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Foreword: Mobilizing Science and Technology to Address the Problems of the Poor

One very important, and underemphasized, strategy for achieving sustainable development must be the mobilization of science and technology directed to meet the needs of the poor. Without a doubt, new advances of global science and technology will be needed to address the interlocking crises of public health, agricultural productivity, environmental degradation and demographic stress confronting the poorest developing countries.

In recent decades, the conditions in many of the world’s poorest regions are worsening dramatically even as global science and technology create new surges of wealth and wellbeing in richer countries. The problem is that, for myriad reasons, the technological gains in wealthy countries do not readily diffuse to the poorest ones. Research and development of new technologies are directed overwhelmingly at rich-country problems, and these new technologies are often not applicable to the challenges facing the poor.

To the extent that the poor face distinct ecological conditions and social needs, science and technology must be directed purposefully towards them. Yet in today’s global set-up, that rarely happens. Currently, the international system fails to meet the technological needs of the world’s poorest.

If it were true that the poor were just like the rich but with less money, the global situation would be vastly easier than it is. As it happens, the poor live in different ecological zones, face different health conditions, and must overcome agronomic limitations that are very different from those of rich countries. Those differences, indeed, are often a fundamental cause of persisting poverty.

Most of the world’s poor live under vastly different environmental conditions than the rich, mainly in tropical ecozones with their often unique disease agents and agricultural factors, as well as remote continental hinterlands and mountainous regions. Sustainable development for the poor is not possible unless the underlying ecological constraints are removed or mitigated, yet most R&D is conducted by rich countries and focused on rich-country problems, not on tropical agriculture and medicine.

Poor tropical populations are burdened by diseases such as malaria, hookworm, sleeping sickness and schistosomiasis, whose transmission generally depends on a warm climate. Poor food productivity in the tropics is not merely a problem of poor social organisation. The tropical agricultural regions are generally far less productive in annual food crops, and temperate-zone solutions to low agricultural productivity are not very effective. Scientific advances again offer great hope.

Biotechnology could mobilise genetic engineering to breed hardier plants that are more resistant to drought and less sensitive to pests prevalent in the tropics. New methods of crop rotation or inter-cropping to maintain soil fertility in fragile tropical conditions are needed. There are dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of under-used foodstuffs that are well adapted to the tropics and could be improved through directed biotechnology research. Such R&D is now all but lacking in the poorest countries.

Among the urgent changes required is that the wealthy governments enable the grossly under-financed and under-empowered United Nations institutions to become vibrant and active partners of human development. Through the UN specialised agencies, rich and poor countries can direct their urgent attention to the mobilization of science and technology for poor-country problems.

The rich countries should understand that the IMF and World Bank are by themselves not equipped for this challenge. The UN agencies—such as the IAEA—have a great role to play, especially if they act as a bridge between the activities of advanced-country and developing-country scientific centres, and if they help to harness the advances of world science for the poor as well as the rich. This means that rich countries should expand support for those United Nations organisations that can help in solving the unique problems confronting the world’s poorest peoples.

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Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Special Advisor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan

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