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Excessive focus on the Millennium Development Goals risks undermining the long-term investment required for building scientific capacity.
We are now two-thirds of the way through the task that members of the UN set themselves in 2000 as a device to spur their anti-poverty efforts — the achievement of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the year 2015. And it has become clear that the overall verdict on this strategy remains as divided as success in achieving the goals themselves.
World leaders meeting at the UN headquarters in New York last week heard that substantial progress in meeting some of the goals — such as reducing mortality rates among children under the age of five — gives legitimate cause for congratulation.
Other MDG targets, however, remain far from being achieved, such as reducing overall levels of hunger, particularly in Africa. A progress report from the London-based Overseas Development Institute states that "progress has slowed, stalled or gone into reverse in some areas, often as a result of gross inequity".
Such failures underline the fact that significant extra effort is required by developed and developing countries alike if the MDGs are to be achieved.
But they also highlight the need for new approaches. These include an increased acknowledgment of the importance of building scientific capability in developing countries as an essential component of any future strategy.
It is already clear, as a recent SciDev.Net feature has illustrated, that few MDGs are likely to be achieved without the application of modern science through new technologies.
Salim Abdool Karim, director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, points out, for example, that giving magnesium sulphate to mothers immediately after birth has had a major impact on reducing maternal deaths from pre-eclampsia.
But a narrow focus on delivering concrete outcomes could undermine long-term commitments to building up the indigenous scientific capacity needed to deliver successful outcomes in the future.
It also encourages a fragmented approach to achieving the goals of sustainable development, and can result in insufficient attention being paid to the equally important need to identify the linkages between biodiversity and poverty alleviation, for example (see Next Millennium Development Goals ‘should be more holistic’).
Some of the shortcomings in the current approach have been recognised by those responsible for monitoring progress over the next five years.
In particular, a resolution adopted at last week’s review meeting explicitly commits UN member states to "promoting the strategic role of science and technology … in areas relevant for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals", as well as strengthening "national innovation and research and development capacity" towards the same end.
But even if this is achieved, other problems remain on the table. In particular, there is the question of "ownership", and the widespread perception within many developing countries that the MDGs represent a donor-led agenda that does not take sufficient account of local priorities and capabilities.
This was the view expressed last week, for example, by Umar Bindir, director-general of Nigeria’s National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion, speaking at a training workshop organised by the World Federation of Scientific Journalists.
Bindir is reported to have said that donor agencies and other development partners were corrupting the system by agreeing to unrealistic policies with targets they knew could not be achieved. What was needed, he said, were home-grown solutions for Africa’s problems.
This meant strengthening its educational infrastructure and promoting science, research, manufacturing and the development of human capital. "Vibrant science, national systems of innovations, research and development, technical acquisition, intellectual property rights, information and technology communication all need to be harnessed," Bindir said.
The value of the MDGs lies in the way they have acted as both a carrot and a stick to focus the efforts of both development agencies and governments of developing countries.
Where the goals have been, or are close to being, achieved, they can be held up as concrete examples that development aid works. Where they have not, this failure — as well as being embarrassing — can be an incentive to greater effort and commitment.
But the curse of the MDGs is that they focus on relatively short-term, concrete objectives, and lack sufficient ‘buy-in’ from the very countries they are intended to help. As a result, they can undermine the type of long-term commitment to capacity building — particularly in advanced education and research — that Bindir is suggesting.
They can also threaten commitments to strengthening the multidisciplinary skills and research strategies required to prevent the fragmentation of effort. This includes building up a capacity in science communication as a channel for interaction between researchers and policymakers.
As UN member states turn their attention to what should succeed the MDGs after the 2015 deadline, it is essential that these shortcomings are taken sufficiently into account.