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A group of UN advisers has proposed that a series of international forums be created to help set the research priorities required to meet the technological needs of the developing world.

The task of each forum would be to identify scientific goals and agree on ways to fund the research and development – including the use of public/private partnerships – needed to achieve them.

They would then recommend plans for technological advance in each of these areas "for the donor community’s review", a model that is already being used in areas such as the search for a malaria vaccine or treatments for HIV/AIDS.

The proposal is made in the latest edition of the Human Development Report, which is being published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) this week. It is suggested as part of a strategy (or 'compact') for achieving the Millennium Development Goals endorsed by member states of the United Nations in 2000.

The report says that, because most international scientific efforts bypass the needs of poor people, it is crucial that the world scientific community works "with scientific groups in poor countries to identify priority targets for research and development and greatly expand funding".

It admits that several international forums of the type they are proposing – such as those in malaria and HIV/AIDS – already exist. "But they must be supported with greater resources— and others must be created."

The new forums, says the report, would bring together international research institutions and scientific academies, multilateral and bilateral donors, country representatives and leading academic and private sector representatives.

Typical areas that they could address much more closely than in the past would include: health; agriculture; infrastructure; information and communications technology; energy systems; environment management; mitigation of and adaptation to climate fluctuations; and long-term climate change.

The Human Development Report is an annual publication commissioned by the UNDP from external consultants and advisers, and therefore does not represent the point of view of the agency itself.

However this year’s report draws heavily on work that has already been done by a range of task forces on practical strategies to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

These goals – which include a commitment to eradicating "extreme poverty" and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015 – are close to the heart of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Perhaps more importantly, they also form the framework within which many individual members of the United Nations are now casting their development assistance.

In his introduction to the report, Mark Malloch Brown, the administrator of UNDP emphasises that any effort to meet the Millennium Development Goals will need to be underpinned by both political will and good policy ideas.

These in turn will only work, he says, if they are translated into nationally owned, nationally driven development strategies "guided by sound science, good economics and transparent, accountable governance".

The ‘Millennium Development Compact’ proposed in the report is, he says, meant to achieve precisely this, as it would highlight key areas of intervention that should guide national efforts and international support for the Millennium Development Goals.

Most of the recommendations in the UNDP report are directed at ways of improving the standard of living across the developing world. For example, it points out that, despite its enormous potential "relatively little investment goes into technology to solve the problems of poverty".

The report also underlines the need to take steps to protect the natural environment in the process of encouraging economic growth. One specific proposal, for example, is the creation of a ‘Life Observatory’ to systematically monitor major ecosystems such as coastal habitats, major watersheds and wetlands.

"No mechanism exists to track major ecosystems and their continued ability to produce needed goods and services," says the report, suggesting that the Life Observatory should build on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – a four-year effort by 1,500 scientists worldwide to collect the best available knowledge on the world’s ecosystems.

"The Life Observatory would ensure that these analyses are continuously updated to map the long-term effects of human activities on specific ecosystems," says the report.

Human Development Report 2003

© SciDev.Net 2003

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