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Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

Science has often come to the rescue when it comes to the world’s big problems, be it the Green Revolution that helped avoid mass starvation or the small pox vaccine that eradicated the disease. There…

Science incubator with food. EPA

Science has often come to the rescue when it comes to the world’s big problems, be it the Green Revolution that helped avoid mass starvation or the small pox vaccine that eradicated the disease. There is always hope that scientific innovations will help solve global problems. So can scientists help solve the globe’s ultimate problem: eliminate extreme poverty? In two announcements this month, the governments of the US and UK have made a fresh commitment to try.

On 3 April, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) unveiled the Global Development Lab, with the goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030 using technology-based solutions. While not strictly a physical lab, it is an initiative that will bring together universities, the private sector, governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in order to collectively trial new technological tools to fight poverty.

This is an ambitious exercise. The funding reflects that, with USAID committing to US$1 billion per year of support. The ultimate aim is seemingly intractable, but the lab and its partners will aim to develop solutions in water, health, food security and nutrition, energy, education, and climate change, all in the space of only five years.

Not many days after USAID’s announcement, on 9 April, the UK government announced the launch of the Newton Fund, a £375m pot designed to improve the research capacities of emerging powers such as Brazil, India and South Africa, and in doing so strengthen ties with Britain.

This might seem like a lot of investment in scientific innovation for development. But it is not the first time huge commitments have been made.

What after publicly-funded science?

Previous initiatives such as the Green Revolution, and attempts to eradicate malaria, among others, represent some of the largest global public investments ever made. After World War II, there has been hope that publicly-funded science would cement peace and that technology would become the foundation of the global economy.

While the impacts of these efforts have been far-reaching, they have also come with caveats of sustainability, reach and appropriateness. The Green Revolution never really took off in Africa, attempts to eradicate the mosquito as a means to control malaria have stalled, vaccination programmes struggle to gain acceptance in certain parts of the world, and among certain populations (and not just in developing countries).

These examples do not represent miracles, technological panaceas, or broken promises. They represent the enormous complexities of the relationship between science, technology and society. New knowledge on its own cannot solve societal problems, innovation does not automatically engage with pressing need, and technologies more often than not do not reach the people who need them. We have since developed a more critical, possibly jaundiced but also more realistic view of the transformational power of science.

Universal education, better communication and international collaboration have not only created new platforms for science, they have created new platforms to engage critically with science and recognise the roots of limitations – diseases of the poor have few treatments, crop yields have stagnated, the internet has remained out of the reach of too many. There are limits to science beyond the limits of technical knowledge, and these limits are often shaped by the limits of innovation to engage with problems of development.

That is why the Global Development Lab and Newton Fund are not simply new Green Revolutions or vaccine development initiatives. They recognise the central role of innovation. The Lab aims to create a “new global marketplace of innovations”. Entrepreneurs, investors and corporate leaders are given as much emphasis as inventors, academics and research.

There is some consternation that some of the private sector partners – such as Coca-Cola, Cargill and Unilever – that will profit from poverty alleviation. Similarly, the Newton Fund will be administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), not the Department for International Development (DFID) that is experienced at handling such programmes. However, the larger aim is an urgent one and such initiatives are desperately needed.

Even then, it would be wrong to interpret the launch of the Global Development Lab and Newton Fund within a week of each other as some sort of watershed in how we conceive of the nature of innovation within science for development. Rather it is a sign of an already emerging approach.

There have been many initiatives over the past few years that have blurred the boundaries of public and private – global product development partnerships such as the International Aids Vaccine Initiative fuelled by the emergence of social entrepreneurship as an alternative to “development” (see for example the excellent The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator) and the emergence of innovation hubs in developing countries (for example iHub in Nairobi). These are reshaping the relationship between science, technology and innovation for development.

Slow and steady wins

Innovation has historically been built on the interaction between public and private sectors, blurring the dichotomies. It would be a mistake to understand them as mutually exclusive. Social entrepreneurship – where profits are ploughed back into solving social problems – should not be seen as a proxy for NGOs, private-sector science should not be seen as the successor of public-sector science, and the market should not be seen as the sole vehicle for international development.

We need to think more critically about the relationship between the public and private sector. And we also need to resist the allure of only scaling up. While the Green Revolution and drug development demonstrate the power of scaling up a solution, thinking only in terms of scale risks privileging high-tech, high-risk solutions over simpler, less exciting solutions that deliver in local contexts.

The private sector and entrepreneurs are not a like-for-like replacement for international development and local initiatives. There are pressing needs to build infrastructure, support health and education systems and support governance and civil society structures. These are necessary for science to flourish and for technology to transform.

The hope is that both the Global Development Lab and Newton Fund recognise these complexities. They are taking on a big problem where in the past success has been slow.

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Charles Sifers

    COE StillWind Creations

    While science has a role to play with furthering technology, it is the free market that has and will raise people out of poverty. Without the free market, they will continue to languish in squalor.

