Of all the stupid things written about Africa in the British press, the recent fussing about space programmes is among the stupidest. If you’re lucky enough not to have come across the story, it concerns countries that receive development aid from Britain and also have space programmes of one kind of another. Outrageous, say UKIP, the tabloids and the anti-aid brigade.
“If a foreign government has enough cash to invest in an ambitious space programme,” says Matthew Sinclair of the ubiquitous Taxpayers Alliance, “it should not expect to be receiving cash from the UK which is earmarked for helping the world’s poorest.” Tory MP Philip Davies joins in: “We have got to say to these countries ‘you have got to spend that money on your people where it’s most needed not on some grandiose space programme’.”
There are a couple of assumptions here. One is that these schemes are ‘grandiose’ or ambitious. The second is that they won’t do any good for the poor. Neither of those things is necessarily true.
First, despite the tabloid talk of ‘joining the space race‘, these are generally not vanity projects. Most often we’re talking about astronomy programmes at African universities, taking advantage of the continent’s clear skies. If sending anything into space is involved at all, it’s satellites, not space missions. Usually the satellites are carried on other countries’ rockets, such as China’s or Russia’s. The main focus of space initiatives is often academic, aimed at developing local engineering expertise and encouraging science and innovation.
“Space programs in Africa are not focused on getting men in space,” says Professor Nithaya Chetty of South Africa’s space agency. “African governments are finally coming around to understand the critical importance of science as an instrument for development. Training in astronomy, and training in computing and engineering leads to skills that are very wide ranging and are transferable to other disciplines.”
Some of the countries being talked about have space programmes, but we shouldn’t read too much into the idea. Kenya is a leader in astronomy, but in terms of actual spacefaring ambitions, it has a disused Italian launchpad off Malindi that it would like to renovate as a commercial venture. Ghana’s Space Science and Technology Centre did launch its first ‘satellite’ this year, but it was the size of a coke can, built by students and was launched by weather balloon as a demonstration project.
The Daily Mail was being particularly disingenuous in its tutting about Uganda this week. The very same paper ran a story poking fun at Uganda’s ‘space programme’ two years ago, under the headline ‘Not exactly NASA!’. The Ugandan space project is run by volunteer enthusiasts, and suggesting Uganda doesn’t deserve our aid because of it is self-serving nonsense.
Secondly, satellite programmes can help the poor. Many parts of Africa, especially deeper rural areas, are badly connected and in desperate need of infrastructure. Satellite technology can open up communications to those regions far more cheaply than attempting to cable them all. This improves governance too, with governments able to keep in contact with the further reaches of the country.
Satellites can play a role in monitoring droughts, pollution, desertification and natural disasters. One of Nigeria’s satellites relays images of natural disaster zones to relief agencies, and was used to study malaria vectors. They can keep an eye on conflict zones and border disputes and track the movements of rebel forces, as the Satellite Sentinel Project does in Sudan. Now, that particular satellite project was set up by George Clooney and friends, so that’s obviously okay. If an African country had launched it, would it be a luxury vanity project that could have been better spend on the poor? Of course not.
Then there are agricultural and weather forecasting applications, global positioning and mapping technologies, data gathering and climate monitoring. Africa will benefit from all of these things, including the poor. Investing in these technologies is not an either/or decision between satellites and sanitation, any more than Britain has to choose between doing something about youth unemployment and supporting our own Space Agency.
British taxpayers’ money isn’t going towards space programmes in Africa, though plenty of our aid money does go astray, I’m sure. And I’m sure that some developing world space projects are nationalist ego projects with budgets that could be better spent elsewhere. But satellite technology is important and everyone has a right to it. We should celebrate African universities contributing to our knowledge of astronomy, providing Southern hemisphere platforms for space observation, and playing an active role in the advance of science.
Nigeria is even training the first bona fide African astronaut. Great. What could be a better symbol of a rising Africa?