Africa is without doubt the continent with the greatest scientific gap. But why should we be concerned? Why should we develop space projects with Africa when so many Africans need clean water? Why should we train African physicists and mathematicians when so many Africans can’t read? The answer is simply because advanced science and technology gives Africa the tools and skills to attack poverty, drought, famine, water shortages and diseases.
How can you improve drinking water quality, whose contamination is at the root of 80% of diseases and a third of deaths? By applying innovative technologies. How can you support African countries to fight deforestation?
By using satellite imagery to map and measure desertification, to plan sustainable farming and forestry, and to ensure food and water security.
The turning point which put science at the centre of the agenda of Africa-EU relations was the agreement of the Africa-EU Strategic Partnership in Lisbon in December 2007.
This broke away from the traditional concentration on development issues to create a wider political dialogue based on 8 specific partnerships covering many issues.
This new approach embraces science, information society and space in one such partnership. But science has an important role to play in delivering results in the other 7 specific partnerships, such as those on climate change, energy, and the Millennium Development Goals.
Recognition of the crucial role of science also reached the level of G8 ministers in June, when the first gathering of G8 science ministers put science in Africa at the top of their agenda.
Now we must move from recognition to results. That is why we, the Commissioners for Science and Research of the African Union and European Union have signed on 1st of October a Joint Statement setting out our agreement on areas for common action in science, information and communications technologies and space.
This was done in the context of a joint meeting of the commissioners of the European and African Commissions in Brussels.
The statement we have agreed on is our commitment to work together on 19 projects which correspond to African needs. On 6 of these we agree to deliver in the short term.
For example, in one project European and African researchers will work together to ensure sustainable management of land, water and food resources in fragile environments, such as the Nile basin.
This will make sure that the right technologies and the right skills are there to mitigate the effects of climate change and demographic change.
Another project will tackle deforestation; forests are a major source of income, but are also vital to our planet’s climate system and its biodiversity, as well as being home to millions of indigenous peoples.
Balancing these social, economic and global issues requires a horizontal approach involving satellites, trained scientists, development of dedicated institutions and a common voice in global change debates. This is the approach being actively pursued by African and European partners.
Of course we are not starting from scratch. The European Union is supporting African research with funding from the 7th Research Framework Programme (FP7), the European Development Fund and other programmes.
But in the face of immense common challenges, these efforts must be more closely concentrated on those challenges, and our actions must be coherent across whole regions, or indeed the whole continent.
And the vision of this new partnership is the one of working with Africa and not only for Africa towards our mutual interest.
Our two continents are made up of many individual states: 27 in the EU and 52 in the AU. Indeed the Strategic Partnership agreed at Lisbon was not only between the two Commissions, it was between the African Union and the European Union.
Our common task as commissioners is therefore to build support amongst the member states of our respective continents for the priorities we have identified. And to make sure that our support for these is delivered in a coordinated and coherent way.
In partnership we can make science central part of the solution to Africa’s development challenges. That is exactly where it belongs. And we have no time to lose.
Janez Potočnik is the EU Commissioner to Science and Research while Pr. Jean-Pierre Ezin, is the African Union Commissioner for Human resources, Science and Technology .