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Making Science and Technology Work for the Poor

Time (GMT +00) 17:00 18:00

George Rothschild
, former Director-General of the International Rice Research Institute and former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Minister for Overseas Development, Australian Federal Government
Ian Scoones, Professor and Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex
John Battle, MP

The Chairman welcomed those in attendance to today's meeting and explained the role of the APGOOD series. The Chairman then introduced the two speakers of the event. George Rothschild was to speak first, followed by Ian Scoones.

George Rothschild noted that agricultural science and technology in Sub-Saharan Africa is a complex issue, encompassing technical, economic, and social dimensions. Due to the brevity of the session, he decided to comment on three key topics: the requirements for science and technology in agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, the present status and constraints of science and technology in Sub-Saharan Africa, and new options and initiatives for science and technology in Sub-Saharan Africa, omitting perhaps some other key aspects of the problem, including its need for capacity building.

He started his discussion with the requirements aspect of the debate. Over the past four decades, the link between science and technology through innovation with increases in food production in the developing world is almost entirely uncontested. This is particularly true of Latin America and Asia, but Africa has not shared in those developments so much. There are, though, a significant number of success stories in Africa which could give us encouragement for the future.

Even in the past twenty years, there have been significant changes in science and technology in agriculture around the world. One of these changes is the stagnation in funding from the public sector, with more funds being diverted to other areas of development and the private sector sending only 10% of the funds it allocates for science and technology in agriculture on the developing world. Despite this, a majority of people in Africa is in agriculture and relies on the food it produces as their main income/spending mechanism. Not only will the current population remain heavily dependent upon the land, but the population is expected to increase by up to 3 billion over the next decades. So far, food and nutritional security have played little part in this debate; malnutrition is greatly underestimated.

The second part of his presentation focused on the present status of science and technology in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many argue that it is either more science and technology or greater innovation in agriculture that will lift Africa from poverty. Instead, Rothschild believes the two are complementary and the transition from one to the other deserves more attention. He also noted the need for a balance between a demand-led and supply-led mechanism, with both researchers/policy-makers and those benefiting from the discussion present at the table. Much is also being said about declining agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rothschild believes this statement is far too general and does not take into consideration the many success stories, including DFID's £250 million investment in Renewable Natural Resources Research programmes. Success is being achieved sometimes despite poor political and economic governance. At the same time, donors need to ensure that research is fully embedded in the mainstream development process, capacity building needs to remain an essential requirement, and budgetary support toward science and technology need to be considered in PRSPs. It is too often starkly absent, and agriculture ministries in Africa are sometimes too weak or backward-looking to stand up to ministers of finance in the formulation of budgets, development planning, and PRSP strategies.

Thirdly, Rothschild noted new initiatives in the area and believes that progress needs to be African led and owned. He had connected with leading African researchers in preparing his presentation. One of them, Dr. Monty Jones, a recipient of the World Food Prize, believes there is evidence that agriculture is again moving in the right direction, but also notes that without further funding, progress with capacity building and the re-growth of staff will diminish. Rothschild cautioned that not too much emphasis should be placed on research and centres of excellence. Instead, all stakeholders from the bottom up should become a part of the discussion.In concluding, Rothschild reiterated his optimism about the future of applied and adaptive science and technology.

Ian Scoones divided his presentation into two sections: the essential importance of technology in increasing agricultural output and reducing poverty, and how this can be complemented by technological governance. Because Rothschild commented a good deal on the first, Scoones decided to spend more time on the second area.

He started by giving six examples of success stories arising from his engagements in Africa, each of which encompasses different technologies evolving from different sources and funding. These included impressive plant breeding efforts of WARDA, drought resistance breeding maize of CIMMYT, pest and disease work, insect-resistant cotton and virus-free bananas in East Africa, soil and water conservation techniques, and rice intensification (the Madagascar model is now spreading to mainland Africa).
While these stories are something to celebrate, Scoones also gives three notes of caution about becoming overzealous. First, we must be wary of overusing the Asian Green Revolution as an example and comparison mechanism for Africa; the conditions for public investment and physical infrastructure are rather different. Second, we should also not assume that investment in science and technology will automatically translate to a reduction in poverty. These are no magic bullets. And, finally, we need to avoid too much enthusiasm around Big Science and Centres of Excellence.

