Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to talk about this important dimension of sustainable development.
South Africa is preparing to host the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in late August and early September this year. While many people have referred to this conference as “Rio plus ten”, this summit is of far greater significance. Indeed, it should be a forward-looking endeavour, that builds on the global experience of the last ten years. In a profound sense, the WSSD should recover the human side of the environmental challenges facing our shared common home.
Since Rio, the pre-eminent change that has taken place is the recognition that sustainable development is a far more embracing and holistic concept than environmental sustainability. Indeed sustainable development is a way of looking at all the sources and resources that can lead to a better quality of life for the current generation, without compromising future generations.
In addressing the issue of technology and its relationship to development I will be focusing on some critical pre-conditions that significantly change the rate, effectiveness and value of technology transfer as an instrument of development.
In brief, these could be categorised as effective education, scientific and technological excellence and economics balanced with equity.
In taking this approach I do not wish to deny the importance of the technology transfer – but I would want to emphasise the critique that can be applied to technology transfer taking place outside of the human context of education, the practical context of adoption and the economic context of the developing world.
I will also suggest that technology transfer (in the narrow sense) is insufficient for sustainable development to be achieved.
Until comparatively recently, science and technology did not have a central role in the sustainable development debate. Rather, we spoke about the application of science, for instance, in the measurement of the environment, better waste management, or science and technology utilised to reduce emissions from power stations. Science and technology were often seen as a source of problems relating to environmental sustainability or, in some cases, also the solution to those same problems.
More recently, with the publication of key reports, such as the 2001 United Nations Development Report “Making new technologies work for human development”, a change is being signalled. It is becoming clear that the relationship between science, knowledge and the availability of human capital to address the issues of sustainable development, is crucial. This is further reinforced in recent work undertaken by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. This has not yet been fully published, but it is clear that most practitioners and policy makers have undergone a significant paradigm shift in recognising the importance of technology (and knowledge more generally), and the critical role that it plays in development.
This is a very different approach from the traditional narrow thinking of development economics and practice over the last 30 years.
Unfortunately, the classical language of economics still pervades our discussion of the way forward for the developing nations. We tend to talk of labour and capital as if these remain the key drivers of economic growth.
This understanding has long been superseded in the modern approach to economics. The modern approach properly values technological progress and knowledge application as key drivers of growth – growth that is, in the most robust economies of the world.
Some development economists add to the inadequate economics of labour and capital, the factor of natural resources. This adds to the misunderstanding of the true potential of resource-rich developing nations (of which many African nations are good examples). Natural resources are surely abundant in parts of the continent, but this has not led to sustainable development.
It is the knowledge and technological command to apply the inputs of labour, capital and resources that make modern economies work.
Somehow, we have failed to talk enough about the knowledge resources that can fundamentally change the future of the economies of the developing world. The challenge to all development thinkers and politicians in the developing world is to recognise that untapped human potential represents an effective and sustainable path out of the dilemmas of under-development. In our view, the only long-term strategy that can work is based on quality education to create human capital.
The good news today is that there are many powerful new tools in our hands to accelerate the development of human capital as the precondition for sustainable development.
President Thabo Mbeki made this clear in a recent speech. He said this: “We have to ensure that as many of our people as possible master modern technologies and integrate them in their social activities, including education, delivery of services and economic activity. This relates in particular to communication and information technology.”
South Africa, as a result of our policy review of the relationship of technology to sustainable development, is proposing a significant shift away from the notion of technology transfer (in the narrow sense) to a far broader concept of “technology and knowledge partnerships”. Sustainable development will not be achieved unless there is a redirection of our efforts to develop the full potential of people through education: an education, which must include mastery of modern technologies.
Few, if any, future scenarios for Africa and other parts of the developing world talk about the contributions these nations will make in science and technology for sustainable development. This is surely not right. Perhaps we have convinced ourselves that developing countries cannot be players in the knowledge economy. I believe that this mindset needs to be fractured and removed from our consciousness.
It is however critical to recognise that the path to knowledge-based sustainable development requires consistent and effective policies over a significant period of time.
Science and technology are often seen by policy makers as instruments that have well-defined functionality, like a light switch or a key in a lock. Under these conditions, science and technology becomes the handmaiden of greater goals such as economic development or quality of life.
This instrumentalist approach does great damage because it does not recognise that the potential of people trained in science and technology is far greater than the primary scientific knowledge that they hold. Scientists and technologists are problem solvers, innovators, entrepreneurs, business people, community leaders and artists. Science and technology is not a static category into which we plug machine-like robots that become instruments of production. Sustained effective science and technology investment is in fact a broad strategy to address the persistent challenge of under-development of our world.
The first way to engender the change required is through transformation of education.
