Science diplomacy has three different faces: science in diplomacy (using science as a diplomatic instrument in foreign policy); diplomacy for science (diplomacy seen as a way to establish scientific collaboration in the international realm); and science for diplomacy (where scientific cooperation can help improve international affairs).
Although it is not a new phenomenon in developed countries, science diplomacy is crucial for Africa because of the continent’s overwhelming social, cultural and economic inequalities. Together with underdevelopment, 29 out of 55 African countries are suffering from ongoing wars, armed conflicts or skirmishes that adversely affect the quality of higher education they can offer.
On the whole, traditional diplomacy has had significant success in peacekeeping and peacemaking, but more could be done, especially in Africa. In addition to shuttle and cultural diplomacy, science diplomacy could play its part in helping Africa be better educated and, in turn, more peaceful.
Since the 1960s, developed nations have recognised the part science diplomacy can play and its positive effect on society generally. But how could it be reformed so that it plays a crucial role in African higher education in the near future?
Revisiting science diplomacy
With its all-encompassing characteristics, science diplomacy represents a unique opportunity to promote scientific research collaboration, to enable academics from different countries to get to know each other better, to foster a culture of co-existence and to create alternative communication channels.
Especially in risky times when bilateral and multilateral relations are being disrupted around the globe, academics can work on a scientific study or project-based activity in which their respective national interests meet. Science diplomacy can be useful in drawing attention to rationality as opposed to ideas fuelled by prejudice and misperception, encouraging the different parties to focus on shared values or points instead of on their differences.
In such circumstances, a science diplomacy action plan needs to be responsive and dynamic so it can gradually help to mitigate the effects of conflict, reducing tension, promoting reconciliation and also producing solid outcomes for science and higher education institutions.
The African context
Interestingly, African higher education suffers not only from security threats but also corruption, insufficient infrastructure and a lack of qualified academics. According to a list released in 2018 by the Center for World University Rankings, there are only 13 African universities – South Africa (7), Egypt (4), Uganda (1) and Nigeria (1) – in the top 1,000 universities in the world.
In addition to institutional capacity and qualification challenges, there are also inadequacies in terms of the quantity of institutions. News website Quartz Africa reports that the top 10 most populous African countries have 746 universities serving about 660 million of Africa’s one billion people.
Science (and technology) have been the primary springboard of development in history. As a nation advances in science, so it advances in global prestige. Being aware of this fact, the African Union (AU) and its Science and Technology Division have so far taken certain steps to advance the continent’s scientific standing.
These include Africa’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action, the Kwame Nkrumah Scientific Awards Programme, the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Strategy for Africa 2024, EU-Africa Cooperation in STI, the Scientific Technical Research Commission, the African Scientific Research and Innovation Council and the African Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation.
However, science diplomacy is not one of the direct goals of the AU’s Agenda 2063, even though it could indirectly link every single objective. The AU in general and African countries in particular need a well-coordinated roadmap and science diplomacy model.
Understanding science diplomacy
In the African context, science diplomacy needs to be conducted within a clear framework in line with a concise strategic plan. It should be considered as part of a five and-or 10-year national strategy plan.
On the one hand, science diplomacy is the best way to maximise the limited (national) scientific capacities of African institutions. On the other, it could provide a very beneficial synthesised approach for African decision- or policy-makers, given that it blends academic, diplomatic and bureaucratic approaches.
It would require both internal and external cooperation. At the internal level, every African country could initially pledge to begin a bilateral collaboration with every neighbouring country, a sub-regional collaboration and an overall partnership with (and led by) the African Union at a continental level.
In addition, the external action model could be based on overseas partnerships with international institutions – such as the European Union, the World Health Organization and International Energy Agency – and also multicultural or multipartite networks engaging with national institutions from developing or developed countries.
What makes external collaborations more successful is a dynamic and equal approach. In other words, they should be independent of any kind of dependency or system of hierarchy that could subsume the spirit of consensus. In fact, science diplomacy is based on a win-win approach.
While research institutions, universities and diplomatic missions should pioneer science diplomacy in Africa, regional think-tank institutions and civil society organisations can play a complementary role in supporting scientific collaboration and increasing the multiplier effects of their initiatives.
As long as the parties involved do not look to prioritise just their own self-interest and reflect wider perspectives, science diplomacy could serve the AU’s Agenda 2063 in particular and Africa generally. That is what Africa’s next generations need.
Science diplomacy and aid policy
An efficient science diplomacy strategy could be a springboard for African countries. That is why African policy-makers should reconsider their approach to science diplomacy. It could reduce the brain drain and enable countries to re-engage with well-qualified African immigrants abroad.
Moreover, a science diplomat could be assigned to diplomatic missions abroad for better coordination and more efficient representation or, at the very least, an existing diplomat could be put in charge of science diplomacy affairs. A well-selected science diplomat could make an exceptional contribution to his or her country and region.
Creating a strong link between science diplomacy and aid policy could enable donor countries or institutions to allocate a specific amount of their aid budgets to upscale their own science diplomacy with recipient countries.
In particular, donor countries and-or international institutions could design an initial plan with a single African country that could be followed by a wider strategy through the relevant sub-region of the continent. For instance, if an Ethiopian university is chosen to collaborate, the overall plan should include other selected universities in East Africa.
This would not only feed regional priorities but also the African Union’s global mission in the long term. It is noteworthy that some internationally known universities have recently tended to either open up branches in Africa or sign functional memoranda. These links could be used as the first step towards a more long-standing scientific partnership.
In our view, therefore, science diplomacy is not a luxury but a social responsibility for the contemporary world.
Dr Rami Ayoubi is senior project consultant at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales and Dr Engin Akcay is research fellow at Cardiff Metropolitan University.