All economies today are reliant on science and technology to various degrees to sustain economic growth and meet their development needs. In the past it was thought that poor countries need only deal with the capital gap to address development backlogs, but today many countries continue to remain poor because they have not addressed the technological gap.
But, is it realistic for developing countries to expect that countries with high levels of technological development should offer these up without a price? That this is even debated and is a standing agenda item at multi- national agreements obfuscates reality: no country that sees technology as a strategic advantage for its economy will simply give it away.
Perhaps it is in the nature of international negotiations that one merely maintains issues for the sake of being pedantic. Rarely, though, are international gatherings used by developing countries to identify ways in which cooperative mechanisms between themselves can be used to bridge the technology divide.
There are several ways in which developing countries can tackle their technology gap without always having to look northwards. Firstly, even where technology is donated or comes with aid transfers or via foreign direct investment, its advantages are best derived if there is a clear national science and technology strategy that sets out the country’s development needs and overall vision.
Secondly, every country has one or other niche it can develop in the science and technology arena. Generally, critical mass and comparative advantage even in a few areas can open doors to technology transfers and exchange for others sectors or parts of the economy.
For instance, foundational technologies such as laser, biotechnology and nanotechnology have more than one utility and what was once developed to solve a specific health issue can easily have application in other sectors. The cost of concentrating resources in developing a strategic technology and then spreading the benefits to others sectors is marginal.
Cuba has demonstrated what can be done if there is a clear national goal as regards science and technology development. Cuba today is one of the few countries that has managed to convert its entire agricultural system from agro-chemical dependency to the use of a more integrated pest management system. Cuba is also pioneering vaccine development — for those diseases that are of importance to developing countries — which is now exported to other parts of the world.
Cuba’s success is not a result of money — it has very little — but the benefit of having educated people and relying on their ingenuity. In the end, leadership and organisation are critical in bringing about technological transformation in any economy and harnessing the talent of its people.
And, where the in-country capacity is not substantial, leap-frog technologies can be imported. This stimulates development because some capacity is needed in order to support and service the new technologies.
Many Asian countries initially imported and copied technologies from the West, but later developed strong competencies in these technologies because of investment in science education and training. Asia’s success is also a result of strong government intervention and industrialisation that served as push factors and nurtured the development of long-term science and technology capacity using the short window of opportunity that came with foreign and domestic investment. But growth in commerce and trade was the key driver of Asia’s technological development.
Thirdly, the look northwards obscures another reality — many of the United States’s and Europe’s new scientific capacity is generated in the Third World. Half or more of Silicon Valley and US universities is filled with engineering and science lecturers who are from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East or Africa. The Third World is the net exporter of its scientific intellectual capital. The main reasons for this are political instability, a dearth of investment in science and technology ventures, poor economic performance and uncompetitive salaries.
Many scientists and experts want to return after a while, however, as China, India and Brazil are proving, when their governments invest more in facilities and stimulate business investment in research and development. At present only dominant Third World economies are able to reverse the brain drain to some extent; others continue to suffer losses.
But even dominant economies — such as South Africa, which still has good scientific capacity and facilities — are not immune to poaching. Often their best talent is exported because of the lack of strong linkages with industry where there is a constant use of scientific knowledge from universities, low venture capital, entrepreneurial capacity or public-private partnerships. This hinders the transition of technology from the laboratory into its utility in the general economy.
Finally, South-South relations may hold new possibilities of meeting the technology transfer needs of poorer countries. The potential for transfers within the Southern constituency of states needs to be exploited. In the past 20 years or so, many developing countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Iran, to name a few, have begun to develop critical mass in technologies regarded as strategic for economic success in the 21st century.
But South-South collaboration is too few and far between and continues to be dominated by the big economies. The recent formation of the India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) commission is a good example of big economies once again having to take the initiative — which may not be to the satisfaction of others.
But collaboration has other benefits. It has been proven at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that being able to flex muscle in unison works.
An example is the WTO waiver of intellectual property rules so that developing countries can produce generic HIV/Aids drugs at lower cost.
Collective lobbying can result in ensuring that the international community invests more in science and technology development that is of a high public good value — such as a cure for malaria — instead of waiting for the goodwill of large pharmaceuticals and developed economy governments.
South-South collaboration can facilitate cost-effective equipment procurement — as many developing countries produce these goods more cheaply than developed countries. Collaboration can also result in the pooling of expensive equipment with other countries, as South Africa is doing with the establishment of an African laser centre.
Strategies such as these can eliminate the cost of duplication and enhance the culture of collaboration between scientists of the South, and help improve political and cultural ties between countries. Clearly, with a lot more creative thinking, strategic investment, cooperation and better organisation, developing countries can benefit more from each other than from the North. In the end sustainable development is an outcome of having control over one’s destiny rather than depending on the elusive promise or false generosity of those in power.
Salim Fakir is director, World Conservation Union, South Africa office. He is writing ahead of a series of events to mark the second anniversary of the World Summit on Sustainable Development