Thursday, 10 July 2014

Pitfalls and Benefits of an STS-Africa Network

By Prof Norman Clark

Earlier this year, Prof Norman Clark participated in the STS-Africa meeting, ‘Mapping Science and Technology in Africa: Traveling technologies and global disorders” in Johannesburg, South Africa. A main component of the event was around establishing an STS community for sub-Saharan Africa, and Prof Clark reflects on the pitfalls and benefits of such an endeavour.

At the STS-Africa conference, I gave a paper on research into use, and it became clear to me that many participants were not really understanding each other, and this was largely due to the wide range of disciplines present. One of the biggest barriers to creating an African STS community is the difficulty of establishing a viable language of discourse, and this is not really an “Africa” issue; it arises as a problem that confronts all interdisciplinary dialogue. What my be necessary is to pin down discourse to a set of STS issues that are indeed “African” (not just “South African”), which would encourage communication across disciplines and attract relevant funding.

In my view, the major issues in much of sub-Saharan African now are the lack of employment opportunities for young people and the failure of educational institutions to provide the types of knowledge needed to create jobs. This first became clear to me when I was running a university in Kenya, where I found the whole educational establishment to have little understanding beyond acting as the regulator of degree certificate provision. Most aspiring students could not get places, and for those who did the resultant “degrees” were often of doubtful quality and could seldom act as an avenue into a job. There was little in the way of technical training opportunities for the overwhelming majority of young people whose academic performance was not up to university entrance standard.

The danger of the present set-up is one of leaving poor countries with a massive disenfranchised population, and this does not bode well for the future. What an STS community could do is treat such matters as major social science issues, with the primary focus of radically reforming institutional structures to help unwind what is slowing become an institutional mess – of which STS would naturally be a part. Academic discourse would have a key focal point of organisation and might act as a change vehicle, though the task is a big one.

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