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Africa’s health security: Aid or technology transfer?

A new win-win collaboration paradigm
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The recent agreements between African countries and their European counterparts in the healthcare sector could open up a new era for North-South relations. They focus on sharing knowledge instead of sustaining the vicious cycle of dead aid that places Africans at the mercy of capitalist machinations and predatory practices. This is significant in as far as it offers an opportunity for structural transformation in the sector across Africa and improved health outcomes.

Since the late 1950s, the transfer of money and goods, ostensibly to help struggling African countries, has been a key feature of North-South relations. Obviously, that transfer was not free; it was given as debt even though for some unknown reason, the debt has been called “aid”. This debt was spread out throughout decades, and it couldn’t possibly be paid back because Africa had failed to acquire the necessary technologies and technical know-how to climb the ladder of the value chain in industrial production and generate sufficient income. Thus, the burden of the debt became unbearable and almost three decades later, in the 1980s, the global north, through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), pressured African governments into paying back their debt or, at least, reducing their debt intake.

This famous process was termed the “structural adjustment programmes” (SAPs). These programmes forced African governments to significantly reduce budgets for vital organs of societies, namely education, healthcare and infrastructure in order to save money and service their debt, thereby rendering public investment in socially productive projects almost non-existent. In other words, with the inevitability of SPAs, Africa found itself in a zugzwang: the obligation of conforming to the actions that undoubtedly work against their interests. In retrospect, the failure of North-South collaborations was due to one major flaw: transferring goods and money in lieu of transferring knowledge. Even from the western capitalist perspective underpinning such collaborations, it is clear that money solely used to cover expenses, consumption, and purchasing finished products, does not generate income.

The borrowers in such relationships can neither repay the debt nor invest in income-generating projects to wean themselves from dependency on debt. This leads to a parasitic relationship where the lenders build and consolidate their wealth at the expense of the borrowers. Clearly, therefore, debt (termed aid) is a trap from the perspective of recipient countries. Long-standing problems require new solutions Serious African leaders are no longer asking for aid, as a result. They are insisting that the only way to improve North-South relations was to start by cancelling the debt, ending the aid paradigm, and instituting a new win-win collaboration paradigm. They are essentially channeling the famous speech of Thomas Sankara, “A United front against the debt,” in the 1987 African Union general meeting, which is just one of the numerous examples of African heads of state who had understood the devastating effect of aid to Africa.

Accordingly, there have been encouraging steps from African countries that have shown interest in introducing a new collaboration era. Indeed, the recent global pandemic crisis has opened new opportunities for partnerships that, when looked at closely, have a new focus. In November 2021, Senegal, Rwanda, and South Africa signed a ground-breaking agreement with BioNTech, a global pharmaceutical firm, to install manufacturing plants in these countries. The first mRNA vaccine labs arrived in Rwanda on March 14, 2023. The biggest plant called Madiba (Manufacturing in Africa for Disease Immunization and Building Autonomy) will be built in Senegal. The plan is to produce up to 300 million vaccines per year. This production capacity will come to bridge Africa’s vaccine gap that keeps the continent totally dependent on imports.

In Rwanda, just like in Senegal, the benefits will range from job creation to training local staff to engage in laboratory services, quality insurance, production, storage, and distribution processes. The Rwandan plant will also serve as a research facility for tuberculosis and malaria vaccines. This kind of transfer of knowledge in an industry that is economically productive is crucial in modern collaborations.

It is worth mentioning that the BioNTech plant in Rwanda will partner with Izuba, a local company, to provide renewable energy in its production process. Kenya has also entered the vaccine manufacturing arena by signing a memorandum of understanding with the US-based pharmaceutical firm, Moderna, to establish its first mRNA manufacturing facility in the East African country.

While these endeavours are encouraging, innovation and research projects should not solely rely on cooperation with foreign entities if the aim is to ensure Africa’s health security. Countries like Japan have shown the way by importing human resources where needed in a bid to improve their command of modern technologies and chart their own path to the kind of economic development that is aligned with their socio-economic and geographical realities.

We should also not forget that the most difficult part of vaccine manufacturing lies in the regulation systems for drug approval, and Africa will indeed benefit greatly from being involved in all these processes. Generally speaking, the technology bit will push us to improve our management capacity. Already, Africa is placing its various continental bodies at the centre of its healthcare infrastructure. For instance, Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa (PMPA) by the African Union Development Agency is tasked with reducing the unsustainable reliance on foreign imports of medical products. Its objectives are to ensure access, quality, and affordability of medical essential products and to secure economic benefits for the continent through sustainability, competitiveness and self-sufficiency in pharmaceutical products.

The good news is that the focus now is on technology transfer and technical know-how. If African initiatives are successful, the continent will surely cease to be a passive subject on the receiving end of dead aid.

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