Developing countries will never see improvements in human welfare or economic stability without scientific and technological innovation


Bea Perks/London, UK

Developing countries will never see improvements in human welfare or economic stability without scientific and technological innovation, warned a key United Nations report published in January. The point could not have been made clearer than by the tsunami that hit the shores of south-east Asia at the end of December, said the report’s authors.

’We have seen with the challenges which Southeast Asia has faced in eliminating poverty and hunger, that scientific and technical capabilities determine the ability to provide clean water, good health care, adequate infrastructure and safe food,’ said lead author Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University, US. ’However, the terrible devastation caused by the tsunamis last week raises the question of whether enough was invested in adopting existing technologies which could have reduced the scale of the disaster.’

The cost of the disaster, in terms of the tens of thousands of lives lost and the billions of dollars of damage caused, far outweigh the cost of establishing an early warning system, said Juma. ’Developed countries should reflect in the wake of this disaster on the price of investing in building the scientific and technological capacity of developing countries to prevent or reduce the impacts of natural disasters compared to the huge costs of responding through international aid after the disasters have occurred.’

Most aid agencies in the developed world have limited relevance and are in need of ’reinvention’ said Juma. Their underlying philosophy is based largely on relief rather than development. Agencies in newly developed countries, such as China, appear not to be making the same mistake, he added: they are more likely to place emphasis on building up scientific and technological infrastructure.

Juma coordinates the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation, which compiled the report Innovation: applying knowledge in development. The task force was commissioned by the UN secretary-general to advise on the implementation of a set of Millennium Development Goals agreed on at the United Nations Millennium summit in 2000. The work of Juma’s task force focused specifically on fostering cooperation with the private sector to increase availability of new technologies.

Recommendations contained in the report were welcomed by Julia Higgins, vice president and foreign secretary of the Royal Society, speaking alongside Juma at the society’s headquarters in London, UK.

’I hope that the prime minister, chancellor and other ministers will all read this important report as the UK begins its presidency of the G8,’ said Higgins. ’It will help them to understand how crucial science is to tackling the problems of poor nations in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.’ The UK’s year-long presidency of the G8 began in January.

The emergency response to the tsunami disaster was much needed in the immediate aftermath, said Higgins, but it is essential that there is now investment in the long-term development of the scientific capacity of the countries affected. ’Not only will science, engineering, and technology prove crucial to the sustainable reconstruction of devastated areas, they will also enable countries to reduce the potential impact of future disasters,’ she said.

Higgins later said she was disappointed that chancellor Gordon Brown had not mentioned greater investment in building the capacity of developing countries in science, technology and innovation among his ambitions for international development in 2005. Brown, speaking in the House of Commons hours after the UN report was released, said that 2005, in which the UK holds both the EU and G8 presidencies, offers a ’once-in-a-generation’ chance to eradicate global poverty.