Gates tells G20 innovation is the key to development

Gates: 'The world will not balance its books by cutting back on aid' Copyright: Flickr/ToddABishop

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Bill Gates has called on world leaders to invest more in innovation for development, describing innovation as the "most powerful force for change in the world".

"Innovation fundamentally shifts the trajectory of development," Gates, founder of the computing corporation Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told the summit of the Group of 20 major advanced and emerging economies (G20) in France yesterday (3 November).

Gates' report, 'Innovation with Impact: Financing 21st Century Development', delivered to G20 leaders, was prepared at the request of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, with the aim of suggesting creative ways to find more money for development aid.

Gates said that, despite some successes, "innovation has not played as big a role in development as it could have".

"Some innovations take hold in rich countries quickly but take decades to trickle down to poor countries. The pace of innovation specifically for the poor has been too slow. But I believe it can be sped up, and the rapidly growing countries of the G20 are especially well positioned to drive this improvement."

In particular, he said, the G20 should identify the "highest priority innovations for development".

"Our foundation would be happy to participate in this process. With a systematic list of innovations as a starting point, the G20 could help broker agreements in which member countries commit to work together on specific innovations. This approach could accelerate innovation in many key areas of development, including agriculture, health, education, governance, and infrastructure."

Adrian Ely, a member of the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre based at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, and convenor of the 'Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto' project said he agreed that innovation could shift the development trajectory.  

"But innovation takes many forms — it is much wider than technological innovation. There is also innovation in the ways organisations are arranged, in the way agendas are set, in the ways funding is allocated, and in ways of ensuring accountability. These kinds of innovation are important on their own and they can drive the type of innovation that Gates is talking about."

Kevin Urama, executive director of the African Technology Policy Studies Network, in Kenya, told SciDev.Net: "I could not agree more with the position of the Bill Gates report on the subject. The best way to drive development is through responsible innovation."

But he said the types of innovations to support would differ according to the innovation systems and socio-economic conditions of different countries, and this needs critical assessment.

Urama, who worked on the African Manifesto for Science, Technology and Innovations, launched last year, added: "The critical economic development issue is no longer whether countries should build innovation capacity but what type of capacity to build and how to build it, given each country's economic constraints and starting point."

Gates noted in his report that the capacity to innovate is spreading beyond the richest so that the "binary model of the developed world on one hand and the developing world on another has become irrelevant".

"One of the newest resources for development — and potentially one of the most transformative — is rapidly growing countries' capacity for innovation. Countries like Brazil, China, India, and Mexico are in a great position to work closely with poor countries because they have recent experience in reducing poverty, as well as enormous technical capabilities," Gates said. "This unique combination gives them both the insights and the skills to create breakthrough tools for development."  

Gates urged the G20 to work together to forge, and "devote significantly more funds" to, triangular partnerships — made up of traditional donors, rapidly growing countries, and poor countries. In the long run, he said, these provide a model for how to deploy the world's combined resources to benefit the poorest.

"There's a lot of pressure on aid budgets given economic conditions, but aid is a very small part of government expenditures," Gates added. "The world will not balance its books by cutting back on aid but it will do irreparable damage to global stability, to the growth potential of the global economy and to the livelihoods of millions of people."

In a communiqué issued at the end of the summit the G20 agreed to "encourage triangular partnerships to drive priority innovations forward".

It also said it would launch a platform for tropical agriculture "to enhance capacity-building and knowledge-sharing to improve agricultural production and productivity".