Impact of Astronomical Facilities on Local Development – Perspectives from Sutherland: An OAD Report

Tawanda Chingozha, Economics PhD Candidate (Stellenbosch University), OAD Fellow. He is Zimbabwean.

Amidou Sorgho, Astro-physics PhD Candidate (University of Cape Town), OAD Fellow. He is Burkinabè.

Estefany san Andreas, Socio-Cultural Anthropologist with studies in Jungian Psychology, OAD Fellow. She is Ecuadorian.

Amelia Hankel, BSc Physics (with astronomy focus) & BA Human Rights (University of Connecticut), OAD Fellow. She is from the US.


Astronomy has played an important role in shaping our understanding of the universe and our place in it, especially since our identity as the human race is in one way or another tied to the stars. In recent times, the role of astronomy in socio-economic development on the home base (Earth) has been brought into the spotlight, leading to the establishment of the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Put simply, the OAD’s mandate is to work on translating astronomy into development related outcomes, guided by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The OAD strives to promote the attainment of various SDGs through participating in and funding different activities. Based on an assessment of past project lessons, experience, international consultations and trends, the OAD identified “flagship projects” that would be driven from the office itself. “Sustainable Local Socio-Economic Development Through Astronomy” is one of two main flagship projects that the OAD is currently seized with driving into the foreseeable future. This theme seeks to harness the potential of astronomical facilities (such as observatories) to stimulate local socio-economic development mainly through astro-tourism. To achieve that, it is important to understand development from the perspective of the community. Hence a diverse team of OAD fellows visited Sutherland [a town in Northern Cape, South Africa that hosts the Southern Africa Large Telescope (SALT)] in June 2019 to seek some community perspectives and to also qualitatively assess the impact of the SALT telescope and the Sutherland Observatory in general on local socio-economic development. After a series of interviews with different stakeholders of the Sutherland community, we note overall that the populations are either satisfied with, or have neutral opinions about the presence of the observatory and its outreach activities. The study reveals that although the SAAO has positively impacted local socio-economic development in the town of Sutherland through creation of jobs and its diverse outreach activities, many challenges such as unemployment and school dropout still face the local communities. We propose different ways in which the observatory can further use astronomy to leverage socio-economic development in Sutherland, and improve its relations with the local communities.