By Julia Day
Researchers in a Dutch University laboratory have mutated the H5N1 strain of avian influenza so that it can be transmitted betweem humans through the air via coughs and sneezes, according to a UK newspaper report this morning. The US Government is worried the 'super strain' may escape the lab and cause a pandemic, or if the scientific paper detailing how they did it is published in its entirety, the information may be used by terrorists to create a bio-weapon.
In the report, by The Independent's Science Editor Steve Connor, a US government senior scientific advisor says: "The fear is that is you create something this deadly and it goes in to a global pandemic, the mortality and cost to the world could be massive. The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine." Previously, it was thought that 'bird flu' could only be passed betwen humans via very close contact.
The study was carried out by a team at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, led by Robn Fouchier. The Centre's website says: "The discovery will enable scientists to recognize in time when a virus becomes a threat to public health, thereby possibly preventing a pandemic."
The aim of the study, then, was the opposite of what the US government believes could happen as a result of it. But the US thinks disclosure of the full genetic sequence of the mutated virus may lead to dangerous, nay, deadly misuse. And as any sci-fi fan knows, one man's miracle cure is another (mad) man's weapon.
Thus, the US government's National Security Advisory Board for Biosecurity is understood to have advised US officials that key parts of the Erasmus paper should be redacted. Fouchier is not commenting further until a decision has been made about publication, according to Connor's piece.
It's a fascinating and cautionary tale about scientific discovery and transparency. But it also gives an insight in to how preparedness for known threats can be caught off guard by unknown threats. The world has been gearing up for an avian flu pandemic with complex surveillance systms and stockpiles of anti-viral vaccines. But these systems were not banking on scientists creating a super strain in a potentially insecure Rotterdam basement.
The STEPS Centre's Ian Scoones and colleagues have done a lot of work looking at the international responses to avian flu, and what changes are needed to the public health systems that have been put in place nationally and internationally, such as the 'One World, One Health' approach.
If you would like to know more about how virus genetics, ecology and epidemiology link to ecoomic, political and policy processes, take a look at our avian flu resources which includes short briefings, longer papers with case studies from around the world, and a book, entitled Avian Influenza: Science. Policy and Politics.
Plus, SPRU-based colleagues of the STEPS Centre, Caitrıona McLeish and Paul Nightingale have written in Science Direct on the increasing convergence science and security policy in an article entitled: Biosecurity, bioterrorism and the governance of science Read more
Tuesday, 20 December 2011
By Julia Day
Posted by Julia Day at 11:24
Tuesday, 13 December 2011
Zimbabwe’s land reform since 2000 has been intensely controversial. Overturning the settler colonial pattern of land use and creating a new agrarian structure has had far-reaching consequences.
Yet the debate about what happened, where and to who has too often been shallow and ill-informed, and not based on solid empirical evidence from the field.
STEPS co-director Ian Scoones has been working on research which overturns the myths about Zimbabwe's land reform programme. This programme has involved a detailed study of what happened to people’s livelihoods after land reform, across 16 land reform sites and 400 households.
Ian has recently written a series of short blogs on the Zimbabweland website, on some of the misconceptions and inaccuracies that still persist. All the details of the research can be found on the site.
Meanwhile Ian discussed the research at the Yale Agrarian Studies Colloquium session in early December, giving a paper entitled Zimbabwe's land reform: challenging the myths, which can be found on the Yale website.
And the BBC has produced some radio programmes and a web article about the research, which can be accessed via the following links:
BBC Radio 4 Crossing Continents programme on Farming Zimbabwe, by Martin Plaut, World Service Africa editor
BBC Radio 4 ‘From our own Correspondent’ piece by Martin Plaut.
BBC News Africa article Are Zimbabwe's new farmers winning, 10 years on? by Martin Plaut Read more
Friday, 25 November 2011
Rob will speak at a side event on Wednesday December 7 co-organised with the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN). Based on work by the Sussex Energy Group, STEPS Centre and ECN, the event will provide an opportunity to discuss pathways to sustainable energy in developing countries.
Focussing on policy initiatives such as the UNFCCC Technology Mechanism, Rob will present ideas developed in the new STEPS working paper on Energy Pathways for how frameworks like the Technology Mechanism could be designed to better facilitate pro-poor low carbon development. The event is being held on December 7th from 16:45 to 18:15 in the Hex River room
Rob and Jose will also be helping run a stand in collaboration with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research which will be open during week two of the COP.
Read the new STEPS Working Paper Energy Pathways in Low-Carbon Development: From Technology Transfer to Socio-Technical Transformation by Rob Byrne, Adrian Smith, Jim Watson and David Ockwell
Read a short briefing briefing about the paper Read more
Thursday, 24 November 2011
An event at the STEPS Centre
We're delighted to announce that we'll be holding a two-week Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability next May.
