Making Science and Technology Work for the Poor

Source: Making Science and Technology Work for the Poor - Future ...

Ian Scoones’s premise is that while the Asian green revolution was iconic, the problems of African agriculture are not simple, and are not amenable to such single fix technological solutions. In the Asian Green Revolution, he argues, a simple set of technologies, supported by a strong, well- organised public sector, funded by aid money, made a dramatic effect on large numbers of people, but this may not be replicable in Africa. In Africa’s agriculture, diverse agro-ecologies interact with diverse farming systems – requiring instead what some have called ‘multiple rainbow evolutions’, rather than a big bang revolution.

In this discussion Paper Ian Scoones argues that, as currently organised, Agricultural R and D systems – both public and private - don’t necessarily respond well to the needs of poor people in developing countries. “Despite all the hype about the potentials research reducing poverty, there are many missed opportunities” he says. Very often poor and marginalised people across the global south do not end up benefiting from Science and Technology and he suggests three reasons:
First – In the context of globalisation, the dynamics of the market and control by large corporations are increasingly important factors governing access to technologies, both new and old. The lion’s share of agricultural R&D globally is controlled by a handful of large corporations. In the developing world this is increasingly the case, especially with the decrease in public sector capacity for R&D.

  • For example - A few years ago there was much made of the potentials of GM crops to solve the problems of world hunger. But today, years later, the only GM crops that are being planted in the developing world at scale are essentially cast-off products, developed for other markets.

Second - Public agricultural research, in Africa in particular, has been decimated by a sequence of policies which have undermined funding and capacity. And the international system - while having better funds and more qualified personnel - is often not tuned in to local priorities.

  • Take just one example – the ‘system of rice intensification’, a way of planting rice which, because of the way soils, water and roots interact, can increase yields several fold. This was an innovation first developed in Madagascar by a Catholic priest working with a small group of farmers. Through the activities of individual researchers, NGOs and increasingly governments, it has now spread across the world, with perhaps millions of poor farmers benefiting. But the system remains shunned by the scientific establishment including, apparently, the International Rice Research Institute. Unable to replicate the success on their own research stations, they are unable to recognise the experience of numerous farmers. “How can this be?” he asks?

Third - technologies should not be seen as isolated - separate from their social, cultural contexts. Very often old technologies, available for years, are not being used by people because the social ‘software’ has not been combined with the technical ‘hardware’. Research organisations are often focused only on the technical end – the fix. But this is not enough. A wider perspective is needed that sees technology as part of a broader innovation system, encompassing the mechanisms for adaptation, spread and delivery. Without this, perfectly good technologies may just sit in the lab, on the research station or on the stockists’ shelf.

  • Take for example soil and water conservation technologies in dry-land Africa - There have been huge investments in trying to get farmers to adopt particular techniques and technologies. But the issue is not just soil conservation and water engineering. It is about trust, enthusiasm, and confidence in the technology. And this can only be built through social processes. Soil and water conservation technologies therefore should be seen as ‘socio-technical’ systems, where the social and technical, the software and the hardware are linked. This requires not only technical innovation, but also social innovation

How, then, can we make research work for the poor? Ian proposes four approaches:

Firstly - Don’t expect the private sector alone to make this happen. The profit motive inevitably drives private R&D, and expecting a sudden philanthropic turnaround is naïve – beyond some of the well-publicised PR gestures. If the very considerable talents and resources of the private sector are to be unleashed for development, some new incentives – both push and pull - need to be applied.

Secondly – The public sector, too, has its limits. There is a major task of rebuilding public sector R&D capacity in Africa, for example - but let’s not rebuild in the old image, or create elite isolated islands of ‘scientific excellence’. Public sector institutions need to re-gear their research styles and priority setting mechanisms fundamentally if they are to capture the potentials of research for poverty reduction. This will require some significant organisational rethinking.

Thirdly – There is need to identify the multiple sources of innovation – high and low tech; social and technical; from both elite science and from farmers – and combine these in interesting ways, suited to local circumstances.

Fourthly - there is need to insist on participatory and collaborative research that responds to locally defined needs and priorities, creating multiple pathways of technology change, and real choice among options. This means involving technology users not just in ‘down- stream’, back-end adaptation and testing, but right upstream in front-end technology design and priority setting.