Science, mathematics, computing and technology should be a requirement in the education curriculum in the developing world up to matriculation level. The misunderstanding of the sciences by the general public leads to serious underestimation of their usefulness in defining better solutions.
Historically, scientifically literate communities have demonstrated the highest rates of economic development, the highest commitment to democratic values, and have created an enduring and sustainable quality of life in the communities they serve.
I am not only talking of what is sometimes wrongly called Western or “first-world” science. South Africa, like many countries, recognises the unique potential of the knowledge resources of our people. Indigenous knowledge systems, hold great promise in providing the means of eliminating the alienation many people feel from science and technology as traditionally taught. Indigenous knowledge projects in South Africa have already shown a rich potential for better curriculum development, as well as new technological innovation.
Information and communication technology will play a major role in making education more attractive and accessible to communities excluded previously from high quality education in the sciences. This area is being actively explored in a number of bold experiments across the developing world – but we must be even bolder still. Experimentation is not enough for it does not reach a sufficient number of people.
Exclusion from the information age equals exclusion from the benefits of the information age. The technological solutions exist – and they are the same technologies that will improve health care delivery, better service to marginalised communities, and the greater awareness that underpins the true democratic spirit we must nurture in the context of sustainable development.
Above and beyond sustained intervention in school education we require excellence in science and technology in the research and educational institutions of the developing world. Societies that are not involved in the production of new knowledge and technologies are poorly equipped to make choices about the technologies they transfer and adopt from the developed world.
Carefully constructed programmes must extend into the strengthening of institutions of higher learning. There are many great Universities in the developing world, but knowledge generation in science and technology needs to be strengthened considerably and centers of excellence seeded and sustained in key areas of technology and application.
A science and technology based University and research infrastructure creates confidence in investors and leads to higher rates of new business start-ups within an economy. The absence of a science and technology infrastructure, by contrast, results in a foreign investment pattern that strips natural resources from the host countries which lack capacity to add value and thereby leverage the sustainable growth that leads to positive re-investment.
One of the key elements of sustainable science and technology systems is access to public knowledge resources, especially scientific journals and texts. It is sometimes difficult for people in the developed world to understand how large the expenditures are for these resources for universities and research institutes in the developing world. Since the pricing is frequently Dollar or Euro based, these costs can also change dramatically from year to year, as world currency markets exhibit their current volatility.
South Africa is reflecting on the possibility of proposing that such knowledge resources, particularly where they are available electronically, be priced (according to some acceptable structure) in relation to the GDP of the recipient country relative to the GDP of the developed world. A simple change like this would immediately signal a positive attitude from the developed world, it would release resources tied up in information acquisition and would, we believe, have a minimal impact on the viability or profitability of the publishers.
Strong universities and research institutions are necessary to train each new generation of knowledge workers for a knowledge-intensive future. This is where partnership becomes important. Technology transfer and the adoption of technologies is a human-centred process. We should pay far more attention to the receptor capacity for technology transfer in the developing world.
Developing countries need to invest in R&D (governments certainly need to do this and the private sector needs to have incentives to do the same). However, in the economic structure of many developing countries this process is made more difficult when large global corporations, that earn significant revenue from developing countries, fail to do research and development in those countries. There should be an obligation for proper R&D investment, tied in some meaningful way to the revenues earned by these companies, especially when the countries themselves are investing in R&D.
Many will argue that other structural factors are of greater importance than human capital and science and technology excellence – but macro economic structural reform has not paid off. In fact, the legacy of poor financial systems and economic mismanagement is something of a blight on the global landscape. Macro-economic engineering has yet to demonstrate an ability to deliver for the poor. Education and excellence in science and technology have never failed to deliver.
It is essential that levels of investment by Governments in civilian R&D are increased and sustained for a significant period to develop the human capital of the developing world. The message from the Asian growth experiments is increasingly clear. Those economies that strategically increased government R&D spending in the late 1970’s and through the next two decades are reaping rich rewards. Korea and Taiwan are two examples that represent a strong contrast to Malaysia and Indonesia according to the analyses performed by Harvard economist Geoffrey Sachs.
Lester Thurow of MIT has also looked at the factors that create wealth for nations. He concluded that R&D has the highest public pay-off of any investment made, whether in the public or private sector. It is difficult to know why this has eluded development policy makers for so long – but there are clear signs that a new groundswell has begun to question the resource and infrastructure models of development that dominated the thinking of the last 20 years.
I suppose it is to be expected that I should develop this thesis given the nature of my portfolio – but this is less of a contested thesis than many might argue.
In the field of high-tech start-ups those associated with universities and research institutions have a higher survival rate than those that aren’t. Studies of small enterprises globally indicate that those that actively seek to innovate and acquire new knowledge, outperform those that don’t.
