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Least Developed Countries Move Toward Greater Access to Science, Technology and Innovation

Professor Romain Murenzi, Chair of the Technology Bank High-Level Panel and Executive Director of the World Academy of Sciences for the Advancement of Science (TWAS) in developing countries talks to The Commitment about how the proposed new Technology Bank could improve access to science, technology and innovation for LDCs.

 Louise Stoddard:  Could you please give an overall assessment of the challenges and opportunities facing LDCs in regards to technology?

Professor Romain Murenzi:  The 2013 report of the Secretary General of the UN to the General Assembly on the Technology Bank found that the current global initiatives on science and technology were not sufficiently servicing the needs of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) – the countries that are most in need of assistance in this area. The Broadband Commission’s report, The State of Broadband 2014, detailed how over two thirds of people in developing countries are not connected to the internet. The situation is even more concerning in the 48 least developed countries, home to around 900 million people, where over 90% of the population are not online.

There are many programmes which include some of the regions that LDCs are located but the Secretary General’s report found that few of these were solidly building capacity in science and technology from the bottom up. The Istanbul Programme of Action for Least Developed Countries outlines how the scientific research and innovation base needs to be nurtured in LDCs to promote networking among researchers and research institutions, help them access and utilize critical technologies, and draw together bilateral initiatives and support by multilateral institutions and the private sector, building on existing international initiatives. If you’re a scientist in an LDC, but you lack computers and broadband, then even if you can gather data, how do you analyse it? How do you store it? How do you share it with colleagues? The risk is that, while other countries advance, the LDCs fall further behind.

LS:  Can you explain why a Technology Bank for LDCs is needed?

RM:  All of the LDCs aspire to move forward in the areas of science, technology and innovation. Despite this they have not been able to move beyond outdated technologies that characterize their production processes and outputs. The acquisition of new technologies and the building of domestic capacity and a knowledge base, to be able to fully utilize acquired technologies, are needed for socio-economic transformation of the LDCs, as well as to help them effectively confront the emerging challenges, such as climate change, public health emergencies, natural disasters etc. The ITU has found that in 19 of the world’s LDCs, most of which are in Africa, the monthly cost of broadband exceeds average monthly earnings. Support and development of these sectors should help to bridge the digital divide in LDCs.

A Technology Bank would reduce the technology gap in support of rapid poverty eradication and sustainable development. An initiative that is specifically dedicated to LDCs would comprehensively assist these most vulnerable countries. While the Technology Bank will have its own distinct work programmes aimed at bridging the LDCs’ technology gap, it will also build on the work done in other relevant organizations by establishing close links with them.

Tanzania, Zahur Ramji (AKDN), Creative Commons

Tanzania, Zahur Ramji (AKDN), Creative Commons

LS:  Where did the idea for a Technology Bank originate?

RM:  The fourth decennial UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV), which met in Istanbul, Turkey in May 2011, strongly voiced the need for a multilateral effort to advance and accelerate science and technology among LDCs. The Conference called for further analysis of the needs of LDCs in this area with the aim of establishing a Technology Bank and Science, Technology and Information Supporting Mechanism, dedicated to LDCs. This would help improve their scientific research and innovation base, promote networking among researchers and research institutions and help these countries access and utilize critical technologies.

This analysis was presented in the report of the Secretary-General to the UN General Assembly that I just referenced. Upon consideration of this report, the Assembly requested that the Secretary-General establish a High-level Panel to further elaborate, via a feasibility study, on the functions, organizational and funding aspects of the Technology Bank and its institutional linkages with the United Nations.

LS:  What is the current state of play in regards to establishing the Technology Bank and what is your involvement in this process?

RM:  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the formation of a High-Level Panel in November 2014 at the request of the UN General Assembly. I have the pleasure of chairing this panel of experts from the field, which will study the scope and functions of the proposed Technology Bank. We held the first meeting of the High Level Panel in Turkey from 16-17 February 2015, where we discussed in-depth the various aspects of the feasibility study. It was a very successful meeting. All members of the Panel agreed on the need and importance of the Technology Bank for LDCs and the value it will add to the socio-economic advancement of these countries. We have provided guidance to the Secretariat of the High Level Panel on the preparation of the feasibility study in time for our next meeting in July 2015.

LS:  Can you tell me more about the High-Level Panel and what its main task will be?

RM:  I think it’s very positive to see that as a panel we are an incredibly representative, including five women and five men from LDCs and development partners from the global North and South.

The Secretary-General indicated that he wants us to prepare practical recommendations which can provide a strong impetus to accelerating structural transformation and sustainable development of the LDCs through the establishment of the Technology Bank. So in essence we will assess the feasibility of the Technology Bank in terms of its ability to have a positive impact on LDCs. Collectively we will address questions relating to technology transfer, including intellectual property rights issues and how to leverage existing international initiatives and strengthen LDCs’ own domestic capacities in the areas of Science, Technology and Innovation. As I have already mentioned, our first meeting has asked the Secretariat to prepare the feasibility study, which will cover all these areas. It will also propose institutional linkages of the Technology Bank with the United Nations.

LS:  What is the timeline for the process?

RM:  The High Level Panel is expected to complete its work in summer 2015. The panel is mandated to undertake the feasibility study with its recommend­ation on the operationalization of the Technology Bank. The UN General Assembly decided that the Bank will be operational during its 70th session, which will begin in September 2015, if so recommended by the Panel.

LS:  How will the three elements of the Technology Bank [Science, Technology and Innovation] be highlighted in the SDGs?

RM:  I am very encouraged that the outcome of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon last year by the UN Member States, as well as the synthesis report of the Secretary-General on the post-2015 development agenda, both contained provisions as regards operationalization of the Technology Bank. Given the broad scope of SDGs, the three arms of the Bank, namely science, technology and innovation capacity building, the Patents Bank and repository facility, will have important roles in scaling up the implementation of the these goals. It should be recalled that LDCs missed out on realization of most of the MDGs, and such scaling up will contribute critically to timely realization of the SDGs. Therefore, effectiveness of the Technology Bank in delivering on its mandate is of utmost importance in the context of advancing the post-2015 development agenda and SDGs in these countries.

School girls use a computer in Haiti.

School girls use a computer in Haiti.

LS:  Will the Bank serve the needs of women in LDCs and do any of the three elements help towards climate change adaptation?

RM: You must have noticed that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has ensured 50-50 representation of women and men on his High-level Panel, which I particularly welcome as a sign of his commitment to ensuring that the Technology Bank pays particular attention to the needs of the women. We will do our utmost to respond to his intent while establishing the functions of the Bank. As regards climate change adaptation, for LDCs it is an existential issue. Many LDCs are small islands and are exposed to the impact of sea level rise and natural calamities. Other LDCs also suffer from a variety of environmental and climate change risks inherent in their fragile eco-systems. We will pay particular attention to technological solutions which would help LDCs adapt effectively and in a timely manner to climate change challenges.


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