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Don't be too ready to dismiss the World Summit on Sustainable Development. A focus on modest — but practical — goals could be a welcome shift in direction for major UN conferences of this type.

As delegates prepare to leave home for Johannesburg, where the World Summit on Sustainable Development opens next week, many will no doubt hold in the back of their minds the Chinese saying that every crisis also holds an opportunity. Indeed, expectations among international diplomats that any significant political agreement will emerge at the summit — for example, on a major expansion of foreign aid budgets — are currently so low that anything less than failure is likely to be welcomed as a major achievement.

Ironically, that may not be a bad thing. One of the dangers of massive UN conferences that end with little more than well-meaning declarations and commitments is that expectations are raised unrealistically. Little was seen or heard, for example, of the US$250-million fund promised at the end of the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD), held in Vienna in 1979. And the jury is still out on whether the World Conference on Science, held in Budapest three years ago, will have had an impact that is commensurate with the energy and resources spent on organising it.

Johannesburg could provide another example of the limitations of meetings of this nature. But it could also prove an important turning point by demonstrating that, for an issue as central to the world's future as sustainable development, government-led initiatives no longer hold the key in the way that they once did. In today's world, significant actions require a variety of actors and partners, from the public sector, private organisations, and civil society.

Action on the edges

One of the most striking examples of this new awareness seems to be the enthusiasm that has greeted plans for the Science Forum that is being organised as a side-event to the WSSD. A wide range of organisations (including SciDev.Net) have responded to the invitation of the South African government to organise a series of lectures, workshops, round-tables and other presentations on the role of science, technology and innovation in promoting sustainable development.

The topics of these meetings range from sessions on the role of women in science and technology, or the relationship between modern science and traditional knowledge, to a two-day discussion of ways of encouraging stronger research links between developing countries and members of the European Community. (SciDev.Net's contribution will be two roundtables on 'Science and Technology Communication for Sustainable Development'; for details see and

There is always a danger that side-events such as the Science Forum (or indeed the many other fringe meetings being held by other organisations) will be little more than talking shops covering familiar arguments. But there is also the hope that they will help to catalyse new initiatives and ideas for collaboration between organisations and individuals present in Johannesburg who might not otherwise have the opportunity to discuss common goals and ways to achieve them jointly.

Intergovernmental negotiations

Of course, the official intergovernmental negotiations should not — and cannot — be ignored. These will not only set a general framework for the individual collaborations, but could more importantly act as a trigger for making available the public resources needed to ensure that the collaborations in areas ranging from future energy sources to ways of ensuring clean water supplies — two of the most pressing needs facing developing countries — are able to operate effectively.

In this context, for example, it is important that those preparing the final texts for agreement by the ministers who will attend the WSSD recognise the critical and essential role of science and technology in achieving their objectives. For example, a clear statement of this role should be included in any final declaration (and not merely be left to the small print of lengthy documents on implementation).

Double your money

There also needs to be a political recognition of the major increase that is required in funding for science and technology for development. The recent report of the World Health Organisation's Commission on Macroeconomic and Health underlined the dramatic impact this could have in the health field. And, as Jeffrey Sachs, the lead architect of this report, points out (see 'The Global Innovation Divide'), similar arguments apply to other areas (such as agricultural research, where the fall-off in public funding in recent years is unlikely to be picked up by a private sector whose profits come primarily from the developed, not the developing world).

A few years ago, asking for a doubling in the financial commitment to public funding for research related to international development might have sounded pure fantasy. But at a time when governments in the industrialised world are already doing precisely that domestically — as the United States did for the National Institutes of Health at the end of the 1990s, and some European states are now promising — it is no longer an unrealistic demand.

But the money will only be forthcoming if there are signs that it is likely to be spent effectively. This is where the 'grass-roots' collaborations being highlighted at events such as the Science Forum will be so important. For they will (hopefully) identify, sketch out, and help recruit support for workable initiatives that, while dependent on public funds for their realisation, do not require governments to implement them.

Political priorities

Here again there is another task for the official intergovernmental negotiations: identifying the hurdles and barriers that impede the successful implementation of such projects. One is the way that current laws on intellectual property rights (IPR) skew the applications of science and technology in favour of the rich countries (which, for a variety of reasons, tend to own and control most of such property). Another is the lack of education infrastructure and a basic scientific and technical capacity, the responsibility for both of which lies firmly in the camp of governments.

Both of these need attention. Indeed, the IPR issue provides a vivid illustration of the way in which, while arguing the case for greater public investment in science and technology for development, it is important not to get sucked into believing a new form of technological determinism. In other words, more science and technology will not, in and by themselves, do the trick; they must be combined with the political changes needed to ensure they are applied justly and fairly in order to benefit those in greatest need.

It is therefore right that non-governmental organisations and others keep pressure on their governments to ensure that these changes occur. But it would be a shame if the international attention given to the WSSD through, for example, its coverage in the mass media were to focus on this side of the story alone.

© SciDev.Net 2002