War-torn central Africa is used to people moving across its borders. Mercenaries, UN peacekeepers, soldiers, refugees and aid groups are among the human traffic crossing the region. But this vast territory will soon have a new type of visitor, as a coordinator from the science initiative launched by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) is shortly expected to take up an important post.
NEPAD's broad aims are to build the social and economic development of the whole continent through collaboration on key areas of common interest, among which science and technology figure prominently. Representatives from a group of countries - most significantly South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Senegal - are at the heart of pushing plans forward.
The central Africa bloc (made up of Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda) presents a specific set of challenges. One of the key tasks will be to revive science and technology after the chaos of the war years.
"The emphasis in central Africa is on assisting science - and scientists - to recover from conflict. We want to focus on designing programmes that will reconstruct the science and technology infrastructure," says John Mugabe, the Pretoria-based Kenyan who is executive secretary of the NEPAD science and technology forum.
The region is still recovering from four bouts of violence: the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an attempted coup in Congo-Brazzaville, and ongoing rebel fighting, despite peace treaties, in Burundi. It's a fragile area, and vast too, stretching from the Atlantic coast hundreds of kilometres inland to landlocked, mountainous Rwanda and Burundi. The DRC alone covers an area of 342,000 square kilometres.
Science coordinators have already been selected for the north (Bassem El Emstiawi, vice-president of the National Research Council of Egypt), south (Aggrey Ambali from Malawi) and east (Mengistu Tsegaye of the Ethiopian Science and Technology Council). Appointments for the west and central areas are expected to be made by mid-April.
"We need to know exactly what the regional capacity is and what needs exist. The coordinator will therefore design a questionnaire, collect material from institutions and host a series of workshops," Mugabe explains. He emphasises that collecting this information is not just an intellectual exercise. The audit will be used to identify regional science projects to be launched in December this year.
Central African priorities are likely to include the rebuilding of infrastructure ruined by soldiers occupying laboratories and offices, who have even been seen joyriding in vehicles belonging to science institutes. Another task is to upgrade Internet, computer and telephone equipment. With poor landlines, many scientists rely on mobile phones or satellite phones, while downloading information from the Internet - if it's available at all - can take hours.
Mugabe feels there are significant differences between the needs of central Africa and the other regions. "While for example, agriculture is common to most countries' scientific needs, the nature of the scientific investment is going to vary across Africa. Infrastructure exists in a country like Kenya; it does not exist, or only to a limited degree, in a country like the DRC. Central Africa has a greater need for capacity building and skills mobilisation. Getting scientists to return to the region is going to be a big issue."
One topic to have triggered considerable, though so far informal, discussion is the lack of transboundary legislation to deal with the transport and use of genetically modified organisms. NEPAD is taking a lead on such transboundary issues both in terms of fostering cooperation and assisting in bilateral negotiations, as well as focusing on the specific goal of harmonising biotechnology and biosafety laws. A strategy on transboundary issues is evolving which will suggest specific ways of aligning legislation, with the long-term aim of creating a common Africa-wide biotechnology platform. Funding for the science coordinator posts is being split between Canada's International Development Research Centre and the governments within each region. Each bloc is being asked to raise the equivalent of US $300,000 to cover the costs of the initial needs assessments. - Scidev.net