West Africa is known for its diversity: from the island nation of Cabo Verde deep in the Atlantic, to the regional giant of Nigeria. One might expect a region of barriers, at least in terms of language and logistics. Yet our latest ‘DEIP’ workshop demonstrated clear and consistent engagement among a dozen West African nations — testament to regional partnerships built up in recent years at government and senior policy officer levels.
‘DEIP Africa II’ was held in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, from 25-29 September 2017 — the second in a series of workshops co-hosted by UNU-MERIT and the African Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation (AOSTI). The first event, held in Nairobi in October 2014, targeted members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); so this workshop focused on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The event was held at the Ivorian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and opened by Ms. Tahiri Annick Yamousso, representative of the Ministry and Director of Valorisation of Research and Technological Innovation. Overall, the workshop featured delegates from 12 (out of 15) ECOWAS states: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo; (the missing countries being Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone).
According to a recent report by UNESCO, many of these states are aiming to become upper middle income countries by 2030. These plans are ambitious, given the many recent crises in the region: a civil war in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011; the Tuareg rebellion in Mali in 2012; a military coup in Guinea-Bissau in 2012; a popular revolt in Burkina Faso in 2014; the Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone of 2014; the Boko Haram insurgency in Niger and Nigeria, particularly in 2015; and the constitutional crisis in the Gambia in 2016. Yet, in overcoming these crises, they have consolidated their development by reinforcing their regional partnerships.
ECOWAS set out its development plans in 2011 in a document entitled ‘Vision 2020’. This focuses among other things on the incorporation of modern technology in agriculture; improvements to social infrastructure such as water, sanitation and electricity; and speeding up the penetration of internet connectivity. These challenges directly or indirectly involve a strengthening of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy.
Moreover, these countries share many features in terms of economic structure. For example, they rely rather heavily on natural resource based activities, both in agricultural products as well as minerals; they are relatively small in size and so have limited market scalability (with the exception of Nigeria); and they have a large proportion of labour in agriculture or the informal sector.
DEIP Africa II was therefore well in line with the ECOWAS policy on Science and Technology known as ‘ECOPOST’, particularly in terms of monitoring progress. At the workshop, the country presentations demonstrated several common challenges: great diversity in level of progress in STI policy; ‘embryonic’ innovation policies for all countries and even science and technology policies for some countries; plus the absence of private sectors (i.e. very limited commercialisation of scientific research and an informal sector largely untouched by STI policies).
Finally, it is worth noting that ECOWAS is composed of countries with various historic influences, i.e. English, French and Portuguese. This made the logistics, including flight connections, a little challenging. Nonetheless, ECOWAS is quite active in implementing free mobility of people within the region, issuing a common ID and tax system to encourage integration. This bodes well for the future — not only for science, technology and innovation, but also for the region’s overall development.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.