Idea alert: An army of minds for Africa?

Last autumn I interviewed Neil Turok, the South African physicist who runs the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. Our talk began in expected places and ended somewhere unusual, with Turok making a pitch for “smart aid” to Africa: an approach based on keeping some of the continent’s best minds at home, and sending them reinforcements from around the world to make Africa, at last, a centre of creation and discovery instead of subsistence and strife. Sounds mad, doesn’t it. But Turok has credentials: his African Institute for Mathematical Sciences is well begun and, he hopes, will soon have branches across the continent. The whole interview is worth re-reading, but here’s the part that launches our discussion of some tremendously exciting ideas, coming from a Canadian with African roots, that I want to share with you today. Turok told me:

Indeed [in 2010] the G-8 will be meeting alongside the G-20. And Canada was instrumental in pushing for the G-20’s creation. So Canada can be influential, because of its own history and the way it is trusted around the world. Use that. Use the fact that Canada has an excellent public education system, excellent university system — use that as leverage for your aid to Africa, to try to help Africa put in place a similarly strong health-care, university, science, innovation system. Doing that, you’re building on your strengths. The rewards will be enormous.

Which brings us to David Strangway. It was Turok himself, during a stop in Ottawa a few weeks ago, who mentioned Strangway’s “Academic Chairs for Africa” program. It’s gathering support around the world, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been urged to put it on the agenda for discussion at the Muskoka G8 and Toronto G20 this June. But I don’t believe a large Canadian news organization has told you anything about it before now.

Strangway is one of the most impressive guys I’ve met since I started covering knowledge-economy issues a decade ago, but for no good reason I’ve never written about him. He was a geophysicist on NASA’s moon missions. He was president of the University of Toronto, then of the University of British Columbia. He was the founding president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which has done more to transform Canadian campuses than any federal initiative since the invention of transfer payments. He founded Quest University, an innovative private teaching university in the BC Interior. I’ll let him tell you about his proposal for Africa himself:

This proposal is designed to assist these countries to move strongly in creating real academic strength. The proposal is to create and fund 1,000 chairs to be held by outstanding people in institutions across Africa. There are several hundred such universities in Africa at various stages of development (the Association of African Universities reports about 200 members).

Each occupant of a chair would also be required to have a cross appointment with a university in a developed country and be expected to spend about one month each year at this institution. It would be expected that most chair holders would be citizens of the country either from people now resident in that country, but perhaps often from the diaspora. These chairs would assist in meeting the need for poverty reduction, democratic governance, environment and energy and crisis prevention and recovery through building and reinforcing excellence and innovative capacity.

The cost of such a chair is estimated to be $100,000 per chair per year allowing salary and benefits, travel money and some access to facilities (e.g. computing and internet). Each appointment would be for five years. During the period and at the end of the five year period there would be major conferences bringing all the chairs and their presidents together. This would provide a direct measure of the impact of this investment.

If the program was delivering high quality results a decision could be made to continue the program as it is or with some modifications. 1000 chairs at $100,000 per year for 5 years would require the commitment of $500 m. This is a significant investment, but there is little doubt that it would have a dramatic impact on Africa and its development toward the MDGs and serve as the focus for training the next generation.

More details here. Evidence that the scheme is gathering international support here.  Neil Turok, whose own African Einstein Initiative is different from Strangway’s project but perhaps compatible with it, says he has heard real indications of interest from the federal government — which is not the same as commitment to it. More from Strangway, from an email exchange I had with him about his plan today:

There would be a number of meetings of the whole group to build South to South partenrships and to give an overview of the impact. Think of this network and how it would in and of itself cross not just disciplinary boundaries, but given Africa’s immense cultural diversity it would cross many of the boundaries that are reflected in today’ world and are so troublesome.

Why does Strangway care so much? Like Turok, he has roots in Africa. “My parents practiced tropical medicine in Angola for some 40 years.I was recently invited to be the keynote speaker at the first nationalconference on science and technology in Angola. Almost without exception all the senior people remembered my father’s hospital. He saved many lives and operated on thousands.”

There are a hundred reasons not to do something like this. Developed-world aid to Africa is locked in traditional barely-scraping-by projects like agriculture, vaccination, basic infrastructure and so on. Diverting any of that money would create obvious losers and less-obvious winners. And one European diplomat I spoke to this week says there’s a great big receptor-capacity problem: outside of South Africa, there aren’t a lot of universities that could handle an influx of serious new talent with the housing, teaching and research-infrastructure needs it would entail. “A great mathematician goes to Yaoundé,” this guy said to me. “To do what?”

Here too, Strangway has a response.

Cheick Diarra under-secretary-general of the UN, points out that there are 30,000 PhDs from sub Saharan Africa outside Africa. A very large diaspora indeed. And he points out that there are more Malawian doctors in Manchester alone than there are in Malawi. University of the Witswatersrand is working with the National University Rwanda and proposals like mine will build this capacity.

Or put another way, it is great to send cost effective drugs to Africa but where are the doctors who are going to do the management and the research on what works best in Africa?

I as a boy had river blindness. My parents did a lot of research on this as it was widespread in Angola.I was fortunate that they recognized it and were able to get the new drugs that effectively cured it as it did for thousands of others. And my older brother died of erysipalis in 1932 becuse they had not yet invented sulpha drugs. And my mother was bitten and got bubonic plague. Fortunately my father recognized it and was able to get the latest drugs that saved her life. I can remember hundreds of stories like this. Africa must build up its own capacity to deal with these issues.