Reflections on a week in Addis

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I am here to attend the annual conference and AGM of the African Technology Policy Studies Network (19-22 November 2012). Headquartered in Nairobi, led by Prof Kevin Urama, and managed by an all-African Secretariat, this must be the most significant network of African researchers that operates outside the formalities of one or other international multi-lateral institution. What a pleasure to be part of an all-African event where white faces are a rare sight. After our recent travels in Europe and Australia where we only attended (nearly) all-white events, this comes as a breath of fresh air. Not even the imploding emptiness of the giant mushroom we were sitting in could snuff out the tremendous energy and significance of this remarkable gathering.

Rippling through it all was the extra-ordinary dynamism of Kevin Urama: born in Nigeria, educated in Cambridge and now living in Nairobi, he is intensely engaged in every aspect – the power networking, coalition building, organisational details, vision-building, the great dinners he hosts, keeping the funders happy and cementing relationships with the AU. He always moves with speed in his crisp perfectly fitted dark lightweight suits, wastes little time when he has to deliver a report or mediate from the podium, and seems to sense every ripple and conflict, every shift in the intellectual weather pattern, as he crafts a strategic direction that marries international partnerships with an African network without losing that critical edge and academic rigour he values so much. Always warm, an engaging smile and without a hint of personal or financial indulgence (never drinks, always eats very little and only the healthiest food, never flirts), he relies on a core group of advisors and young African stuff who struggle to keep up with him. Oh how Africa so badly needs thousands more Kevin Uramas!

Although sustainability is the discourse that pervades everything ATPS does, the real focus is on the role of science, technology and innovation in shaping Africa’s future development trajectories. This agenda is attractive to funders, marks out a semi-autonomous role for intellectuals, goes beyond the tired old mantras of ‘good governance’ and attracts a network of people who can do with all the help they can to forge a space for science and innovation in societies that spin around the immediate gratifications of kleptomaniacal elites. When I pause to contemplate for a moment what the ATPS project in its context represents, what comes to mind is the biblical story of David and Goliath – can this flimsy slingshot of researchable truth really take on the conceptual behemoths that seem to legitimise failed development strategies and compromised governance? We have no choice, we can only try.

The keynote address was delivered by Prof. Osita Ogbu, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nigeria Nsukka. His talk was entitled The Fragility of Recent Africa’s Growth and the Opportunity for Creating Jobs through a New Technology and Industrial Policy. The basic argument is that the current boom is based on the sale of primary resources to support the industrialisation of other countries, and will not last. What is needed, therefore, are for African governments to develop industrial policies. Although there were industrial policies in the 1960s in Africa, there was a long period when African governments are advised to scrap them. However, there is a new appreciation for the significance of industrial policy. This is an opportunity. Africa needs an industrialisation programme that can be catalysed by industrial policy. These policies should position the state as a key player in capacity building, stimulating innovation and mobilisation of capital. The appropriate set of incentives and regulations are needed to make this all happen. Various global conditions favour this, especially the rising costs of production in China. Unfortunately, despite referring to Rio + 20, he never mentioned sustainable development once, nor did he refer to the theme of the conference which is about a transition to low carbon development. The result is the unintended consequence of once again holding up for Africa a model of industrialisation developed elsewhere (Asian Tigers) for a very different context at a very different time (cold war, relocation of industries to low wage zones, etc). I am pretty sure this is not his intent, but this was the upshot.

Fortunately, Prof Mytelka from UNU-MERIT (Maastricht) did talk directly about energy transtions, innovations and development. Her starting point is that an energy transition is not happening anywhere – I’m not sure about that. Unfortunately, her case study was biofuels from jatropha in Mali presented in a way that was not at all convincing. This kind of talk discredits the sustainability discourse in an audience like this one.

However, after lunch, we had a session that included a pro-GM talk without a counter-point because the speaker from India who was going to provide this fell ill and could not attend. The result was a session that caused a lot of unhappiness in the audience expressed during question time but repeatedly over the following days. A Professor from South Africa’s Fort Hare University who attended an ATPS event for the first time said that this session left him with a very negative view of what is going on at this conference.

