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Forum Aims at Building Technical Know-How in Developing Countries

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February 13, 2007—Delegations from more than 20 countries, business representatives, scientists and development experts are meeting this week in Washington, DC, to find out how countries can build the science, technology and innovation capacity they need to reduce poverty, improve quality of life, and achieve higher rates of economic growth.

“More and more countries are coming to the conclusion that they can’t solve their problems unless they build science and technology capacity,” says Alfred Watkins, Science and Technology Program Coordinator for the World Bank.

 “This doesn’t mean going into a research laboratory to invent something new,” he continues.  “For most countries it means developing the capacity to find, adapt, and use knowledge already in wide use in other countries, but not widely used inside their own country.”

Explaining what capacity building is and how to do it are the principal goals of the Global Forum on Building Science, Technology and Innovation Capacity for Sustainable Growth and Poverty Reduction February 13 to 15.

The forum is sponsored by the Bank in partnership with the Canadian International Development Agency, the UK Department for International Development, Global Research Alliance, Inter-American Development Bank, Science Initiative Group, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Some 300 participants including policy-makers and Cabinet members are talking about how to build science and technology capacity that will add value to natural resource exports and help local industry become more productive and competitive. 

They’re also exploring what kinds of changes need to be made in educational systems to produce graduates who meet the needs of companies that would like to hire them, or who can design and build roads or provide health care in rural communities.

“You need a whole range of technical, vocational, engineering and scientific skills to do something as seemingly simple as delivering clean water to a rural village,” says Watkins.

One US-based high tech firm recently confided it could easily double sales in Africa and parts of Latin America if it could find enough skilled workers to install and maintain the company’s equipment.

And technical and vocational schools are not turning out graduates with the right combination of skills, explains Watkins.

“Right now you have a circumstance where graduates end up being unemployed, and business complains it doesn’t have enough skilled workers to meet their needs.”

Recognizing the problem, African nations put science and technology high on their agenda at the 8th African Union summit January 22 to 30 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, pledging to make 2007 the year of scientific innovation.

Many low and middle income countries—from Uruguay to Mozambique and Rwanda —are drafting science, technology and innovation policies, establishing Ministries of Science, and investing resources in science development programs. Nigeria, for instance, has set up a US$5 billion endowment for science and technology from its recent oil revenue windfall.

The forum explores various options for stimulating research, investment, entrepreneurship, and effective education systems, while offering examples of success and failure.

Many nations hope to duplicate the success of South Korea, which, in the words of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the African Union Summit, “was able to transform itself from a traumatized nation with a non-existent economy, into a vibrant, productive society and a regional economic power.”

“Korea is the classic success story of using science and technology to develop rapidly—one African countries would like to emulate,” says Michael Ehst, a consultant to the World Bank on science, technology and innovation capacity building.

The Korea story shows that building science and technology capacity is not a luxury reserved for rich countries.  Rather, it is  “an absolute necessity for poor countries that wish to become richer,” say Ehst and Watkins.

Watkins adds that the forum provides a venue for countries, development specialists, and the private sector to gain a “better understanding of how to move forward together.”

“There’s a role for the public sector but there’s also a huge role for the private sector. Public-private partnership capacity building is absolutely key to making this work.”

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