An international group of leading researchers will run interactive sessions drawing on their work into the interactions of social, technological and environmental systems. The Summer School is aimed at a selected group of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers (or those with equivalent experience) who are working in fields around development studies, science and technology studies, innovation and policy studies, and across agricultural, health, water or energy issues.
Topics will include
- the politics of sustainability
- complexity in dynamic interacting systems
- interdisciplinarity in social and natural science
- knowledge and power
- understanding risk, uncertainty and ignorance
- livelihoods, institutions and development
The Summer School will take place at Sussex University during the Brighton Festival – a famously energetic and eclectic celebration of culture and innovative arts running from 5 - 27 May – with plenty of opportunities for students to engage.
>> Summer School flyer (pdf)
>> Summer School webpage
Friday, 18 November 2011
Report on STEPS UK-India collaborations at the 9th Globelics Conference, 17th November 2011(supported by UKIERI), by Adrian Ely
The session followed on from discussions that had taken place in Delhi in June alongside the launch of Indialics and the new journal ‘Innovation for Development’, edited by K J Joseph. In Buenos Aires, Adrian Ely presented on behalf of Dinesh Abrol, who was unable to attend due to illness, but had sent through a presentation introducing India’s innovation politics from the time of independence in 1947.
Dinesh’s first point was that the freedom movement (leading to independence) ensured peoples’ participation in agenda setting, funding, organising, capacity building and monitoring in respect of the creation of new social carriers of innovation. Through processes like the 1949 Radhakrishnan Commission (India’s first commission on higher education), policy discussions like these required the Nehruvians, Gandhians and Leftists to state in one voice the formation of rural and urban universities, and defined the university designs in terms of not only how to integrate the missions of teaching, research and extension (integrated scholarship) but also demanded that they create the resources needed for learning, competence building and innovation.
In the end, a different model to that prescribed in the Radhakrishnan Commission - that of Pant Nagar University (which was created with the help of Indo-US collaboration) was followed. This came alongside a closure of the previously open earlier debates during the post-sixties, marginalising the upgrading efforts of traditional systems (the peasant-artisan economy) and focussing on large scale industries / atomic energy / chemical complexes to feed industrializing agriculture. Closure also occurred because the nation state did not wish to carry out land reforms; the technology system associated with the green revolution, which the state subsidized heavily to achieve higher agricultural productivity and production, served to stabilize the position of rural gentry with big business. By the 1980s, the stage was set for a period of passive imitation of the innovation directions in various parts of the developed world. However some experiments fostering novel, home-grown innovation directions survived. In the second half of eighties the Peoples' science movements tried using a systemic approach, e.g. through national missions (leather, agro processing etc). Their results have been promising and some of these technology systems are now supported by the Department of Science and Technology. However, Dinesh also stressed that the other major weakness now impacting on progress is the loss of counter hegemonic status of these ideas, which he refers to as the problem of “weak subjective factor”.
- Experimental spaces are possible to be created even now; the examples of open source, open access are there before us. We need appropriate social carriers of innovation; We need to explore the possibilities of building on the earlier experiments through a freedom movement-like effort with lessons learnt about how to provide ecologically and socially just solutions in a sustainable way.
- Through the change in the political practice of innovation, the subjective factor must be strengthened (theory, policy and practice must dance together); new types of bridging organizations are required; viable network formation requires centering on the development of appropriate practice in food, health, IT and energy technologies. Following agro-ecological approaches is key in agriculture; break the ecological and social connections of pre-capitalist formations with the processes of capitalist development; mobilize the petty producers in a way that will allow them to see their interests with the workers and establish worker peasant unity in production.
- Finally, international trading and investment arrangements are trying to foster agribusiness / global pharma business/ corporate biotech. We can resist only through the implementation of alternate political theory, policy and practice. Creating international solidarity around sector based efforts while strengthening umbrella efforts is the way forward.
Posted by Julia Day at 13:48
Thursday, 17 November 2011
A new STEPS Centre paper, by Elisa Arond, Iokiñe Rodríguez, Valeria Arza, Francisco Herrera and Myriam Sánchez, investigates the challenges of linking science, technology and innovation to social needs, in the context of Latin America.
Innovation, Sustainability, Development and Social Inclusion: Lessons from Latin America is one of a series of working papers relating regional experiences to ideas proposed by the STEPS Centre's New Manifesto project, following on round table discussions held in Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia in 2010.
The paper briefly describes the heterogeneous context and history of the Latin American region with specific attention to STI policies and institutions, as well as the particular challenge of effectively linking STI to social needs.
It highlights the important historic contribution of the Latin American School on Science, Technology and Development, and the relevance and synergies of ideas presented by these and contemporary Latin American researchers in relation to the New Manifesto’s ‘3Ds’.
