AsianScientist (Dec. 18, 2014) – By Crispin Maslog – Science may never completely solve the problem of poverty, but it will not be because it did not try. After scientists have landed man on the moon and put a lander on an asteroid, there is no reason, why it should not set its goal higher.
There have been attempts to alleviate poverty in recent history like the Green Revolution that staved off famine in the 1960s and raised the income of poor farmers in Asia.
Bruce Tolentino, deputy director-general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), says: “One must look at the economic development histories of countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and especially Vietnam, India, China, and more recently, Cambodia. Their relative success in reducing poverty is based on improvements in agricultural technology that were brought about by the Green Revolution.”
“There is plenty of peer-reviewed, empirical evidence that conclusively indicate the benefits of the Green Revolution, and which laid the basis for inclusive economic development of those countries that embraced it,” Tolentino tells SciDev.Net.
Other initiatives, while far-reaching have not been completely successful, such as global vaccination programmes and attempts to control malaria by eradicating mosquitoes. They were among the biggest global public investments ever made.
But hope still lingers among the funders of science that the battle against poverty can be won with the help of scientists. In April 2014, the US and UK governments announced new funding towards this end.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced last April 3 its Global Development Lab in partnership with 31 universities, corporations and foundations, whose ambitious goal is to stamp out extreme poverty by 2030 through technology-based solutions. USAID has pledged US$1 billion per year to support the project, which aims to develop in five years technology solutions to poverty in the areas of water, health, food security and nutrition, energy, education and climate change.
A few days later, the UK government launched the Newton Fund with funding of £375 million, which aims to strengthen research capabilities of emerging economies including countries in South-East Asia.
Gordian knot of poverty
I commend these new and ambitious attempts to tackle the problem of poverty through the use of science but warn that the problem is like the proverbial Gordian Knot (a metaphor referring to the legendary King Gordius and which means an intricate or complicated problem).
We remember the early days of development aid from the West to the developing countries of Asia in the 1950s. The World Bank and USAID employed this formula: Capital + Technology = Development. They poured money and technological expertise into Asia. But after five decades, the poor became poorer and more numerous and the rich became richer.
The relationship between science, technology, innovation and society is complicated. I agree with scientists who say that new knowledge on its own cannot solve society’s problems. Technologies do not always reach the people who need them. And if they reach the intended people, the recipients do not know how to use them.
The key words for science programs to succeed, in my opinion, are appropriate technology, efficient technology transfer, science literacy and social participation.
There is no one scientific solution to all the problems of the poor. Some science will solve some problems of some of the poor. Some science and technology will be appropriate for poor farmers, for example. Others will answer the problems of informal settlers in the slums.
However, once science and technology are developed, they must be accessible to the poor who will use them. This is the problem of technology transfer from the public and private research institutions to the end users. And just as important, the end users must know how to use the technology.
An example of effective technology transfer is the Farmers Scientists Technology Programme (FSTP) in the Philippines managed by University of the Philippines entomologist, Romulo Davide. Under this government-funded scheme, Davide pairs a farmer with a scientist who works with him on the farm. FSTP has hundreds of cases of farmers who have become rich through the program.
However, hundreds of successes are too few when there are tens of millions of farmers and billions of poor people. To further involve more poor people, we need to promote reading and science literacy among the poor. Countries cannot aspire to develop without a scientifically literate population.
A final note: The poor must be convinced that the technology they adopt is what they need. A major cause of the failure of the World Bank aid program in Asia in the 1950s is that the people were not consulted about the development projects the bank funded.
Need for social participation
In Southeast Asia, there is a strong movement towards social participation. For instance, the Universities and Councils Network on Innovation for Inclusive Development in Southeast Asia or UNIID-SEA promotes innovation for inclusive development.
It defines “innovation for inclusive development as that which aims to reduce poverty and enables as many groups of people, especially the poor and marginalized, to participate in decision making, create and actualize opportunities, and share the benefits of development”.
This time around the poor must have a say in what problems they have that science and technology can solve for development to be inclusive.
Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.