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As part of their joint efforts to form a new trading bloc, Brazil, South Africa and India are increasing their collaboration in science and technology. The potential benefits are significant – provided that other developing countries are not excluded.

The failure of the latest round of international trade talks in Cancún, Mexico, two months ago may have represented a major setback for the efforts of developing countries to obtain better terms for their involvement in the international economy. But there was a silver lining. This failure has acted as a spur to greater collaboration between the developing countries themselves; pragmatic arguments in favour of South-South collaboration have now been reinforced by broader political concerns about the need to establish blocs that can carry significant weight in future trade negotiations.

Some of these negotiating blocs are essentially regional. And where these are in the process of being strengthened — as in Latin America, with the extension of the Mercosur Pact, or in sub-Saharan Africa, with the emergence of the New Partnerships for African Development (NEPAD) — scientific cooperation between neighbouring, or near-neighbouring, countries is clearly emerging as a key beneficiary. This, for example, was a clear signal to emerge from the recent meeting of African science ministers, held under the auspices of NEPAD, which produced a coherent, if somewhat ambitious, plan for boosting science and technology efforts in the continent (see African nations agree on science spending targets).

But there has been significant movement at another political level as well. This is the increasing alliance between the more advanced — and hence economically more powerful — of the developing countries. Nations such as Brazil, India, South Africa and China are increasingly acknowledging that they share not only common social and economic challenges, but also common goals in international trade negotiations. And, like other nations, they are also realising that the chances of achieving these goals increases if they act together.

The recent signing of agreements between these countries to collaborate more closely in science and technology is a reflection of this trend. One such agreement was reached in September when President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa visited India, accompanied by — among others — a group of senior science administrators from his country (see Seizing synergies between South Africa and India). It was a similar story when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva visited South Africa early in November; one of the key outcomes of this visit was a new agreement between the two countries to collaborate in areas ranging from biotechnology to AIDS treatment (see Brazil to boost scientific aid to Africa).

New incentives

Of course, there is nothing particularly new about scientific agreements between developing countries, which have been part of the staple diet of diplomacy (in both North and South) for many years. Early on his presidency, for example, South Africa's Nelson Mandela set up a Joint Commission with his Indian counterpart on a range of issues, including science and technology cooperation. And China has for several years been closely involved in arranging bilateral deals, particularly covering scientific training.

In the past, however, too many agreements have been little more than pieces of paper — easy to sign, but lacking the political incentives to implement them in any effective way. That is now changing. A striking feature of the new wave of agreements is that they are grounded in real social and economic needs. There is also recognition that these needs have a similar shape in different countries, and moreover that each an involve juggling scientific and political concerns such that one country can learn productively from the experience of another.

These have given the substance of the new agreements both a significance and an urgency that some of their predecessors have lacked. Take, for example, the question of the complex relationship between indigenous knowledge and patent rights. Each of the countries mentioned is rich in both biodiversity and local cultural traditions, making them prime targets for those seeking traditional knowledge that can be incorporated into, for example, new medicines. And each is now facing the task of devising methods to protect their traditional knowledge that are compatible with the intellectual property rules of the new international knowledge economy. There is therefore a strong incentive to share both experiences and novel solutions. Which is what India has offered to do, for example, with its promise to help South Africa set up an electronic database of traditional knowledge comparable to the one established in Delhi by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Another example is genetically modified crops. Again each country is facing a similar dilemma: how to square the disquiet about the potential environmental impacts of such crops with the strong social and economic forces that favour them. Again it is significant that when the Indian science and technology minister Murli Manohar Joshi visited Brazil with a high level delegation in July 2001, considerable time was spent discussing this issue at the Agency for Agricultural Research in Brasilia.

A social agenda for the 21st century

It would be naïve to pretend that South-South collaboration on such issues will ever be a complete replacement for collaboration with the more scientifically advanced countries of the North. Those avenues of support must remain open at the scientific level, if only because that is where most of the world's advanced science is still carried out. They must also remain open at what has been called the "meta-scientific" level — the area where science and politics overlap — since what happens in one part of the world increasingly effects the way that issues are both perceived and handled in another (ranging from the issue of human cloning, to the conditions required for membership of the World Trade Organisation).

But it would be equally naïve to believe that such avenues are sufficient to ensure building of the necessary capacity to handle such issues in the South. Many of the challenges currently facing the South — from malaria to infant mortality — are of little interest to countries in the North. In such areas, as Ragunath Mashelkar, the director of India's CSIR, pointed out to the recent South African delegation, "there is a need for developing countries to be self-sufficient", not only at a scientific level, but also in the capacity to put the science to the appropriate social and economic use.

One danger to avoid, of course, is that such capacity building through collaborative efforts becomes limited to the major developing nations. It is essential that they, in turn, should share their own knowledge and experience with the less advanced parts of the developing world. And indeed there are already promising signs of movement in this direction; at the recent meeting of the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) in Beijing, for example, a number of countries (including China, Brazil and Mexico) announced new research fellowship programmes specifically targeted at young scientists from the least developed nations. And TWAS itself has placed similar forms of mutual help high on its immediate priority list.

Such efforts not only reflect a moral commitment; they also have the highly pragmatic outcome that they will help to identify and train talented individuals in countries whose scientific efforts are likely to be of benefit to the developing world as a whole, but whose potential skills might, without such assistance, be lost. The more that the larger developing countries can ensure that their efforts at collaboration — in science as elsewhere — have a constructive social, as well as economic, agenda, the greater is likely to be their positive contribution to global development during the rest of the 21st century.