In January 2008 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) set out to develop a visionary decadal strategic plan entitled “Astronomy for the Developing World”. This plan aimed to use astronomy to stimulate development at all levels including primary, secondary and tertiary education, science research and the public understanding of science. After several iterations with relevant international organizations this plan was ratified at the IAU General Assembly in Brazil in August 2009.
At the heart of the implementation of this plan was the creation of a central coordinating “Office of Astronomy for Development” (OAD). After a lengthy international selection process, the IAU chose South Africa as the host country for the OAD, and the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), a facility of the National Research Foundation (NRF), as the host institution. This arrangement was strongly supported by the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST).
On the 16th April 2011 the OAD was officially launched by the South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor. Following the first meeting of the OAD Steering Committee (which took place immediately after the launch event) the OAD set off with a vision of “Astronomy for a better world”. In August 2012, at the IAU General Assembly in Beijing, an updated version of the strategic plan was released including an update on implementation. The title was more appropriately updated to “Astronomy for Development”
By 2015, the OAD had established nine regional offices around the world – in Armenia, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Jordan, Nigeria, Portugal, Thailand and Zambia. As of 2020, this has grown to 11 Regional Offices, with the addition of Europe and North America.
The role of the OAD is fundamentally that of a strategic coordinating centre. In order to carry out its mission the OAD plays several roles relating to this:
- Implementation of the IAU Strategic Plan (SP): The OAD was set up to implement the IAU Strategic Plan, a living document that provides the broad guidelines in terms of realising developmental benefits from astronomy.
- Strategic advice: The OAD, guided by the IAU Strategic Plan and a global view of development activities, provides strategic advice where needed to individuals and organisations involved in similar activities. As such the OAD functions as the ideal “first port of call” for development activities using astronomy.
- Coordination and Facilitation: The OAD coordinates and facilitates global activities in line with its mission. Such efforts do not imply carrying out activities on the ground but rather sourcing partners or volunteers and providing them with the contacts, assistance and guidance necessary for them to implement a project.
- Funding and Infrastructure: The OAD seeks to acquire or assist in the acquiring of funds and/or infrastructure as required by itself and its partners.
Implementation of projects: There are also specific developmental projects which are managed and administered by the OAD team on an ad hoc basis, often in a pilot format.
The OAD functions fundamentally as a strategic coordinating centre. As such it is guided by a few overarching principles:
- Regional: It is recognised that there are different ways of dealing with different regions and countries of the world. There is no single approach that can be applied globally. Therefore the OAD development activities are guided by a regional approach that takes into account the specific needs and situation of each region and country.
- “Bottom-up”: Activities are demand driven. Every effort is made to obtain input from people “on the ground” and establish close working relationships with them. Interventions are made with the support and involvement of those people.
- Innovation: Where relevant activities explore innovative optimisation techniques, from new technology to peer reviewed best practice. These may include novel outreach methods, data mining for research, robotic telescopes, mobile planetaria etc.
- Development: The OAD contributes as far as possible towards Millennium Development Goals and other international development objectives, thus realising the mission of astronomy for development.
- Transparency: The OAD subjects itself and its activities to scrutiny from its funders and beneficiaries alike. All activities are transparent and outcomes can be measured and evaluated. The OAD openly invites any queries from its many stakeholders.
- Dynamic: Structures and projects remain as dynamic as possible due to the rapid growth and constantly changing developmental environment. As new regions gain strength the OAD must adapt to accommodate them.
- Humility: There is within the OAD due recognition of the vast pool of experience and skills in the field and every attempt is made to build on those strengths. The OAD does not try to reinvent activities which have already been developed, but rather helps to optimise them for maximum benefit to society. The OAD is always open to input and suggestions on how to do things better.