Academics play a particularly important role in shaping policy in developing countries. Chemical Watch’s UN and emerging markets reporter, Ginger Hervey, looks into this issue in Africa, and asks what researchers would like to see from the UN’s global chemicals programme post-2020.

Places - Africa760©fpdress stock

Research is the backbone of policy making. In Europe, the EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) employs nearly 3,000 people who give scientific advice in support of policies. In the US, a myriad of governmental bodies, such as the EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), research the need for, and impact of, laws.

But in low and middle-income countries, where governments generally lack resources and expertise, the role of researching the effects of current policies and consulting on those being proposed, often falls to a group outside of both their own government and the UN’s chemicals sphere: university academics.

Regulators come to academics for advice “all the time” in South Africa, says Andrea Rother, an environmental and public health professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

“I’d say all of the regulators in chemicals and pesticides have in one way or another reached out to myself or my colleagues,” she says.

The reliance of less well resourced countries on university researchers isn’t unique to South Africa, and can be explained by several factors.

Stretched resources

Firstly, government departments in developing countries are stretched. Dr Rother uses pesticides as an example, estimating that in most African countries there are from three to seven people responsible for their regulation, compared with the EU or US, where “you’re talking 250-300 people”. International organisations and some European countries, such as France and Sweden, are trying to help increase Africa’s capacity for managing chemicals, through financing programmes.

Secondly, turnover in ministries is high. Sometimes a country’s political situation changes and ministries are duly reshuffled, but more often, government employees are simply poached by industries with more favourable salaries.

David Kapindula, manager of operations at Zambia’s Environmental Management Agency, has been with the agency since it was founded in 2011, and in the government’s Environment Council for a decade before that. But he said there aren’t many regulators anywhere in Africa who have been around as long as him.

“Usually what happens is people join the government, work for a while, gain exposure and experience, and then go join private sector or international organisations where there’s better pay or better prospects,” Mr Kapindula says.

This is in contrast to academia, where even in poorer countries “there’s some kind of stability. If someone was to join the university as a lecturer, they’ll probably stay there for many years and then retire there.

“They’re the ones who end up providing data, information, and research to the policy makers,” he adds.

Thirdly, academics’ research means they see the results of regulations up close. Geoffrey Otieno, senior lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya, says his country has several government ministries and agencies working ‘in silos’ on chemical-related issues – which means none of them typically see the whole picture.

“Having so many authorities in charge makes it difficult,” he says. “To be brutally honest, the academics on chemicals are more informed, I would say, in terms of the issues than the regulators.”

NIPs and NAPs

The importance of academia in developing countries is something that international consultants have picked up on. Roland Weber, a chemist and environmental consultant who helps implement chemicals projects in developing countries, says he tries to incorporate academics in the process whenever possible.

“I think to use the universities and research institutes is a very useful approach, because it’s sustainable,” he says. Because of the high turnover of ministry staff, knowledge and experience is difficult to retain. However, university academics can remain in their roles for more than 30 years, adds Dr Weber.

This is especially the case for work the UN Environment Programme (Unep) requires of every country ratifying its chemicals treaties, in particular on:

  • national implementation plans (NIPs) for the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants; and
  • national action plans (NAPs) for the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

These plans are 200-page, heavily-researched documents detailing a country’s situation in relation to chemicals covered by the conventions, and the government’s plan to control them. Governments can usually get international funding to put together their NIP and NAP, but they rarely have the expertise in-house to complete them. Mr Kapindula said Zambia is “heavily dependent” on university researchers for drafting these.

And in Sierra Leone, where Dr Weber was an international consultant for its recent NIP, the national research was done primarily by Ronnie Frazer-Williams, senior lecturer in the chemistry department at the University of Sierra Leone.

“For the type of document you want to produce, you won’t get that in-depth research at the ministry,” said Dr Frazer-Williams. “Either they don’t have enough time to do it, or some things require technical expertise that’s not available.”

But while academics hold important roles in policy making, fully functioning ministries and agencies that have the funds, staff and resources to carry out the job of managing chemicals in their jurisdiction, are essential for the region to improve the control and safety of chemicals.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are comparatively few poison control centres or chemicals experts, such as toxicologists, operating in Africa.

And very little data is collected and disseminated on the uses and risks of chemicals, which could help governments and consumers mitigate risks.

Back to school

A lack of expertise in ministries is something Dr Rother, from South Africa, is working to combat. Since 2011, she has run a post-graduate diploma programme for pesticides risk management, targeted at regulators in developing countries.

The programme is part-time for two years, and aimed at providing a holistic education in how to manage risks for pesticides. Dr Rother said regulators they work with usually have a technical background corresponding to their ministry – those in the health ministry have health-related degrees, and so on – and they don’t always have policy analysts, lawyers or economists in their departments.

“They’ll come from chemistry or biology or agriculture, and now you’re saying, ‘You have to take into account pregnant women and you have to take into account socioeconomic factors,’” Dr Rother says. “And they don’t have the capacity for that because it’s not their training.”

The course tries to fill these gaps. “We take regulators and provide them with enough skills to be able to regulate,” she says.

Academics and Saicm

Despite their importance to policy making in these countries, academics have been largely left out of the international community’s largest concerted attempt to improve the management of chemicals and waste.

The UN’s voluntary programme – the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (Saicm) – has aimed to involve all stakeholders in its quest to better the management of chemicals around the world. But an independent evaluation of the programme, published last year, found that “several important groups of stakeholders are missing from the Saicm process and structure … in particular academia.”

Saicm’s mandate ends this year, and negotiators are currently debating what its future will be. The issue of the lack of academic or scientific involvement – there is no scientific body within Saicm to support its work – has been raised repeatedly.

Negotiators are considering establishing a ‘science-policy forum’, which the independent evaluation suggested could “develop internationally agreed methodologies for risk and hazard assessment that Saicm stakeholders can agree to”.

‘The forum is critical for African countries, in order to ensure our politicians and technocrats are being given credible information,’ Mr Kapindula, Zambia’s Environmental Management Agency

Mr Kapindula calls the forum “critical” for African countries, in order to “ensure our politicians and technocrats are being given credible information”. He also suggests that after 2020, the Saicm secretariat, run by Unep, organises a platform where academics and policy makers can both participate and interact with each other.

Dr Rother agrees that Saicm would be a good forum to conduct this interaction.

“There’s a responsibility on us as academics to translate our research in ways that it can be used in decision making, and Saicm could have a role to play here,” she says, such as collecting research into a centralised and accessible clearinghouse.

The WHO has said a lack of data collection and dissemination on the uses and risks of chemicals in Africa is impeding safe chemicals management

Dr Frazer-Williams said a post-2020 Saicm could help realise its goal of improving chemicals management by funding university researchers. The WHO has said a lack of data collection and dissemination on the uses and risks of chemicals in Africa is impeding safe chemicals management.

“Especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, funding to universities is so poor,” Dr Frazer-Williams says. Carrying out research for something like the NIP – which is funded externally and which is required by the UN anyway – allows academics to do paid work in their field, while also providing much-needed expertise to the government.

“There’s so much that needs to be done, and some of it is really a win-win situation,” he says.

(Chemical watch)