Prof Chris Leaver from Oxford delivered an unapologetic and unqualified PR presentation for GM as the solution to food insecurity. What offended me was not his argument per se, but his failure to point out that his views are contested – especially in light heightening conflict over the publication by Seralini et al on the negative health impacts of GM maize, including many references in these debates reported in the popular press to the role of fear in suppressing dissident views on GM. He did not refer to the articles in peer-reviewed journals that confirm negative health effects: at least he could have referred to de Vendomois et al in the International Journal of Biological Sciences (2009) or the article published this year in Food and Chemical Toxicology by Seralini on the cancer-inducing effects of Monsanto’s NK603 maize. More seriously, he did not refer at all to the political consequences of handing over control of the world’s seed supply to a few giant global multinationals like Monsanto, etc. And yet, he ended by calling for multi-stakeholder participation and debate. Truth-seeking and consensus through debate is only possible if academics follow the rules of scientific engagement, namely consideration of all viewpoints and testability of underlying assumptions. It is questionable whether Prof Leaver has adhered to these rules in the way he presented his views at this conference. To make matters worse he ended up by suggesting that Africans that are opposed to GM are thinking wrongly because of what they are told by Northern NGOs – this is tantamount to suggesting that Africans cannot think for ourselves, cannot weigh up the evidence ourselves and cannot, therefore, decide for ourselves what is in our best interests. I think it would have been acceptable if he would have just said that he is talking as a protagonist and not as an academic – then the academic rules to respect the principle of decent doubt can be suspended.

On the second day, I participated in a parallel session that addressed the question of low carbon transitions – this for a continent that is already low carbon (except for SA), but poor. We agreed, the African discourse is not about a transition to low carbon development, but how to remain low carbon (except for SA) while eradicating poverty. Other parallel sessions addressed governance of science, technology and innovation; youth and development; food security; and research.

By far the most interesting day was the fourth day. The day was facilitated by Prof Vincent Anigbogu and the focus was on appropriate modes of leadership and organization required to build the so-called National Chapters of the ATPS – there are about 30 altogether. Anigbogu spent around 20 years in the USA as a Professor of Chemistry. However, a few years ago he decided to give this all up and return to Nigeria where he was born to launch a leadership movement aimed at completely redefining what leadership in Africa means. Inspired by readings on leadership and organizational change, he decided that Africa will only resolve its problems if a completely new conception of leadership and institution building is put in place. Offering much of his time for free, he has developed a course that introduces participants to many of the key concepts of contemporary effective leadership: vision building, goal setting, team building, self-discipline, ethical conduct, institution building, mobilising others and above all else for Anigbogu,  passion. Although he used a leadership video, some power points and facilitated discussion, the most remarkable moment was when he read out extracts from a short essay by a Zambian professional who finds himself sitting next to an IMF official on a flight to Boston.

The IMF official does not mince his words when criticizing the lazy irresponsible ways of Africa’s professionals. Extremely provocative, this essay laid out in uncompromising ways what was wrong with Africa’s intellectual class. By blaming them and not the toiling masses who work long hours for very little to survive, this essay punched deep and hard, leaving most reeling and breathless. As one old Prof commented at the end waving his arm across the room: “Some of you might not think so, but this is the truth; these are the facts that you cannot deny.” I was completely stunned. I looked at Anigbogu and thought to myself: ‘no-one else can pull this off’ – he has all that is needed to give him the moral authority to speak truth to power: he is not only an ‘African Elder’, but he has had a successful academic career in the USA,  he has avoided the many small corruptions needed to survive on the continent, he has extra-ordinary passion and an ability to articulate himself in poetic terms, and this is not his ‘business’ – he does this for free, as a ‘contribution’ to rebuilding Africa. Remarkable.

I think what struck me is how few in the room had ever been exposed to any of these basic conceptions of leadership and organizational development. These were the techniques that helped stitch together the South African transition to democracy – so for me, this was old hat. But suddenly I realised how much I take all this for granted, and as a result, I have failed to appreciate the consequences of not being exposed to this world. How can one understand the problems in Africa’s institutions without the language provided by leadership studies and the organizational development movement? How can one think of alternatives if one does not have the language of agency that leadership theory provides, and the language of institution-building that organizational development theory provides? Facilitating organizational change has become a huge industry in South Africa, with entire consulting companies that do little else and thousands of venues that earn an income from the events they host. I came away from this event convinced that unless African countries experience what South Africa has experienced with respect to leadership and organizational change, there is very little hope for the future. This is a huge opportunity, and clearly the ATPS can play a key role as a major change agent.