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Sparking Less Poverty and More Growth via Science, Technology, and Innovation

January 11, 2010

January 11, 2010 - The man from Jaipur had clearly done this before. With a small crowd of people watching, he buckled on his artificial foot for the video camera and climbed a nearby tree with great agility for someone missing his left foot. He then leapt from the tree over a fence and sprinted down a nearby street and back again. His friends say he can run a kilometer in just over four and a half minutes. Not content with his efforts yet, the man returns, sprang onto his bicycle and rode away down the road with the camera following him off into the distance.

Thanks to a 28 dollar prosthetic limb, which TIME magazine described as one of the best 50 inventions of 2009, the young man from Jaipur who lost his foot in a landmine explosion has returned to normal life through the research and innovation of two local Indian inventors. A comparable artificial limb in the West would cost about 20,000-30,000 dollars.

The Jaipur video made a compelling case for how poor countries can better adapt new and existing technologies to solve their local problems without having to import expensive Western-style fixes. It also captured the innovative spirit at the Bank’s 2009 Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) Global Forum which brought dozens of the world’s top scientists, innovators, and policymakers to Washington on December 10-11, 2009 to discuss how to better twin practical science and technology solutions with local development needs. These can range from cheap but effective artificial limbs, vaccines, to solar panels, and boosting crop yields with less water, the sky’s the limit.

With 2010 and the five-year countdown to the MDGs about to get underway, policymakers are keenly aware that few countries can hope to achieve their development goals without the scientific, engineering, and technical/vocational capacity to handle pressing development issues such as food security, cleaner energy, adaptation to climate change, improving health systems, providing water and sanitation services, generating wealth and jobs, and reducing absolute poverty. There can be no sustainable solutions to any of these problems if countries do not build the capacity to find and develop appropriate technologies, and modify them for local use.

“Developing countries cannot hope to prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy and open trading system if they don’t build the appropriate science, technology, innovation-entrepreneurial, engineering, and technical/vocational capacity to produce more value-added goods and services,” says the Bank’s Human Development Network (HDN) STI Coordinator Al Watkins who organized the Global Forum on STI to help better leverage science and technology partnerships in North and South for sustainable development.

Everyone agrees that better science and technology is vital, but as Watkins and other Bank staff at the Global Forum asked, what should the Bank’s role be in this process? Ours is not a science organization. Neither do we have battalions of trained engineers and scientists on staff to help countries build their own capacity. Many developing countries are bypassing official development agencies (especially multilateral agencies like the World Bank) and boosting their STI research capacity by partnering directly with universities, private enterprises, think tanks, and research institutes. Development agencies may play a supporting role in facilitating and financing some of these partnerships but, to date, they have not been direct participants in many of them.

“It took 40 years for radio to reach a market of 50 million. Television took 13, the Internet 5, and Facebook took only 2 years”, HD’s Managing Director Graeme Wheeler reminded his Global Forum audience in mapping out the Bank’s potential role in STI and acknowledging the restless nature of ideas and information flows and their umbilical links with rising prosperity.

“Our development impact depends on our ability to transfuse innovations bubbling up all over the world to find better ways of doing business – including better lending and risk management products, smarter technical assistance, and cutting edge knowledge,” Wheeler added.
“Developing countries don’t need to climb technology ladders from the bottom - they can leap frog on new bio-tech, wireless, mobile, and digital technologies. But often, their main challenge is to develop the STI capacity to solve everyday challenges, modify technologies for local use and deploy them to local villages and enterprises, small and large.”

Not surprisingly, with such leading participants at the Bank forum as Peter Msolla, Tanzania’s Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, Harold Vamus, Nobel Laureate and White House science adviser, Professor Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former Science Advisor to the Japanese Cabinet, Ramesh Mashelkar, President of the Global Research Alliance, promising ideas about the Bank’s future involvement in the STI and development agenda came from every direction.

Expert ideas

For example, Harold Vamus suggested the Bank could back a Global Science Corps, modeled loosely on the Peace Corps, which would deploy large numbers of science and engineering professors and researchers from countries with strong scientific capacity to developing countries for periods of a year or longer. Corps members would work with local scientists to conduct high quality, locally relevant research and to expand the roster of qualified science and engineering professors in the host countries.

Other ideas included a Technology Transfer Facility which could help developing countries to find technology generated outside the country, license it, or otherwise bring it into the country. They could make it available to local researchers who can modify it for local use, and transfer this technology to local small and medium enterprises. A partnership between the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (the private sector wing of the World Bank Group), and existing U.S. and European technology groups could do much to help developing country clients build the institutions and skills needed to organize and manage these technology transfers.

Another proposal called for a Regional Science Fund to Promote Pro-poor Technology to support mainly South-South scientific collaboration and research to co-deliver technical solutions to high priority problems in ways that are acceptable to local communities.

At the end of the Global Forum, Managing Director Graeme Wheeler promised participants that the World Bank will devise an action plan over the coming months in collaboration with other partners to put together a strategy, partnership arrangements, and financing, to maximize the development impact of new STI partnership initiatives. Wheeler offered the Bank Group as a possible secretariat and organizer of this process along with encouraging other donors to come on-board with this work. Wheeler says he hoped to report back to the Global Forum within the next six months.

As Professor Phillip Griffiths put it on the last day of the Forum, “the Bank is uniquely positioned to raise STI to the center of a new global development strategy. This strategy is endorsed and in many cases initiated by leaders in the developing countries themselves.” As one of the world’s foremost mathematicians and Chairman of The Science Initiative Group―an international team of scientific leaders and supporters dedicated to fostering science in developing countries―Phillip Griffiths’ comments are always consequential. “Given the enthusiasm and diversity of the organizations gathered here today, the Bank has an unprecedented opportunity to catalyze a powerful new partnership in support of knowledge-based development."

The World Bank launched ten new Global Expert Teams (GETs) in February 2009. Their themes represent corporate priorities, identified and supported by senior management and Vice Presidents (VPs) for their high strategic relevance to the Bank Group. Their mission is to ensure that the best expertise (internal and external) is available and deployed quickly and flexibly to the right problem -- no matter where it resides. The GETs also ensure that the Bank's knowledge on each theme is captured and disseminated systematically to the broader community and clients. GETs are small expert teams, with a team leader and a core of four to six experts, supplemented by an extended team and a roster of external experts. Team members were identified by sponsoring VPs and vetted by network councils.

The Human Development Network houses three GETs – Social Safety Nets, Health, and Science, Technology and Innovation. The GET on STI has two key strategic objectives:

  1. help Bank task teams and government policy-makers design, develop, and deliver STI capacity building programs tailored to each country's specific growth, competitiveness and poverty reduction agenda, as well as to its specific stage of development and initial STI capacity;
  2. foster partnerships to intermediate knowledge and capacity flows between developing country clients that need to augment their STI capacity and development partners -- in both the North and South -- who possess a great deal of the required technical expertise and capacity building prowess.