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African nations should look to advanced developing countries for assistance rather than seek aid from the developed world if they want to close the door to poverty, according to a leading member of a United Nations anti-poverty task force.

Lee Yee-Cheong, co-chair of the UN Millennium Project task force on science and technology, also criticises what he calls "Africa's scientific elite" for continually looking to the United States for anti-poverty prescriptions.

Lee says African nations could learn from South-East Asia because countries there have more recent experiences of living in poverty, compared with industrialised countries. "Don't forget that in 1957, the gross domestic product of Malaysia was less than that of Ghana," he said. "Don't look to heaven, but look at a world that has done something to get out of poverty."

Lee, who is also president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, adds that while it is important to get rich countries to commit more development assistance, he does not believe that "pouring money into Africa will solve the continent's development problems."

The UN Millennium Project was set up by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to advise both rich and poor countries on achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The project's summary report, released on the Internet for public comment in September, says rich countries should contribute US$7 billion each year on research and development assistance for poorer countries during the next decade (see Ending poverty 'requires US$70 billion in research aid').

The report contained much to be praised, says Lee, but it was not a perfect document. Specifically, he feels that his fellow Millennium Project team members should have consulted more with civil society organisations before drawing up the final recommendations, and he adds there is still time for people to go to the project's website to send in their comments.

"I strongly believe that the Millennium Project will fail unless we engage more with civil society," says Lee.

Lee's second criticism was that his fellow authors should have been more careful in their use of English, as they appear not to have considered how words and phrases can mean different things to people in different countries.

For example, "the report repeatedly uses phrases such as 'poverty trap'," says Lee. "Constantly reminding someone that he is in a 'poverty trap' is not a very helpful way of giving them the confidence to get out of poverty."

Lee's remarks were made at a one-day conference held in London last week (11 November) on the role of science and technology in tackling poverty. It was organised by the Intermediate Technology Development Group, a UK-based non-governmental organisation that was among the pioneers of the idea that poor communities benefit more from small-scale, or what are called 'appropriate' technologies; and that they benefit less from what goes on inside large university laboratories.

The meeting also heard from David King, the British government's chief scientific advisor, who argued that countries in Africa need to strengthen higher education, create centres of scientific excellence and address the brain drain. King said a British government priority was to strengthen existing research centres and help build new ones, partly as a way of keeping the continent's scientists from permanently settling abroad.

Link to full text of Lee Yee-Cheong's speech

Link to UN Millennium Project

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