Technology & Trade

The IAEA’s Multidimensional Assistance: Opportunities For Atomic Engagement In Africa

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By Maria Lovely Umayam – Today, a deep divide exists between the security priorities of the developed world and states in the Global South. While governments in developed states have concluded that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation is the most urgent threat to the world’s collective security, less developed countries continue to struggle with more immediate security issues that are intrinsically tied to development. Nevertheless, in 2009, Burundi became the 28th African nation to ratify the African Non-nuclear Weapons Free Zone (Treaty of Pelindaba), which brought the agreement into force after thirteen years since its inception. Although The Pelindaba Treaty represents a significant achievement for the nonproliferation regime, nuclear security continues to be a distant priority for Africa, a continent plagued by small arms trafficking, cross-border skirmishes, abject poverty, and substandard public health conditions.  

Convincing African countries to take more proactive steps in advancing the nonproliferation agenda has been difficult in light of these pressing regional security and development issues. For instance, African countries such as Eritrea, Somalia,  Djibouti, and Guinea have yet to conclude Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements (CSAs) with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Effective safeguard systems are critical to the Agency’s mission in assuring the peaceful use of nuclear material. Although all states party to the NPT are required to enforce CSAs, insufficient understanding of their purpose and reluctance to submit to an intrusive or resource-consuming verification process are factors that impede implementation. Thus, collaboration between the Agency and developing nations such as those in Africa has not reached its full potential.

This challenge stems from states’ propensity to silo threats – and international assistance that would alleviate such threats – into strict security or development niches, which impairs ability to identify common solutions. Therefore, it is important for countries – developed and developing alike – to view the IAEA’s assistance as flexible, transcending a one-dimensional nuclear track.

For instance, safeguards can contribute to the broader framework of security by helping countries address internal security issues that are not only exclusive to the realm of nuclear safekeeping. IAEA technical meetings on the security of radioactive sources, for example, not only provide best practices on the control of radioactive material, but also explore strategies and methods for detecting illicit trafficking across borders. Thus, lessons learned from these initiatives are easily transferrable to other security agendas such as border protection, enhanced interstate transparency, and trafficking – whether nuclear materials, small arms, or illicit drugs – surveillance.

It is equally important to recognize that the IAEA’s work as “nuclear watchdog” is only one component of its full breadth of services. The IAEA also provides assistance to states seeking to utilize atomic energy to enhance agricultural productivity and human health. In 2004, the Agency established the Program of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT), which takes a comprehensive approach towards cancer care and control through global coalition building, tailored cancer burden evaluations, and radiotherapy training.  PACT is especially eager to make progress in Africa, where 80 percent of the population lacks sufficient access to cancer services despite the projected increase in new cancer cases to 1.6 million annually by 2030.(i) As of this year, over a dozen countries in Africa received PACT cancer burden assessments and 27 have pending requests.(ii) And as these African nations fortify their cancer care capabilities by engaging in nuclear medicine, it will become increasingly important to enter CSAs into force so that the IAEA can carefully monitor their use of nuclear material and verify their adherence to nonproliferation obligations.

Although PACT attained considerable success in the continent, opportunities for assistance remains largely untapped: African nations – including Somalia, Comoros, Djibouti, Burundi, Liberia, and Rwanda – have yet to file for their national cancer burden evaluations, let alone reap novel resources from a partnership with the IAEA’s technical cooperation program. Engagement with the IAEA is especially critical when faced with harrowing statistics: cervical cancer among women has reached a 23.1 percent mortality rate in Comoros, a nation equipped with less than one radiotherapy machine per million people.(iii) Considering that PACT’s core mission encompasses educating medical personnel in radioactive medicine and facilitating access to medical radioisotopes, forging such partnership is not only a logical step to ameliorating the most urgent local health challenges, but also making a global statement for safe and secure nuclear technologies.

The atom need not be a resource exclusive to the industrialized world; its far-reaching applications can improve cancer management from Togo to Mozambique. The IAEA has reiterated its commitment to capacity building of peaceful nuclear infrastructures to enrich the socio-economic conditions of developing countries.  But as Director General Amano noted, the advantages of nuclear technology is connected to the “equal responsibility to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”African nations could benefit from increasing and strengthening engagement with the IAEA as it holds resources that can address development needs under the banner of nuclear safety and security. Investment in such a relationship could usher in not only a renewed and responsive Africa, but also a more robust nonproliferation regime.




[iii] Comoros statistic – ; Radiotherapy –



Photo Credit: Mr. Chandrapala, examines an X-ray of the brain tumour that was treated with radiotherapy in Sri Lanka, May 2003. (Petr Pavlicek/IAEA)



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