Wanted: better bridges between science and aid efforts

Science and new technologies underpin many humanitarian products Copyright: SunFire Solutions

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Aid innovators are calling for more interaction with research and development communities, ahead of World Humanitarian Day, reports Imogen Mathers.

[LONDON] In the aftermath of the devastating bomb attack on the UN's Baghdad headquarters on 19 August 2003, the UN General Assembly pushed through a resolution to hold an annual commemoration of those who were killed, and to celebrate those engaged in international humanitarian work across the world — World Humanitarian Day.

Science, technology and innovation are often integral to humanitarian work. Innovative design can help drive development, providing solutions to poverty or disaster-related challenges, and adapting technologies to local demands and contexts.

The technology supplied by humanitarian organisations, ranging from solar-powered stoves to 'bamboo bike' ambulances, is always inspired by a commitment to harnessing the potential of science for the benefit of the poor, and tailoring innovation to needs at the grassroots level.

Yet accessing the required scientific and technological knowledge is not always straightforward. In developing countries, in particular, platforms for dialogue between the scientists and engineers who devise technologies, and the development agencies providing them to communities, are often scarce or even non-existent.

In Togo, for example, where a stuttering energy infrastructure provides electricity to just 20 per cent of the population [1], the government "gives absolutely no support to renewable energy at all," says Lare Toumpane Daméssanou, chief executive of ACDI-SOLAR, an organisation that provides solar energy solutions to 'off-grid' communities in Togo's rural north.

ACDI-SOLAR has some contact with scientists from the only university in West Africa dedicated to renewable energy, the International Institute of Water and Environment (IIWE) in Burkina Faso, and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

But when it comes to productive communication with scientists in Togo, "there is nothing", Daméssanou says. "We are looking to improve communication with scientists so we can develop our designs, but opportunities are very limited."

Lack of communication across the sectors

Crosby Menzies, director of Johannesburg-based solar cooker development organisation, SunFire Solutions, and founder of the Solar Cookers for Africa network, tells SciDev.Net that accessing scientific developments in solar design can be challenging despite science being "very much part of the products that we put out".

"We have contact with external scientists who have shown great interest in what we do," Menzies says. "But the working nature of these interactions is not as strong as it could be — not by a long way."

A laboratory worker

There is a wealth of technology developed in universities that never sees the light of day


According to Menzies, this dearth of productive dialogue stems partly from the government's "lack of forward thinking" and failure to invest adequately in solar cooking innovations, renewable energy and tertiary level science education.

Exacerbating the situation, research that is undertaken often remains locked in the laboratory, Menzies says. "There is a wealth of fantastic technology developed in universities that never sees the light of day, and fails to progress beyond prototype stage," he explains.

Ironically, says Menzies, while the dialogue with scientists in southern Africa leaves much to be desired, knowledge-sharing with organisations outside the country — particularly in China, Europe, and the United States — is much stronger.

"China and India have been looking to supply us with technology, and we in turn send them back design and development issues that we observe on the ground, so that we can make the products more 'Africanised' and better-suited for our purposes," Menzies says.

The lack of local platforms for sharing ideas between scientists and development agencies is also a challenge in Ghana, says Bernice Dapaah, executive director of Ghana Bamboo Bikes, which specialises in developing vehicles for rural environments.

"The relationship between the science and aid communities should be very dynamic and cross-cutting," Dapaah tells SciDev.Net. But "in West Africa it is very poor indeed" and "needs to be much stronger", she says.

Divyesh Thakkar, founder of Sunlite Solar — a Mumbai-based development agency that provides Indian-designed solar-powered lanterns to refugee camps and rural communities — agrees that there is a lack of communication between scientists and innovators, although "contact with scientists is hugely important".

All of the organisations SciDev.Net has spoken to for this feature say they have in-house scientists on whom they rely. And Thakkar says he has found scientists to be "very receptive to being approached; like us, they want to increase awareness of their research […] If interactions could be enhanced, this could bring huge positivity to the development sector."

But Sachin Shah of Toyop Relief, a supplier of emergency relief products to the UN and Red Cross, feels the most urgent communication issues are between technology suppliers and development agencies, rather than with scientists.

"If we don't keep up with the technology, then we can't provide the products people need," he says.

Meanwhile, Shah adds, "agencies are not very open to new ideas, particularly in emergency situations, where tried and tested products are much more popular".

One recent trend boosting scientific research for development, he says, is the implementation by multinational corporations of corporate responsibility policies.

Children sitting around a solar lamp

Organisations such as SunFire Solutions hope to develop new collaborations to roll out their solar innovations

Sunlite Solar

He says that this has both increased funding for scientific research and vastly improved mechanisms for getting products from the laboratory to the marketplace. "Companies like LyondellBasell are now investing money in corporate responsibility, and we are working with them on developing certain plastics [for manufacturing innovative products for use in relief work]."

Networking for tailor-made development

One solution, Thakkar thinks, is to increase the number of fora bringing together the various stakeholders — people with innovative ideas, scientists who have theoretical ideas on paper, and people who can bring these ideas to affected communities.

"We need to have networking or think-tank sessions, where all types of people, from relief workers and policymakers, to students, researchers and journalists, are brought together. These could then inform governments on where the expertise is and how to put together systems for taking ideas forward."

One opportunity for this will be AidEx, an annual international trade fair in Brussels in October that will bring together humanitarian organisations, scientists and technology innovators, and which Daméssanou, Dapaah, Menzies, Shah and Thakkar will all be attending.

For example, Dapaah is hoping that Ghana Bamboo Bikes can forge partnerships with health organisations, to help develop bamboo bike ambulances to improve rural communities' access to clinics.

Similarly, Menzies hopes to expand SunFire's sphere of focus. "We're looking to interact with scientists to solve […] a whole spectrum of social problems, and you have to have science on board to do that, and make [technologies] affordable and applicable," he tells SciDev.Net.

"Networking and increasing awareness is very important," says Thakkar. "Aid agencies have so much on their plates that you need to paint a clear picture of how new products coming on to the market can be of benefit to affected communities."

"For us to be talking to the right decision makers and increasing awareness of development technology alternatives is critical to our work," he says.

ACDI-SOLAR's Daméssanou hopes that AidEx will help him develop partnerships with international organisations that could begin manufacturing solar technologies in Togo — thus eliminating the enormous costs involved in importing technology from Ghana and Nigeria.

They all argue that there is a pressing need for additional conferences.

"I hope AidEx is just one of many more local, national and international platforms for networking between the development community and scientists," Dapaah tells SciDev.Net.

"This interaction needs to take place at home with governmental support, as well as abroad and in the northern hemisphere."

And the resulting new links should lead to development models better tailored to local contexts; "you can't just cut and paste from elsewhere", says SunFire's Menzies.

"Policymakers often try to follow historic or global models, for example of centralised power stations," he says. But localised alternatives — such as decentralised solar energy — are often much better suited to community needs.

See below for a video on SunFire Solutions:


See below for a video on Sunlite Solar:



[1] WHO and UN Development Programme: The Energy Access Situation in Developing Countries — A Review Focusing on the Least Developed Countries and Sub-Saharan Africa, November 2009 http://content.undp.org/go/cms-service/stream/asset/?asset_id=2205620