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'Capacity building for science-based sustainable development' are words that are likely to be heard time and again at the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which will take place in Johannesburg from 26 August to 4 September.

This phrase is likely to resonate at the formal sessions, press conferences, lunches and dinners that have been planned for this global gathering, especially those activities involving scientists and technologists.

The good news is that the discussions at WSSD preparatory meetings over the past 18 months suggest that several powerful people may well be listening. The concepts of capacity building and science-based sustainable development have been central to these preparatory discussions, and are likely to be central to discussions in Johannesburg as well.

But what exactly do the words mean? And, equally importantly, what strategies must be put in place to turn these words into action?

These are some of the critical issues that participants will face at the most important global 'eco-get-together' since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. Heads of government, ministers, economic development experts, environmentalists, educationalists, community activists, and media representatives will all be present in large numbers. As a result, scientists and technologists will be just one community among many trying to make their voices heard in a forum that is currently estimated to attract more than 60,000 people.

The North-South divide, which has been at the centre of many discussions about global economic and environmental issues since the East-West divide faded into history, also promises to be a key issue at the WSSD. This is especially true among those who fervently agree that science-based sustainable development should be a defining principle of all national and international programmes to improve social and environmental conditions.

One problem, however, is that many of the motivations that drive capacity building for sustainable development in the North are different from those in the South.

In the North, such capacity building is usually seen as part of a larger effort to modify existing scientific research agendas and institutions, with the goal of addressing long-term sustainability issues closely related to global ecological resources.

In the South, in contrast, capacity building is just that: an effort to nurture homegrown research skills and to build up research institutions that enable nations and regions throughout the developing world to apply scientific knowledge and technological know-how to their social and economic needs.

Put another way, for the North capacity building for sustainable development means revamping (or in some cases just tweaking) existing scientific and technological infrastructures. For many countries in the South, however, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, it means building new infrastructures virtually from scratch.

Statistics tell the story. According to the 1998 World Science Report published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), the world spends about US$500 billion a year on research and development (R&D) — about 1.5 per cent of its gross domestic product.

However, approximately 85 per cent of this expenditure takes place in the developed world. China, India and the newly industrialised countries of east Asia, moreover, are responsible for two-thirds of the remaining 15 per cent. That means the rest of the developing world accounts for less than five per cent of global investments in R&D.

North America currently spends about US$500 per person every year on R&D, while the developing world spends about US$20. With just 70 researchers per million inhabitants, Africa's scientific community is no match for North America which has 3500, let alone Japan with nearly 4400. Latin America, with 550 researchers per million inhabitants, Asia with 340, and the Middle East with 130 are in slightly better shape.

It is clear that the word 'divide' does not do justice to this comparison; indeed, the North-South divide in scientific capacity is often more like a chasm.

History has shown that capacity-building strategies imported from the North — which have been designed to address concerns of primary importance to the North — all too often do not work well in the South. Many such efforts have been unsustainable for a variety of reasons.

For example, the focus has often been on using existing technologies from the North, rather than building national scientific capacities that could then be tapped to address local economic-development issues.

In addition, due to their international education, training, travel and job opportunities, scientists in developing countries at times have seen themselves as international citizens first, and citizens of their own countries second. As a result, it has often been difficult to persuade them to concentrate on critical problems at home.

Yet those developing countries that have recently experienced some success in achieving sustained economic growth — such as Brazil, China, India and South Korea — are in fact those that have made a determined effort to build their indigenous scientific capacities.

That does not mean they have avoided interaction with the North. In fact, each has drawn on the North's scientific knowledge and technological expertise in various ways to boost its own development process, for example through education, training, scholarly exchange and trade.

What has accounted most for their success, however, is their ability to set their own agendas and develop their own strategies for scientific capacity building.

Africa is now hoping for similar success through the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). Among other goals, this initiative will seek to develop a comprehensive strategy for sustained science-based development driven by the continent's own definition of the problems and the solutions that are required.

For all of these reasons, I am convinced that the first — and perhaps only — focus of the WSSD should be on scientific capacity building in the developing world.

You cannot construct a new global framework for sustainable development unless you provide people — particularly those facing the most pressing economic and social needs — with the basic tools and skills they need to build that framework.

The long-term impact of the WSSD will largely depend on the capacity of people throughout the developing world to address sustainability issues on their own and in ways that do not diminish their desires to improve their current living conditions.

In short, nurturing scientific knowledge and technological know-how must lie at the heart of this effort, and therefore at the centre of both WSSD discussions and post-WSSD strategies and action programmes. Too many resources and too much time have been invested in this event for only words to be left behind.

© SciDev.Net 2002

Mohamed Hassan is the executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences, based in Trieste, Italy.

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