SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY FOR DEVELOPING COUNTRIES: THE ‘SUSSEX MANIFESTO’ REVISITED
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The optimism of the 1960s placed great hope on harnessing science and technology for international development and produced bold plans, including the so-called Sussex Manifesto. Norman Clark reflects on the wise prescription from 40 years ago and wonders why development assistance so often went astray.
In 1970 a group of analysts from the newly-created Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex put together a document designed to set out the proper role for science and technology (S/T) in the international development of poor countries. The original Sussex Manifesto was written in 1970 as an advisory document for UN policy during the “Second Development Decade”.1 In many ways it was ahead of its time and sought to raise issues that were really below the radar in conventional policy discourse. The monograph, broadly speaking, made two major points:
S&T investment is key to economic development and resources committed to it should be increased substantially (a figure of 0.5% of national GDP for each country devoted to R&D was specified).
A necessary condition for its developmental impact, however, is appropriate institutional reform. The first point was justified on the basis of the increased knowledge content of economic activity and the recognition that technological change is a key developmental determinant. The second argued that if institutional reform did not take place, then whatever extra resources were committed would likely be wasted. For example, trained S&T manpower would probably join well-funded international organisations based in the richer countries (the external brain drain), while lack of effective demand for indigenous S&T services would lead to the marginalisation of public sector indigenous institutions such as universities and research institutes (the internal brain drain).
Regrettably the Sussex Manifesto fell on deaf ears. Some attention was paid to the first point but now, nearly 40 years on and despite massive investments in developmental aid, international poverty is as endemic as it ever was — notwithstanding the presence of myriads of NGOs and scientific organisations beavering away gamely (though often located in the rich countries). Progress is still abysmally slow.
What has gone wrong? Was the initial analysis misconceived and, if so, how? And what can now be done? Or was the analysis broadly correct but have social and economic forces combined to ensure that important vested interests would not be threatened? And so, business as usual was conducted over the remainder of the century.
A recent paper by Professor Martin Bell may help to throw light on the issue and lend support to the latter hypothesis. Bell’s argument is reached on the basis of detailed empirical research over the period in question. It argues that successful technology development is largely enterprise-based and relies on “public sector science” only to a limited extent. R&D is important, of course, but it is not where innovation mainly takes place and it is innovation, not R&D that really drives possibilities for poverty reduction. The mistake was made in the early post-war years at a time when development was seen as the responsibility of the public sector and technology was assumed to be science-led. It seemed relatively straightforward for bodies like UNESCO to advocate the creation in versities, for example, that were in effect “cardboard cut-outs” of their rich country parents. Relevant technologies would thereby “take root and flourish” and poverty would inevitably disappear. Now we are not so sure. Perhaps the huge sums of money spent on public sector research are a waste of resources, relatively speaking. Perhaps a radical re-think of innovation policy is now due and though the results will be unpalatable to some professional interests, developmental outcomes could be highly positive.
Bell does not take his analysis that far but it is implicit in his argument. Take, for example, industrial activity. It really does not matter whether you are considering a cassava processing plant in Ghana or a deep water petroleum facility off the coast of Angola. In either case the investment activities associated with any new venture will follow roughly the same rules. The firm will determine the macroeconomic and government regulatory context, specify the process and product design, the ancillary facilities such as power and water supply, the necessary financial and due diligence components, and associated contracting and sub-contracting arrangements for its engineering. Management of the package is a highly skill-intensive process and one that takes time. It will, of course, hopefully embed the latest knowledge as a necessary condition, but in practice every project is a new project and it is in this process of “getting it right” that much of the necessary learning and innovation takes place. Bell also shows that in general the resources needed here are many multiples of basic and applied “research-rich countries costs.” It is in the doing of it that knowledge is expanded. And this is where the private sector is so successful. No enterprise would tolerate the levels of economic inefficiency routinely exhibited by public sector science. It could not afford to.
Photo courtesy Rasheed Sulaiman V.
One obvious response is that “of course agriculture and health are different” and that has always been the justification behind public sector science in developing countries. But how valid is this argument really? The so-called Green Revolution worked well for maize, wheat and rice in the mid 20th century and where the target farmers had adequate access to land, fertilisers, water and credit. But on the whole these were not the poor farmers that needed help. And many in this category, perhaps most, did not benefit. Certainly the huge superstructure of the Consultative Group for International Research, the CGIAR system (established as the institutional heir to the Green Revolution), seems not to have produced much poverty alleviation since. Similarly, in health, HIV and malaria are the diseases that hit the headlines, but arguably to the detriment of other neglected diseases where the “science” may not be as exciting but where poverty-inducing impacts are probably at least as great. And even here there are many professional scientists who have spent whole careers in rich country-based laboratories (rarely if ever visiting the field) working on the aetiology of this or that parasite but with little of the resultant knowledge having any kind of impact on the poorest of the poor. In fact it is at least arguable that successful technology development for agriculture and health is not in principle dissimilar to that for industry. Though its required enterprise-led nature may not be so easy to achieve, surely we should be able to make a better attempt than we have so far.
Could it be that we have here a silent conspiracy of professional interests whose scientific work is justified on the basis of poverty reduction but who would be devastated if they were actually successful in these terms? Certainly the gap between science and society in poor countries is as wide as it ever was despite the growth of a recent literature that is critical in many of the above respects. Lip service is made to new concepts such as “innovation systems” or “participatory knowledge” and project proposals are often written in a new meta-language designed to give the appearance of delivering positive outcomes. But in practice not much has changed. Perhaps donors too are complicit since they are staffed by people who have been brought up with the same zeitgeist. And it would be too difficult and threatening to tear up established rule books on the mechanics of aid funding and try out new approaches.
But if the Sussex Manifesto were to be rewritten today I suggest that it would emphasise the need to see science in much more direct developmental terms. Projects would be funded only if they could ensure outcomes that genuinely make a difference to the welfare of the poorest of the poor. If they succeeded they would be reviewed and continued in some form. But if they failed they would be stopped at once. Public support for science in agriculture and health would be similarly bounded. Donors would be encouraged to take a similar approach such that the rather cosy client relationship that they currently appear to have with the public sector scientific community would become distanced and hopefully much more socially efficient. And the disciplines of the private sector would be encouraged and supported to a high degree. Rome, of course, was not built in a day. But when it finally came to fruition it lasted for centuries. Is it too much to expect something analogous for S&T and development capacities and practices?
Bell R.M. (2007). Technological Learning and the Development of Production and Innovative Capacities in the Industry and Infrastructure Sectors of the Least Developed Countries: What Roles for ODA?, A Paper prepared for UNCTAD Division for Africa, Least Developed Countries and Special Programmes
Sussex Group (1970). Science, Technology and Development: Proposals for the Second Development Decade, Report of the Advisory Committee on the Application of Science and Technology to Development, United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York, Document ST/ECA/133. 1 See Sussex Group (1970)