Engage with Africa

Europe’s research policy towards the continent needs to be more tailored, and Africans need a stronger voice in it, says Mariella di Ciommo.

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      Jean-Claude Juncker, outgoing Commission president, has called Africa Europe’s “twin continent”, this reflects both its growing importance to the EU increasing international competition for influence, with the risk that African countries will prioritise other relationships, particularly with China.

      Despite this, Africa has gone largely unmentioned in discussions about EU research and innovation policy, and features in no significant way in the proposal for Horizon Europe, the next Framework programme. This blind spot needs to be remedied, and swiftly.

      As of January 2019, more than 90 per cent of the budget of Horizon 2020, the current Framework programme, had been spent in Europe. Countries associated to the programme received almost 8 per cent, leaving just 2 per cent for the rest of the world, including Africa.

      This is still a valuable resource. Of that 2 per cent, 41 per cent—€94.3 million—went to African nations. South Africa is by far the biggest beneficiary, but Kenya received more than Brazil, and Burkina Faso more than Argentina.

      Speaking to people working in research and innovation in Africa, my colleagues and I have found that the EU is a valued partner. Money certainly matters, but the width of its network, the excellence of European research and its multiple languages and cultures are also important.

      Africans do not necessarily object to EU research funds being used to support a political or economic agenda, but they would like this to be more explicit. In an unequal world, a narrative of equal partnerships can be patronising.

      EU-Africa research collaboration takes place on multiple fronts, including the framework programmes and development cooperation. Africa is a major recipient of EU aid on research and innovation, run from the Commission’s directorate-general for international cooperation and development. This DG, however, lacks an internal R&D strategy, and its actions are often fragmented.

      The high level of competition, administrative complexity and fragmentation of EU funding programmes is a bar to deeper collaboration. African researchers and policymakers would like EU research funding to be nimbler and simpler, and to better support innovation and small and medium-sized businesses.

      Africa also faces internal barriers. Despite the warm words in the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024, research and innovation remain a low priority for most African governments. Research capacities, agendas, infrastructure and commitment vary widely, commitment by members of the African Union to spend 1 per cent of GDP on R&D remains unmet.

      Commitment and vision

      Low and middle-income African countries will still be eligible for funding under Horizon Europe. What’s missing is a narrative for collaboration. This contrasts with the emphasis on emerging powers, and the proposal to extend associate status to any country in the world with satisfactory science, technology and innovation capacities. This opportunity is currently available only to EU neighbours.

      Future research collaboration with African countries should be more tailored. It needs to be innovation-led and more demand-driven. African innovation, research agendas and excellent science should be given greater weight, along with a continued focus on developing research capacity.

      Success needs commitment and vision from the new Commission, adequate resources from the EU budget, and a plan to use them effectively. The EU’s senior leadership could give more incentives for a deeper relationship between European and African institutions on research and innovation.

      One indicator of the EU’s intentions will be whether it updates its policy on international collaboration in research and inn=ovation. This dates to 2012, and is arguably due an update.

      Development and global challenges are increasingly important drivers of research policy, with Agenda 2030 and the Paris agreement on climate change providing the two major international frameworks for sustainable development.

      Ultimately, Africans must articulate their vision of how research and innovation can contribute to a thriving Africa. At present, this discussion is too confined to EU delegations in third countries and headquarters, and the circles with which they are familiar. African academics, innovators, civil society and policy research bodies need to be brought in during programming.

      African countries should be looked at not just as communities with major challenges in sustainable development, but as creative and innovative nations.

      This blog was first published on Research Europe. The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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