Thu, 18 Dec 2003

Not aid, not trade: Scientific research a remedy for poverty

William A. Masters, Project Syndicate

For many Africans, the current impasse in WTO negotiations is an old, familiar story -- the wealthy family that neglects its rural relatives -- writ large. The poorer cousins send many letters asking for help with school fees, seeds, and fertilizer; the city folk respond that help was sent in the past but ended badly, so they now say, "Pull up your socks! Use your own savings!"

But the rural relatives have no socks to pull up or money to save. They can sell a few things, so everyone now agrees: It's trade, not aid. But prices are low, and the poor have little to sell -- and are stuck in this condition until something genuinely new comes along. Science-based R&D is one of the few ways we know that can generate real innovations to raise poor peoples' productivity despite an unfavorable environment. But the "trade, not aid" approach does nothing to help deliver the benefits of science and technology to the people who need them the most -- the world's poor.

In the real world of global markets, the "development round" of WTO negotiations may yet recover from its breakdown at Cancun earlier this year, and could eventually deliver the benefits promised by economic theory: a larger volume of trade, at better terms, spurring more investment and more technology transfer, in turn benefiting the poor as well as the rich.

But what if membership in the GATT/WTO doesn't actually deliver increased trade or more open trade policies -- let alone economic development itself?

For most of Africa, development experts' focus on trade, not aid, began with the World Bank's 1982 Berg Report, which blamed the continent's economic stagnation on trade barriers imposed by African governments. Two decades of politically painful structural adjustment followed, as African governments were forced to devalue inflated currencies, privatize bankrupt state- owned firms, and cut subsidies on sensitive commodities.

The "Washington Consensus" promoting trade, not aid, was widely adopted by African governments in the 1980s and 1990s because they had no choice. But in Washington and in other rich- country capitals, there was still plenty of money with which to defend currencies, rescue companies, and subsidize commodities.

That brazen hypocrisy is hard to ignore. Even Oxfam, a group that in the past resisted the Washington Consensus, launched a "Make Trade Fair" campaign in April 2002, aimed at forcing rich countries to practice what they preach. The failure of WTO negotiators to actually make trade fair may or may not spell the end of that effort. But it could mark the beginning of a welcome change in direction for the development community.

When the World Bank and others began to focus on markets and trade in the 1980s, it was a welcome corrective to their excessive focus on savings and investment in the 1960s and 1970s. But the resulting swing from "capital fundamentalism" to "market fundamentalism" may have swung right past a third dimension of the development process, namely R&D for new technologies: The idea that we have too little innovation, not too much of it.

Our existing stock of technology may be deeply skewed towards the needs of certain regions of the world, so what's needed is not just more of the same old R&D, but R&D that targets the needs of the poor.

Scientific research as a remedy for poverty -- as opposed to just another way for the rich to get richer -- is an idea that languished among technocrats until the late 1990s, when Jeffrey Sachs and others focused attention on tropical public health, sending entomologists rather than economists to find the cure for poverty.

Now, recent research provides powerful evidence on how R&D on tropical agriculture can also help low-income regions escape from a seemingly intractable poverty trap.

A new book by Robert Evenson of Yale University and Douglas Gollin of Williams College, with the bone-dry title Crop Variety Improvement and its Effect on Productivity, documents the huge poverty-alleviation effect of crops research in international laboratories. A paper by

Colin Thirtle and his co-authors that recently appeared in the journal World Development does the same for Africa's own national research programs.

Throughout history, scientific breakthroughs have helped give people new options, lifting the poor out of poverty and overcoming old conflicts. In recent years, market fundamentalism has led to systematic neglect of science-based R&D, often seeing it as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. The way forward is neither aid nor trade (at least not by themselves), but science-based research aimed at unleashing the full economic potential of the world's poorest people by solving their most basic problems of health and nutrition.

Science is the discovery of what is not yet known. It has no natural political constituency. Almost no one goes to government to say, "Send us more scientists!" But when society reaches an impasse, science offers a way to move beyond it. It is time to unite around science-based R&D, on tropical agriculture as well as public health, as the only way to provide genuine hope and promise to the world's poor.

The writer is Visiting Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University and Interim Executive Director, Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University. He is also Professor of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University.