunities for public-private partnerships often go unexplored and untapped.
To address this problem, he said, the African Development Bank has strategies targeting knowledge development and management to support higher education and development of science capacity.
V.S. Subrahmanian, the University of Maryland computer scientist, agreed that the lack of data is a barrier to development in East Africa. He urged development of “Africa-focused, innovative data surveillance paradigms.” [See Subrahmanian’s presentation slides.]
Subrahmanian, working with Murenzi and other colleagues at the University of Maryland, is developing a range of databases with broad practical potential. One tracks infectious diseases. Another uses data collected from mobile phones to study health, nutrition, and the impact of information and communication technologies.
A third data-mining project—the new World-Wide Information System for Education, or WISE—uses the most detailed databases kept by the UNESCO, the World Bank, and other authoritative sources to collect and assess over 4000 education-related variables—from economic and health statistics to test scores—in over 200 countries. From that, users can direct WISE to find data and distill highly detailed analyses on education for individual nations.
As the program develops, WISE may also be able to use the data to make forecasts about how to improve education. “WISE is intended to help policymakers consider options they may not have thought out,” Subrahmanian said.
Sara Farley of the Global Knowledge Initiative, cited a related issue: African policymakers often don’t have a full picture of the resources available in their nations, and so they can’t easily assess how to deploy their resources or identify circumstances in which efforts should be made to access resources available elsewhere. The point was underscored recently when some 300 African higher education and agricultural ministers and other officials gathered in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, for a forum on development.
“You saw that one of the major problems facing regional plans and planners is that there is an utter dearth of information on existing numbers and competencies” within science and technology fields, Farley said. [See Farley’s presentation slides.]
To be sure, some African leaders have already begun to answer the challenge. Farley noted that Uganda now has an annual report on the state of science and technology in the country. The New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), a program of the African Union, has an initiative for developing science and innovation indicators.
Farley suggested that African nations and regions take an inventory of their resources. “This entails significant benchmarking—what science, technology and innovation resources exist and what the needs are,” she said. “Conducting a resource stock-taking will allow us to go from an unclear context for resource-sharing to a more clarified ecosystem for action.”
Building the Practice of Collaboration. Taking that inventory of resources lays a foundation for regional collaboration. But where mistrust and conflict have shaped relationships over many decades, collaboration may not come easily. The habits have not been established, and mechanisms are lacking. In many impoverished nations, Farley said, scholars who share common interests may not even be aware of each other.
In her presentation at the conference, Farley emphasized that a range of new tools are available for building networks and supporting a culture of collaboration. Facebook and Twitter provide platforms for engagement; more specialized platforms like Scientists Without Borders and InnoCentive can build networks that address general or even very specific challenges.
“We Need Action”
In the climate of optimism, candor, and creative ferment at the Kigali conference, many ideas emerged for building regional cooperation and research strength. Charles Kitwanga, deputy minister in Tanzania’s Ministry of Communication, Science, and Technology, won applause when he called on nations in the region to invest 1% of gross domestic product in research and development.
Other speakers proposed forming a regional association of scientists and engineers. Students informally discussed forming an organization that could create long-term networks and engage with governments and professional societies. Some speakers urged more training for science teachers.
Murigande, Rwanda’s minister of education, said after the meeting that the new forum of science ministers from the region could work initially to create interaction between research centers and scientists from the region. Developing an inventory of the work being done at research centers “would allow scientists to start interacting with their colleagues in the region,” he said. “Then we will see how our centers can start building relationships with other centers so that we can learn from each other.”
In the meantime, Murigande said, AAAS could serve as a mentor to the East African effort, giving the developing nations insight about standards of research excellence and access to networks of top scientists in various fields.
In many respects, however, the meeting was not about specific solutions. Rather, it was about developing a new mindset.
“We live in a time and place where no single nation can solve all of the challenges we face,” said Peter Ndemere, executive secretary of the Uganda National Commission for Science and Technology. “International cooperation makes science better…. International science cooperation is going to become the norm and not the exception.”
Leshner, the AAAS delegation leader, called the conference a “landmark” for Africa and other parts of the world. “Each of us should walk out of this room with a commitment to integrate, to harmonize the global science community,” Leshner said. “That should be our homework assignment—it’s critically important to our job, which is to advance the betterment of humankind all over the world.”
“Cooperating across borders to improve the lives of people and drive prosperity represents one of the greatest goals of our scientific and education enterprise,” added Vaughan Turekian, the AAAS chief international officer. “We have to seize on this opportunity through sustained action.”
Young scientists will be crucial to that effort, Turekian said, and he issued a friendly challenge to the students selected from six nations to attend the conference. “You have now been with each other for a full day,” he said. “When this is over and you’re back at home, take the time to email each other. Begin to break down the walls and barriers that have kept earlier generations apart. Take the connections that you have begun here today and build on them—make relationships that can branch out and endure through time.”
African leaders, too, joined in the call to sustain the momentum created at the conference.
Said Ndemere: “Now that we know what the barriers are and what’s needed to remove them, what we need now is to do it.”
“We need to address the issues that have been brought forward,” added Gagawala, the Ugandan minister of trade. “We need action. We need action in real time.”
See a related story in AAAS News & Notes, in the 26 December 2010 issue of Science.
Read about a December 2009 meeting of East African science and technology leaders at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Listen to a podcast with Romain Murenzi, an architect of Rwanda’s acclaimed science-for-development strategy, who now serves as director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Sustainable Development.