Brain food II: Smart aid for Africa

If you unleash some of those hundreds of millions of minds you help Africa and you help the world.

The other $20 million the Prime Minister announced today at Perimeter Institute may be the smartest and boldest investment a Canadian government has made in development assistance in decades.

It’s $20 million over four years to support Perimeter director Neil Turok’s African Institute for Mathematical Studies, which the  cosmologist has branded as his Next Einstein initiative. Turok’s South African, and his idea is simple: there is no good reason why the next Einstein or Newton or Stephen Hawking shouldn’t be a young African man or woman. That continent is many things but of course one of them is a massive untapped human-capital resource: if you unleash some of those hundreds of millions of minds you help Africa and you help the world.

Related: Brain food I: the post-doctoral trap

Turok has put everything he has into the notion by launching the first AIMS school in Capetown and planning to build a network of such schools across Africa. He told me about his plans in this 2009 interview. They’re almost unbelievably shoestring operations by the standards of Perimeter: Turok told me it takes about $1 million a year to run one of the places. And the payoff? Students educated at home for one-fifth the cost it would take to educate them at Cambridge or UBC. Staying home to tackle local problems. With a network of contacts among other AIMS grads from across Africa, a built-in antidote to the factionalism that helps hold so many of those countries back. Taught by bright young scholars from home and abroad, and able to plug into that global knowledge network just like any scholar.

The second AIMS in Abuja, Nigeria opened in 2008. Now things get harder. Dakar, Senegal is next, in 15 months: a francophone country with far less-developed physical and social infrastructure than Capetown and Abuja. The (new) (not-in-the-spring-budget) money Harper announced today will help in this crucial next phase. And how significant is this modest $20 million over four years to what Turok’s trying to accomplish?

“It’s the largest single investment in the Institutes ever, by a factor of twenty,” Turok told me today.

Really? Yes, or close, exchange rates being what they are lately. The president of Senegal recently pledged 1 million euros as host of the next AIMS. And Google gave the project a $US1 million grant last year. The Harper government has given it all a mighty push, especially because it may inspire copycats. As one person familiar with the AIMS project pointed out today, can you imagine France letting another country take the lead in such a spectacular fashion on a development project in francophone Africa?

AIMS isn’t the only so-called “smart aid” project in Africa. The Nelson Mandela Institute’s African University of Science and Technology is another; the Mandela Institute’s Funmi Arewa attended yesterday’s announcement. David Strangway’s Academic Chairs for Africa project, still more ambitious, is another.

Eager readers will already have raised two obvious counter-arguments. One is that $20 million is chump change next to the billion and then some that was pledged for maternal and child health at the G8. Well, sure. But on the scale of Turok’s project, which I hope I’ve been able to sketch for you, it’s hardly trivial. And as Dambisa Moyo and the evidence of your own eyes tells you, some very large fraction of traditional subsistence aid to Africa has gone utterly to waste over the last half-century when it hasn’t actually managed to make things worse. The failure of traditional aid is of course no guarantee that a different kind of program will succeed. Rather, it’s an argument for prudent investment to ramp up a highly promising project to a wider scale. Sort of like today’s announcement.

Second, of course, is the you-can’t-get-there-from-here argument. I’ve heard it at length from a European diplomat who’s spent serious time in African universities: have you seen some of these places? They don’t need physicists. They need bed nets, drainage ditches and wheat.

This argument made Abba Gumel laugh out loud when I rehearsed it at Perimeter this afternoon. He’s a Nigerian who runs the Institute of Industrial Mathematical Sciences at the University of Manitoba. He called the bed-nets-before-string-theory argument “totally wrong” and said that what’s made the developed world develop was scientific advancement. “Take that away, and Canada would be a developing country.”

Your mileage may vary. Anyway now we’re going to give this other thing a shot. “Canada is famous as a country with a big heart,” Turok told the crowd after the PM spoke. “It’s fast becoming famous as a country which is smart.”

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