Knowledge is the key to sustainable development and knowledge is best and most easily available in highly trained people.
The two major movements in science and technology today are biosciences/biotechnology, and information and communications technology. Other themes also appear repeatedly (such as nano-technology), but for the developing world biotechnology and ICT hold special promise.
I have already alluded to the role of ICT in education, but I would like to explore some of the unique characteristics of this type of technology. Firstly information technology has the peculiar nature that, provided the core infrastructure is in place, the benefits can be replicated at very low cost to a very large number of users. The keys to this puzzle are infrastructure and content. Unlike water, electricity and roads, high quality information infrastructure can utilise a multitude of different channels and has the characteristic of directly impacting the user in such a way that they become participants in, rather than merely recipients of, the technology.
The attractiveness of ICT for the developing world is not that it provides primary resources – it does that as well – but that the same channel becomes the basis of two-way conversation. Conversation is the basis of both democracy and education. Science is a highly structured conversation – but it remains a dialogue at the cutting edge.
The issue of biotechnology is going to prove more complicated. Biotechnology remains constrained by a number of factors that will limit its immediate usefulness to the programme we are outlining. The constraints are clear: there are ethical issues, issues of public understanding, and the fact that, in the end, biotech remains in the realm of chemistry and physics, that is the world of mass, temperature and time, in a way that ICT does not.
This does not mean that we should not actively pursue this option. Our indigenous knowledge gives us a basis for a rapid start in some domains. But we should be sober about the results. Plant based biotech will still require the sun, the rain and the seasons to play their crucial role. Industrial biotech still requires significant capital investments. Genetic modification, while already demonstrating early promise has much to do to meet the growing demand for caution from the public.
It is critical that the advantages of GMOs in addressing issues such as food security for the developing world do not become new barriers to trade for those same nations. We support an approach that is responsible, but market led rather than primarily regulatory.
Biotechnology embodies future risks that need to be managed. The anthrax attacks in the United States, which we have condemned in the strongest terms, show the risks of overly optimistic views of this revolution.
A number of countries in the developing world have active biotechnology programmes, including South Africa. We should even intensify our efforts – but at the same time we should increase our total science and technology effort in order to avoid over-emphasis in one domain of science and technology for sustainable development.
I would like to say something about intellectual property and sustainable development – generally on the theme of economics and equity, if you will. This is currently a highly contested area and there is a multitude of views being expressed. I would urge that we recognise two things: firstly the intellectual property system (copyright, patents, designs and trademarks) has been continuously developed over a significant period. Such protection has served the economies that use them well. There is evidence that reasonable “knowledge monopolies” are good for economic development at least at the level of firms.
However, it should not be forgotten that the IPR system as it now exists is very different to that of 10 years ago and substantially different to that of 50 years ago. If we go back as far as the 18th Century we would hardly recognise the notion of intellectual property as we understand it today. For instance, at that time, inventorship was subordinate to nationality on “letters patent” in England. Today the opposite is the case – inventors are recognised independent of their nationality on patents.
We should not assume that the recent court cases in South Africa on rights to intellectual property relating to pharmaceuticals and the events following the Anthrax attacks in the United States and more specifically in Canada, relating to intellectual property, are isolated incidents.
Intellectual property rights are increasingly competing with basic human rights. A nation with a GDP per capita measured in hundreds of dollars cannot be forced to deal with companies that sell treatments at hundreds of dollars per course for endemic diseases and syndromes. As companies increase their power and economics seems to dominate all conversations, we have to begin to reflect on the true nature of knowledge. Can remedies developed based on indigenous knowledge be sold back at a premium by companies that refuse to recognise the knowledge of the originators? Can those same companies not recognise the importance of doing R&D in the developing world? Can the relative buying power of different economies be irrelevant to the pricing of pharmaceuticals?
The disease burden of the developing world has not been the most attractive area for pharmaceutical research. The reason: buying power. We should not however place all of the blame at the door of the global intellectual property regime.
Part of the cost of medicine is associated with the high standards for registration and the massive investments made to ensure the safety of new compounds. The argument can be made very strong that companies should totally control pricing and distribution. However, the burden of disease in developing countries is an issue that goes to the heart of human rights – not just economic rights. The relationship between intellectual property regimes and sustainable development is essentially a dialogue between human rights and intellectual rights and we should clearly recognise this.
It is clear that science and technology are at the heart of the debate about sustainable development.
Education, excellence, equity and sound economics are important. Partnership is critical. There is still much to be done.
In concluding, it is my hope that these reflections add to the growing realisation that we require a conscious and strategic programme of action. This should be linked to the outcome of the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Science and technology are key instruments of sustainable development and require a new and more creative set of partnerships than we have imagined hitherto.
Issued by: Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, 17 January 2002