Guest Writer: Richard Oduor
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This is not a vacuous praise of science. Name any major problem confronting the world today. Ignorance, disease, illiteracy, climate change and global warming ... name them. All these problems will only be solved by science. If there is any problem in the world that is worth solving and which affects the entire population irrespective of race, creed, religion or gender – you can be sure that scientific solutions are what should be exploited. Ignorance far from being a question of choice is a consequence of poor dissemination of knowledge; a reconfiguration of such a system to enhance information flow is a partial solution. Diseases have been afflicting humanity since the dawn of time. Science has been the reason behind increasing life expectancy, reducing child mortality rates, reducing malaria or HIV/AIDS prevalence etc.
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Our education systems are stale and have stopped doing what they were created to do. It is not strange to converse with graduates with annoyingly little information between their ears. Students are pursuing Masters Degrees not for the content that such a course offers but for the certificate so that they are well placed for the next promotion. You have PhD students who cannot conceptualize and create solutions for their own communities. This sleepy-head attitude towards intellectual advancement is a boil that has festered for far too long. It has begun seeping into our systems and before long all educated Africans will be unable to offer any solutions to the continent. Education reforms will have to align its objectives with the demands of a re-emerging Africa.
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What about stem cell research? Just a few years ago, Mr. Steve Rigazio was a normal, happy young man operating his business with the enthusiasm and ambition so common among young successful entrepreneurs. Now he forms the statistics of people diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease; a devastating disease that affects the spinal cord nerve cells, causing muscles to wither and die off quickly. Just like everybody else diagnosed with this condition, the doctors gave him 18 months of life. Two years after diagnosis Steve is still alive and his doctors are baffled. No need to mention he quit his job and even though the disease is ravaging his body, his mind is intact. His vibrancy is a stark contrast to his gradual deterioration unto death.
Just in the same neighbourhood in which Steve lives are two beautiful girls; twelve years of age struggling with juvenile diabetes since they were barely four years old. With thousands of pricks on their skins, life is completely unbearable. Miles away is Anne; a twenty three year old young woman buoyed down with Alzheimer’s. Steve, Anne, the twins and millions more are suffering from these genetic degenerative diseases have been forced to watch their approaching deaths with utter hopelessness. Yet hidden in this hopelessness is the understanding that despite the moral, ethical and political undertones, stem cell research may offer these individuals the only remaining hope for a meaningful life. It is only through an appreciation of the scientific technique that diagnosis, treatment, and management of millions of diseases has recently improved. The consequence is that currently there are millions of pharmacologic agents under development and which will offer reprieve to millions.
Because of poor investments in scientific development in Africa, we have become importers of solutions than creators of them. African systems of thought are intellectually dominated. While the importation of ideas is not wrong, our little or non-participation in the generation of global knowledge makes it very difficult to efficiently integrate new technologies in our systems. We lag behind in the adoption of scientifically proven solutions to common problems in agriculture, industry, and health.
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Last month Lee Mwiti wrote an incisive article in the African Review. He asked: Is Africa’s breakneck growth all smoke and mirrors? This was in response to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative that seems to suggest that double-digit economic growth is commonplace around the continent, with six of the ten fastest growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. The truth is that Africa is poised for take-off. This is not a pipe dream. I’m an African and I believe there are millions of young Africans like me who not only have great hopes for the continent but will be willing to exert themselves in realizing the African dream.
While part-dreaming, part-working towards achieving these dreams, it would be insincere to avoid touching on the role of politics development in Africa. Post-independent Africa has been a desert for travellers looking for successful political stories. The independence leaders squandered the chance to position the continent on a sustainable growth trajectory. There have been pockets of promising leadership that is rich in vision and commitment, but there are a few, if any, countries that have maintained a healthy platform for a long time. Political successions in Africa have not been savoury events. From coups, juntas, to stolen elections and broken promises for change have lived with African countries since they were hurriedly sculpted and injected with Westphalian attitudes. The political history of post-independence Africa is a weary wave with uneven troughs and crests.
One wishes that science could solve the world’s political problems; that politicians would rely on accurate analyses to make public policy decisions. But science plays second fiddle to politics because politicians are gods. The era when politicians could make personal sacrifices for the good of the society is gone; neither are they willing to defer current benefits for the longer term. Public policy is not being pursued for the long term welfare of the country. Kenyan and Nigerian Members of Parliament are examples of what happens when the pursuit of excesses and bulging bellies become a personal achievement, a national asset.
While politicians, even from the world’s greatest hegemony – the United States of America, routinely ignore scientific evidence when making policy decisions on such important issues such as healthcare, energy policy, climate change and global warming; we cannot resist the temptation to prod them. We need politicians to pass laws that increase funding to public research institutes. Whether it is HIV/AIDS, malaria, conflict resolution mechanisms, peace dialogue or democratization efforts – the lack of literacy of many politicians on these key challenges negatively influences their ability to debate intelligently and prioritize allocations of resources. Universities and other public research institutions continue to suffer from inadequate funding because they are placed at the bottom of the priority ladder.
In essence, there has never been a time in modern African history that the issue of leaders and the quality of leadership has been more important. The need for African leaders that have the competence to comprehend threats, the challenges, and opportunities of globalization, the imperatives of democratization and good governance, and the vision of a preferred future and capacity to realize it, is urgent. The African society at the present time awaits the emergence of a new generation of leaders who embody good governance as a cardinal value in every sphere of the society. Africa demands new leaders and a style of leadership that is competent, honest, visionary, and committed. Such a crop of leadership will appreciate the fact that science lies at the very core of growth and development.
In the same way, scientists also need to be flexible when conceptualizing solutions to global problems. Luckily, there is a new field of study around the block. It is called development engineering – a new interdisciplinary field of research that encompasses theoretical subjects as well as applied science. One of the objectives of this new strand of thinking is to tackle challenges that often block the delivery of more equitable development in a dynamic and interconnected world.
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ABOUT OUR GUEST WRITER
Richard Oduor is a Biomedical Science & Technology graduate from Egerton University Kenya. He works and lives in Nairobi, Kenya. Richard is a multidisciplinary thinker and pursues threads from different disciplines in a bid to link them into one huge overarching framework of everything. He is also a poet and a budding short story writer/novelist. He runs a blog called The Grand Debate.