Proposed solutions to these challenges are now being defined through the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals. The initial draft of these goals makes clear the critical role of science in mobilising efforts to address poverty and environmental issues. But to become effectively involved in this process, the least developed countries will need to build scientific capability and strength. Ideally, each could build a corps of advanced scientists who can review and synthesize the best available information and present it to government leaders – and to their people – in clear, understandable terms. However, they cannot begin to achieve this goal without partnerships and support from the developed world to complement their own scientific culture.
From 2001 to 2009, I served as the government minister in charge of science in Rwanda. In the early 1990s, my country endured a civil war that culminated 20 years ago in the genocide against the Tutsi, leaving at least a million people dead. In the aftermath, Rwanda’s leaders recognized early on that education – including science education – would be a pillar of recovery. With the election of Paul Kagame to Rwanda’s presidency in 2000, the nation embarked on a development path focused on science, technology and innovation, with a particular emphasis on information and communications technology (ICT).
Under President Kagame’s direction, the government began to pursue a holistic approach to easing poverty, improving health and increasing stability through science. In the late 1990s, Rwanda began the Urugwiro Village Dialogue, which brought people together to shape the future after the genocide. This process resulted in a comprehensive ‘Vision 2020’ policy document, which was released in the same year that Kagame took office. It set the timeframe for Rwanda to have a science, technology and knowledge-led economy by 2020. After his election, the president made science a ministry-level post in the government.
This began the country’s systematic approach to science-based recovery and development. Through a process of consultation with all sectors of the nation, including academia, civil society, business and the diaspora, Rwanda was able to establish detailed, ambitious policies for science, technology, innovation and the development of ICT.
Throughout this process, Rwanda worked in close partnership with the scientific and development sectors of other nations and international organizations. But these relationships did not follow the old model of dependence; rather, Rwanda set goals to address its needs, and worked with partners who supported the nation in its efforts.
For example, the process that produced our 2005 policy on science, technology and innovation included close consultation with the World Bank, the African Development Bank, UNESCO, and East African regional science and technology commissions, involving Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. The UK played a critical and constructive role in this process through the Department for International Development (DFID).
But the relationships were personal, too. The UK’s ambassador to Rwanda, Jeremy Macadie, came to the National University of Rwanda for the final meeting on our science, technology and innovation policy. Sir David King, then the UK’s chief scientific adviser, met with President Kagame in 2006, and addressed the two chambers of Rwanda’s Parliament on the importance of science and technology. King later became a member of Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council (PAC).
We also built a relationship with the UK’s Royal Society, out of a belief that it could be an advocate for science investment in developing countries. President Kagame was invited to speak at the Royal Society in 2006. And the Rwandan government made a similar effort to build lasting partnerships with the United States, particularly the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), USAID, and some of the best US research universities.
These international initiatives generated a number of substantive projects. Working closely with DFID and Sir David King, we developed a national strategy for climate change and low carbon development. Carnegie Mellon University opened a campus in Rwanda, and the Italy-based Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics also plans to open a branch. With MIT, Rwanda is establishing a Global Climate Observatory on the summit of Mount Karisimbi.
To be sure, Rwanda today faces serious ongoing challenges. It remains a very poor country. But its economic growth has averaged 7% to 8% in recent years. Rwandans today are better educated and healthier than at any time in history. Its university enrolment is near 80,000, compared to 3,000 before the genocide. Well over half of Rwandans now have mobile phones.
Rwanda is proof that even the poorest nations, faced with the most profound challenges, can build a future based on science. But without strong partners and good friends, this would not be possible.
Romain Murenzi is the executive director of TWAS (@TWASNews), the academy of sciences for the developing world, and served as Rwanda’s minister of science and technology from 2001 to 2009. He was one of the keynote speakers at last week’s Auckland summit on science advice to governments.