NewAge (Nigeria)
February 17, 2005

At last, a lifeline for Africa

NGOZI NWOZOR reports that the Nelson Mandela Institute may just be what sub-Saharan Africa needs to catch up with the advanced world

The Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (AIST), which is expected to be operational in 2007, with enrolment to start by September of that year, is an independent centre of learning excellence being put together by a joint effort of the international community and Africans in diaspora. It has received tremendous support from African leaders and the business community. Former South African President, Dr. Nelson Mandela is the founder and first chair of the board of directors of the institution. The Nelson Mandela Institution for Knowledge Building and the Advancement of Science and Technology in sub-Saharan Africa, to give it its full name, is concerned about the widening gap in achievement in science and technology between sub-Saharan Africa and other regions of the world, which mirrors the woeful state of sub-Saharan Africans. The institute also said that it discovered that this gap is a result of the continuing deterioration of the tertiary institutions in sub-Saharan Africa, which is not helped by a growing demand by young, hungry minds of scientific infrastructure. This is worsened by lack of incentives and facilities for continuing education and research. In a revealing research, the institution stated that less than 2.5 per cent of civil servants in sub-Saharan Africa obtained higher education. To face this challenge will be the opening of centres of continuing education, which it is hoped, will strengthen capacity and improve the performance of public administration as poor governance and weak linkages among universities, government and industry were identified as part of the problem.

A comparison between Africa and Asia revealed that while research and development (R&D) resources in the former declined from 0.57 to 0.47 per cent of GAP between 1970 and 1997, it increased in the latter during the same period from 0.33 to 1.27. It is noteworthy and instructive that the AIST initiative was actually taken by Asia far back in 1959 when it created the Asian Institute of Technology. This was strengthened by the establishment of leading institutions of science and engineering by virtually all the countries in that continent among which is one of the worldÃs prestigious, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). These institutions put together produce over 10,000 world-class engineers every single year.

A frightening breakdown of figures worldwide reveals that the average number of scientists per million in sub-Saharan Africa is 83, in North Africa, 423, in developing countries, 514, in Latin America and the Caribbean, 339, in Asia (excluding Japan), 783 and in the industrial countries 1,102. In addition those that had received any form of tertiary education in SSA make less than 2.5 per cent of the total population while much less than that, 0.05 per cent had received tertiary technical education.

President of the World Bank, Mr James Wofensohn had declared that, ¦it was impossible to have a complete education without an appropriate and strong higher education system÷ you have to have centres of excellence and learning and training if you are going to advance was supported by Professor Abdus Salam, the 1979 Nobel Laureate in Physics who observed that ¦inadequate scientific infrastructure is a critical factor which creates strong barriers to the path of advancement in developing countries."

These points all formed the kernel of discussion by those that attended the inauguration and fund-raising for the AIST in Abuja between the 30th and 31st January where the Nigerian government, together with the Nigerian Economic Support Group (NESG), pledged a total of N8 billion which includes a 120 hectares of land within the federal capital territory.

According to the founding members of the eight-man board of the institution which has Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Finance Minister, there will be four AIST regional institutes to be distributed in the west, central, southern and eastern regions. No country has been mentioned yet but already Nigeria and South Africa are each leaving no stone unturned to see that their countries locate those of west and southern Africa respectively. The institution, NewAge learnt, will have what it described as two pillars: the AIST which will be a world-class institution based on the very successful model of the Indian IIT, the United Statesà leading institutions of excellence in science and engineering as well as other models of excellence around the world. The AISTÃs ultimate goal will be improvement in the living standards in sub-Saharan Africa through economic growth and diversification and increased productivity. The second pillar will be the sub-Saharan African Learning Network (SSALN), which will enhance broad-based knowledge creation, dissemination and flows across sub-Saharan African countries. While the AIST will promote excellence in higher education and research and development in science and engineering, the SSALNÃs objective is to build and strengthen human resources capacities through continuing education and the Africa Knowledge Forum. It will facilitate knowledge flow across SSA countries through a wider use of technologies across undergraduate, graduate and post graduate research will include computer science and engineering, civil and environmental engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical and acrospace engineering, agricultural and food engineering, materials science and engineering, architecture and construction, science of maintenance and conservation, biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics. All these will be believed by all the four regional institutes. At full capacity, the four will produce 5,000 world-class scientists and engineers every year.

Perhaps the most gladdening part is the fact that apart from the fact that the best teachers in the world will be drafted to impart the desired knowledge, there will be a competitive selection process to be administered annually the institute and while students will pay a token for operating cost, ¦no qualified student will be denied admission to the AIST due to inability to pay fees." This is because there is a provision for a separate fund that will give financial assistance, scholarships and even loans to needy students.

In addition the AIST and SSALN will be run through an endowment fund to be called Endowment Fund for Excellence (EFE) which will seek contributions from private and public sources worldwide. NewAge learnt that this ¦will mitigate the risks inherent in poor governance and unpredictability of resource flows, largely attributed to fiscal constraints given the narrow fiscal base in most SSAÃs low-income countries."

The EFE will also ensure that the institutions are less vulnerable to any one countryÃs political circumstances. This position was adopted after the practice in the US where earnings from endowments, to a great extent, cover operational expenses. The institute will equally enjoy the financial and technical support of the World Bank and the United Nations Development ProgrammeÃs (UNDP) Transfer of knowledge through expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN) through which NewAge learnt it will equally drawn on ¦the expertise of the over 30,000 African PhDs living outside of Africa."

For more information on AIST, please see: