Making science and technology work for the poor

By Ian Scoones
May 2005

In this viewpoint piece I want to argue that, as currently organised, R and D systems – both public and private – don’t necessarily respond well to the needs of poor people in developing countries. Despite all the hype about the potentials of science and technology for reducing poverty, there are many missed opportunities. Very often poor and marginalised people across the global south do not end up benefiting from S and T. How then should we rethink R and D so that S and T can help in the important challenge to ‘make poverty history’?

I want to suggest three reasons why currently S and T doesn’t always work for the poor, and illustrate these with three examples from developing country agriculture. First – In the context of globalisation, the dynamics of the market and control by large corporations are increasingly important factors governing access to technologies, both new and old. The lion’s share of agricultural R and D globally is controlled by a handful of large corporations. In the developing world this is increasingly the case, especially with the decrease in public sector capacity for R and D.

Take agricultural biotechnology and GM crops. A few years ago there was much made of the potentials of GM crops to solve the problems of world hunger. But today, years later, the only GM crops that are being planted in the developing world at scale are essentially cast-off products, developed for other markets. GM cotton or soya were engineered for the commercial farms of the Americas, not for Africa or Asia. Some of these products have found demand and a market and are clearly benefiting some farmers in some places. But, more generally, GM technologies are not addressing the big challenges of drought, nutrient poor soils and so on.

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