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  • Science for development needs stable base in 2008

Developing countries need economic stability and social inclusion to develop — both of which are in jeopardy in Kenya and Pakistan as 2008 dawns.

Seldom can the phrase "Happy New Year" have seemed less appropriate than during the days that have marked the beginning of 2008. Events in both Kenya and Pakistan have not only generated horror and dismay around the globe, but have also underlined the fragility of the social order in key parts of the developing world, raising worrying concerns about prospects for the year ahead. 

In Pakistan, deep-seated political and religious conflicts appear to lie behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a leading candidate in the presidential elections that were due to be held later this month.

Whatever feelings are generated by her personal history — she was deposed twice as prime minister following corruption charges — few doubted her commitment to both a genuinely democratic political system in Pakistan and attempts to bridge the divides that threaten to tear the country apart.

In Kenya, long-standing tribal rivalries have surfaced following the outcome of a disputed presidential election. Hundreds have died and thousands been made homeless in confrontations between supporters of President Mwai Kibaki — re-elected for a second five-year term — and those of his unsuccessful challenger, Raila Odinga, who claim that the results of the election were rigged.

Events in Kenya have been a blow to the hopes of those who had previously taken pride in the country's democratic institutions and political stability. They also provide a challenge to efforts that have been gathering pace in both countries over the past few years to build solid, science-based economies.

A sound, fair economic base

It would be naïve to argue that there are straightforward solutions to the social disruption facing either country. Western countries, many of which have themselves seen centuries of ethnic and religious conflict, know from their own experience how deeply-seated the beliefs that give rise to such conflict can be.

Nevertheless, it is also clear from this experience that two factors are high on the list of those that can reduce political tensions. One — as both Bhutto and Kibaki have acknowledged through their apparent commitment to modernisation policies — is the need for a secure economic base that can ensure the generation of sufficient wealth to provide for the basic needs of the population (including sufficient jobs for their rapidly growing populations).

The second, equally essential, is for political institutions to ensure that this wealth is distributed fairly, and does not merely make the rich richer, whether by legal or corrupt means. Social inclusion is a vital component of social progress; its absence, as the Western world knows to its cost, provides a fertile breeding ground for ethnic and religious conflict.

Science and technology for all

Last year saw substantial progress on both fronts. In Africa, for example, a newly-rediscovered commitment to the importance of indigenous economic development — and the role of science, technology and innovation in promoting such development — received top-level commitment when it was adopted as a key theme of the African Union summit meeting in Ethiopia in January.

Kenya has been among the most enthusiastic proponents of this message. And although progress across the continent has been slower and more fragmented than many would like, the growing list of African countries that are putting support for science and technology among their political priorities is a welcome sign.

So, too, is a growing awareness that the modernisation of developing country economies will succeed only if it is carried out in a socially-inclusive manner. Political leaders in both China and India, for example, are among those insisting — at least in public — that the benefits of science and technology need to be spread throughout the whole population, rather than merely benefitting urban-based elites.

The recent election of the populist Jacob Zuma as leader of the governing African National Congress, against the wishes of President Thabo Mbeki, has underlined the extent to which South Africa faces the same challenge.

Mbeki may have done much to secure the overall economic health of post-apartheid South Africa (including maintaining its position as the continent's scientific powerhouse) but there has been little 'trickle down' benefit for the millions of shantytown dwellers who have seen their living conditions and prospects fall significantly over the past decade or more.

Looking forward

As 2008 dawns, it is time to urge yet again that adequate steps are taken to address the challenges the developing world currently confronts. It is clear that modernisation is as urgent as ever for such countries, and that new science-based approaches — to energy production, for example — are required to achieve it.

At the same time, modernisation must take place with a human, democratic face. Policies that create a growing gap between the rich and poor within developing countries do not necessarily offer a long-term, sustainable solution to their social and economic needs, however healthy a short-time balance they may produce.

We at SciDev.Net will remain dedicated to helping to lay the groundwork for such policies in 2008. We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support for our efforts over the past year — and hope that, if you share this objective, your own efforts in pursuing it will bear fruit in 2008.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

See Letter to the editor.

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