Can the seemingly intractable problems of global poverty be addressed by the latest wonders of science and technology?
Last month, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced the launch of its new Global Development Lab, which will bring together entrepreneurs, corporations, NGOs, universities, research institutions, and USAID personnel “to discover, incubate, and scale breakthrough development innovations in sectors like water, health, food security and nutrition, energy, and climate change,” in the words of Andrew Sisson, its acting executive director.
USAID is attempting to “foster science- and technology-based solutions to help end extreme poverty by 2030”.
With a staff of 150 and a US$151.3 million budget for fiscal year 2015, the Lab represents a “fundamental shift” in USAID’s approach to development, said Lona Stoll, a senior adviser to USAID administrator Rajiv Shah. Of USAID’s total $20 billion budget, some $611 million is allocated for research, innovation, and applied solutions in science and technology.
Stoll illustrated the new thinking by describing the longstanding practice of making a request for proposals for, say, a five-year programme addressing infant mortality. Perhaps five ideas will be considered, she said, and one chosen. But under the reordered priorities represented by the Global Development Lab, the process of finding a solution could be expanded to a much wider spectrum of expertise. “You are opening up the problem to everyone, rather than basing the funding you give on your conception of how to best meet a goal,” she said. Thousands of ideas could be considered rather than a mere five.
Nerds to the rescue
Molly Elgin-Cossart, a senior fellow in global development at the Center for American Progress in Washington, praised the Lab “as a positive development” with its “consolidated and strategic approach to science and innovation”. She believes pitfalls could be avoided through “deepened engagement with international partners” and by “remaining mission-focused, with innovation and research as a means to core development objectives…
“It should not become research for research’s sake, nor fall victim to the fallacy that technology can solve all ills - but there is incredible potential for innovation and technology to transform outcomes, improve efficiency, and facilitate improved investments in people,” she said.
Casey Dunning, senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development in Washington, also praised the Lab’s dedication to innovative solutions while expressing hope that the agency’s humanitarian functions would be in no way jeopardized. “It’s unclear at this point how the Lab will be integrated into the core development work of USAID,” she said.
The Lab, which replaces the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances and the Office of Science and Technology, has 32 “Cornerstone Partners”. They include NGOs like CARE and Catholic Relief Services, research institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Academy of Sciences, and corporations like Cargil, Cisco, DuPont, GlaxoSmithKline, and Microsoft.
Of the latter group, Rajiv Shah was asked during a speech at Duke University about working with “corporate players who might be doing things that might be undesirable in these countries”. He responded that USAID “enters into partnerships where there is mutual investment and we search for those who we think are committed to our long-term objectives.” He described how the agency is working with agricultural behemoths - Syngenta, DuPont, Monsanto - to create drought-tolerant forms of maize in east Africa. “Those are the kind of partnerships we engage in,” he said.
In the same talk, he boasted of how “every company you’ve heard of” is “eager to now work with us to make sure that they have a foothold in markets that they know are going to be the markets of the future.”
Smells like hubris
But USAID's embrace of the private sector and technical fixes to development problems has stirred a legion of critics.
Claudio Schuftan, a Vietnam-based consultant in public health and nutrition who is a founding member of the People’s Health Movement, called corporate involvement “the ultimate offence”.
“The private sector has no place in the decision-making position,” he said. “Business brings with it conflicts of interest that are not disclosed. First and foremost, they have to make a profit for their shareholders. USAID has to understand that.”
Of the Lab, Schuftan said, “The whole thing has a ring to me of being old wine in new skins,” just another top-down package of vertically administered initiatives. “People are not asked,” he said. “Programs are rammed down their throats. They don’t have any ownership and, therefore, they don’t give much of a damn.”
George Kent, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, lamented the tendency to “focus on technical fixes” that “fail to address the deeper social causes of hunger, poverty, and other social ills,” in an email. “Hunger in the world persists not because there is any difficulty producing food, but because many people are too poor to access the abundant food that is produced…
“The problem is not a shortage of land or water or technology,” he added, “but a shortage of caring.”
In his new book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (Basic Books), William Easterly argues against what he calls “the technocratic illusion” - the belief that “poverty results from a shortage of expertise, whereas poverty is really about a shortage of rights.”
Easterly, a professor at New York University who once worked for the World Bank, says a debate needs to be conducted over whether development based on political and economic rights for the poor (to own your own property, to trade with whomever you wish, to protest against the government, to vote for qualified candidates) is more likely to foster economic development than a system that prioritizes technocratic solutions.
When asked during a recent event in San Francisco how the development community has taken his argument, Easterly responded by quoting the author Upton Sinclair. “He says, ‘It’s impossible to make a man understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.’ And that I think that is the position of some aid agency officials.” [ Professor Easterly's comments come at about the 56:00 mark ]