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How to make development funds go further

Leaders discuss an initiative of the World Bank Group.

From left to right, Jim Yong Kim, Melinda Gates, Claver Gatete and Marie-Claude Bibeau discuss an initiative of the World Bank Group in 2017.Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Last month, the African Development Bank closed its annual shareholder meetings. The bank, which annually finances about US $ 7.5 billion for large-scale infrastructure, asks the 81 countries that provide its capital more money to boost business, energy and trade. Yet the words "science" and "universities", or even "innovation" and "research" are nowhere in the final agreement of the meetings. There is also no mention of education or technology.

This illustrates a problematic paradox in international development. Most of the economies of the poorest countries are growing, albeit modest, but most of their governments show little enthusiasm for improving the capacity and standardization of research. It is as if they have decided that if economies can grow without research, then there is no need to invest more. But such neglect can be devastating for universities and eventually turn against countries.

A Nature Comment article last month1 described how issues have become a concern in many countries and has made an urgent appeal to more local researchers in Africa. The authors call for more international assistance – and one of their ideas is that the richest countries offer tailored funding opportunities to their scientists so that they can work with their counterparts from developing countries.

For example, the Newton Fund, with £ 735 million (US $ 923 million), already offers such opportunities, and the Chinese government is funding a larger part of its research community to work on low-income country. But these two funders expect recipient governments to provide matching grants, which is a welcome development.

In purely monetary terms, the matching funding doubles the size of the available grants, but also has other benefits. When a recipient country puts its own money on the table, its researchers can exert more influence in decision-making and thus avoid a situation in which institutions largely dependent on donor grants become more vulnerable when Donors are going there.

Members of a group of 43 independent policy research centers in 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are now facing such a scenario. Over the past ten years, this group has benefited from a generous donation of C $ 200 million (US $ 153 million) to build research capacity and ensure that research quality informs policy debates. national and regional levels. Donors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington and the Canadian International Development Research Center in Ottawa.

The grant has ended as planned this year and already some centers are struggling, according to an evaluation report released in late April. The report is too diplomatic to indicate that this would not have happened if the consortium had demanded that its generosity be accompanied by income from local sources.

It is not easy to obtain matching funding, especially from the public sector in the poorest countries, and its administration is complicated. Research tends to be less of a priority for countries that lack more urgent basic necessities, such as quality primary education, health care, energy and transport infrastructure.

But there is also national philanthropy: most developing countries have wealthy investors and many are already funding education and, to a certain extent, research. It is time for these investors to take into account the need for much more substantial funding in research and universities – investments that will pay off in the long run. All forms of philanthropy must be supervised. The involvement of international public donors – through co-financing agreements – should help to raise and maintain the standards of transparency and accountability in funding.

International donors for development should contribute, but their funding will go further and last longer if recipient countries – and their own investors – commit to doing more.

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