Scoones went on to categorize five important issues of governance in science and technology.

  1. Technology priorities have in the past been dealt with via a top-down approach, with research coming before its users. Things are changing to a more participatory process, but more is needed. Good science means asking good questions of farmers and listening to their answers.
  2. n terms of innovation systems, Scoones questioned how we ensure good science actually makes its way to those that need it. We need to link the researchers with the poor farmers in a more mainstream effort, similar to the recent CGIAR initiative.
  3. Technology ownership and access in a hot issue. We need to look more closely at intellectual property systems and the distribution of patents and how the two affect agriculture. He questioned the future of the intellectual property protection system and the role of the development community in that debate.
  4. Scoones also questioned how we are to deal with the risks and uncertainties in regulation systems. The biotechnology revolution, coupled with an increase in world trade, has spurred an increase in health and safety regulations. It does not work to transplant the regulations of the US into the developing world and just hope for the best. Instead, we need to find new ways to deliver a system of regulation to ensure that science and technology are carefully incorporated into development.
  5. Funding spurs another major question. The Green Revolution was funded a lot by the public sector, which now lacks the capacity to continue funding alone. If we have the public sector lacking capacity and the private sector lacking incentives, a public/private partnership may be better. At the same time, we need to remain critical about the scope and ultimate placement of funds from these partnerships.

Scoones concluded by saying that investment in science and technology is most obviously essential, but must go hand in hand with the five issues he raised of governance in order to prove most affective.

The Chairman then opened the floor to discussion and questions. In the discussion that followed, the following points were made:

One commented that there is not enough discussion on government corruption and cited some of the unhelpful aspects of the EU Common Agricultural Policy. We need to talk more with Africans about what it is that they actually need instead of setting the agenda for them. Both agreed that there is a trend towards more involvement of African business and science leaders, but more needs to be done.

Another asked about the division of funds and labour between EU and African research centres. The answer lies in partnerships and realizing who has the comparative advantage of each.

Another brought up three issues. In terms of enclosure, it was obvious that patents do not help divert poverty. What about other forms of corporate control? Secondly, in terms of innovation systems, what if money generally invested in the centres of excellence were instead reinvested in small scale, low-cost, highly effective technologies? Finally, the importance of including African voices in the debate so that policy makers indeed know what are those low-cost, highly effective technologies was again stressed. In reply, it was asserted that many needs of the poor do not require GM. Instead, we need to look at more traditional and imaginative approaches. There was question about the Centres of Excellence approach to applying science and technology. Often the most successful ways to capture innovation is through multiple sources, including small or medium organisations, Centres of Excellence, and regional research institutions. The key is to ensure that governments set priorities before allocating funds. We need more of a network model of democratic governance arrangements ensuring the priorities of farmers and poorer people.

A Nigerian scientist felt we have not yet boldly identified the actual problem. The real problem is the limited capacity for science and technology in Africa over the recent decades due to the social hierarchies. The solution would be to establish more investment in agriculture at the college and university level to nurture highly-educated people who will be able to make the changes in Africa. In response, it was agreed that we need to build a broader public initiative, including via farmer organisations, to put pressure on international organisations and donors. It is also important to strike a balance between money funnelled into science and into socio-economic development.

Tony Worthington, the former Chairman of APGOOD, followed along these remarks and further commented that there is a lot of science and technology being developed, but resources for the application are often lacking. This has led to the collapse of the traditional extension services. Application needs to be a priority. There was agreement from the panel. Science has been a success but socio-economic institutions have generally left something to be denied.Others commented on the enormous task such development issues have become and the role of women in science and technology in Africa.

The Chairman closed the session by noting the fascinating and challenging questions put forth by all of those involved and encouraged more of that discussion.


At this event, George Rothschild and Ian Scoones discussedthe importance of technology in Sub-Saharan Africa, increasing agricultural output and reducing poverty, and how this can be complemented by technological governance.