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    1. Tessa B

      curious campaigner

      In reply to Charles Sifers
    2. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Charles Sifers

      There is no such thing as a Free Market. It's all distorted via subsidies and taxes and other restrictions. Is it a free market that allows the USA to undercut local production in Africa? How could the USA compete?
      Subsidies to their own growers is how. It's hardly conducive to reducing poverty.

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    3. James Smith

      Professor of African and Development Studies at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to John Doyle

      Ideally we distort the markets in ways which will help farmers, and in the context of the above this would mean distorting via incentives that actually prompt the private sector to produce medicines when there is otherwise no profit motive etc. Clearly other sorts of distortions, for produce in the US and EU are a nonsense - we shouldn't throw the notion of subsidy or incentive out with the Food Mountain though.

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    4. Tessa B

      curious campaigner

      In reply to Charles Sifers

      Ha-Joon Chang in his book 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism in his conclusions mentions that "...we need to end our love affair with unrestrained free-market capitalism, which has served humanity so poorly, and install a better-regulated variety. What that variety would be depends on our goals, values and beliefs."

      The Jubilee Debt Campaign are doing some interesting work.

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  2. Tessa B

    curious campaigner

    The Green Revolution has been a failure?
    The Green Revolution in the Punjab
    By Vandana Shiva
    Article published over 20 years ago.
    http://livingheritage.org/green-revolution.htm

    "It has led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts. The beneficiaries have been the agrochemical industry, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners.

    The "miracle" seeds of the Green Revolution have become mechanisms for breeding new pests and creating new diseases...."

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    1. James Smith

      Professor of African and Development Studies at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Tessa B

      Comments are good! Re: the Green Revolution. It is/was a success and failure. It was central to improving food supply when it was needed (not so much in India, you can't equate the Punjab to the entire 'Green Revolution' as Vandana Shiva is wont to do). It did distort livelihoods, pulled people into markets and had profound environmental impacts. It didn't do much for African agriculture (good or bad). The key is to learn from what worked - the basic approach of applying science to specific developmental problems and refining it whilst being cognisant of the vagaries of markets and risks of private sector capture.

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  3. Harry Alffa

    logged in via Twitter

    If you really want to haul people out of poverty then you must tie the financial sector to the real economy. Only morons or liars declare that the current version of the "free market" will do this - rising inequality proves it can't, and won't.

    Link the financial sector's taxes to the performance of the real economy with a simple feedback mechanism; as economic performance declines, bank taxes go up.
    Think of rising unemployment sets rising income tax for bankers; this forces them to invest in the real economy.
    Changes the whole Globe for ever, for the better.

    www.bailoutswindle.com

    https://twitter.com/HarryAlffa/status/384617899018551297
    "Prof Bell http://tinyurl.com/nmhek4k couldn't help nodding to "perverse if banks didn't fund SMEs" as a result of http://bailoutswindle.com ."

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    1. James Smith

      Professor of African and Development Studies at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Harry Alffa

      Rising inequality can still haul people out of poverty - depending on how one defines poverty. Evidence is that the number of people in so-called 'extreme poverty' has halved in the past decade. Not that rising inequality is in any way a good thing or that being pulled just out of extreme poverty is much better or that there are not better ways of organising the global economy.

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  4. Tessa B

    curious campaigner

    US Foreign Policy - questions need to be asked.

    April 2014 Devpolicyblog:
    "The Lab describes its highly ambitious mission as ‘to discover, test, and scale breakthrough development innovations to solve development challenges faster and cheaper in support of U.S. foreign policy and development goals and to accelerate the transformation of USAID as the world’s premier development agency."
    http://devpolicy.org/in-brief/usaid-launches-global-development-lab-20140416/

    I have been watching this morning…

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    1. James Smith

      Professor of African and Development Studies at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Tessa B

      Everyone's foreign policy - through aid, trade, policy, or research - is about advancing one's own strategic interests to a certain degree. You can't simply write everything off on that basis. By the same token, while there are clearly powerful interests in science and peer review is a problem, it is not necessarily corrupt. I know plenty of scientists who work for the CGIAR/FAO who just try to do the best job they can.

      You might find this online GM) & development debate interesting (this Wednesday):
      http://www.scidev.net/global/gm/multimedia/GM-debate.html

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    2. Tessa B

      curious campaigner

      In reply to James Smith

      Many thanks James, yes of course we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and of course many are doing their best for the best of reasons. However, we do need to be careful about generalising when we are talking about science. Nuclear bombs are science, not a good example but hopefully you get my point. I am not an expert, but work has been done taking a critical look at the reductionist view of science. I will send you a video. I think it is imperative that the public know if GM is part of these US and UK projects. There is no scientific consensus on GM safety. Do you have this information regarding the Global Development Lab and GM? How would one go about finding out? Guess I could write to my MP.
      My reference to "corruption of science" is of course a figure of speech.
      Thank you for the link. I did spot it and hope to make some postings later today.

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