The paper documents some examples – from public, private and civil society spheres – of current Latin American initiatives that illustrate regional efforts to develop, in different ways, a 3D innovation agenda, as well as constructing and putting into practice the different New Manifesto ‘Areas for Action’.
It also questions the relative weight of these efforts compared to conventional priorities of competitiveness and growth, and highlights some of the obstacles to realising 3D aims. In particular, it underscores persistent social and economic inequalities, issues of institutional and political resistance to change, and the role of power relations (at multiple levels) in determining directions of science, technology, and innovation, and STI policy, as topics worth exploring further in the future. Read more
During the session Innovation for Social Inclusion and Sustainable Development, we heard a rich set of perspectives from different regions around the world. I was particularly struck by the way the challenges of social inclusion and sustainable development both ask searching questions about what we know about innovation and how policy supports it. This is the point I wanted to develop in my remarks to the session participants, by arguing that concerns about inclusion means our economics of innovation has to be complemented even more by work on the politics of innovation. In combination, both can help recast innovation to the purposes of sustainable development and social inclusion. (Photo: Adrian Smith)
Sustainable development has both environmental integrity and social justice dimensions. The World Commission on Environment and Development famously defined sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without jeopardising the needs of future generations’.
In the following sentence they elaborate two key concepts, which I quote: “The concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.” I’ll come back to the idea of limits . The relevant point here is that sustainable development has at its core two principles of social justice: one regarding redistribution towards the overriding priorities of the poor; and the other towards future generations and ensuring their options are kept open.
Social inclusion involves affirmative action to reduce exclusion from society. This means giving marginalised groups equal access to the rights, opportunities and resources enjoyed by others in society. Without these capabilities the excluded cannot participate fully in social, economic, political and cultural life. Again, redistribution is important, but so too are principles of procedural justice and cognitive: the ability to be recognised, heard and to participate in social development, and to have ones world view and knowledge of the world respected.
Understood in this way, then the question about ex ante identification of inclusive and sustainable innovation is a question of social justice. It suggests innovation trajectories will no longer be the result of science push and market pull, if they ever were, but that innovation systems need to be opened more explicitly to politics and activism.
Note in passing that in addressing questions of innovation for inclusion, we must not overlook how we might stop and prevent innovation that exacerbates social exclusion and contributes to unsustainable development. Nor should we ignore how unsustainable innovations can crowd out and hinder more progressive innovations. Regulating excluding, unsustainable innovation is just as important, but this other side of the coin is left for another discussion.
The vast majority of what we know about innovation has been attained through the study of rent-seeking firms operating in market settings. As researchers, we have followed how firms develop new technologies, products, processes, services and organisational forms. We have analysed their relations with scientific and knowledge institutions. And we have tried to evaluate how different policies and business strategies help and hinder these kinds of innovation process.
Consulted by practitioners, innovation scholars have even advised how to do this kind of innovation better. Various metrics have been developed to help us keep track of the performance of innovation systems: aggregate research funding levels, numbers of scientists and engineers, publications, patents, sales, etc. The ultimate driver of innovation policy is profit and GDP growth – particular economic indicators that set important contexts for innovation.
How much of this knowledge about innovation for market growth is appropriate to innovation for inclusive, sustainable development? Undoubtedly, the economics of innovation has contributed to the rise and spread of industries, including modern agriculture, around the world, and all the benefits that brings. But persistent concerns about livelihoods, job creation, inequalities, and dangerous environmental degradation suggest not all is well. If social justice appears anywhere in this mainstream innovation work, then it is largely implicit, and limited to questions of distribution and redistribution of innovation benefits, e.g. jobs and material wealth. Critical studies point out how issues of intergenerational, procedural, and cognitive justice are largely absent.
We heard in this session how innovation for inclusive, sustainable development has to attend to questions of direction, distribution and diversity: the 3-D agenda. It is an agenda that is addressing situations where effective market demand is usually weak, innovation goals and social demands are contested, relevant knowledge is plural and includes informal forms, and where civil society is often the source of change and, arguably, innovation (with states and markets catching-up later).
In my view, it would be foolish to rush into these situations with economic perspectives on innovation developed in completely different settings. Rather, we need to analyse what 3-D innovation systems might look like around the world. And, even more importantly, we need to learn how to transform existing systems and build innovation systems for more inclusive and sustainable forms development.
Researchers like those in the Sustainability Transitions Research Network are finding that any focus on transformation means bringing the different contexts of innovation into the centre of analysis and considering how those structuring contexts need to be changed too.
We have seen how the 3-D agenda has Areas for Action in agenda setting, funding, capacity-building, organising, and monitoring, evaluation and accountability. What is interesting is how these recommendations seek social inclusion and sustainability in the innovation processes themselves. It seems it is unlikely that any old innovation will generate inclusive, sustainable outcomes. Social inclusion and sustainable development are also about procedural justice, which means innovation itself has to become inclusive and sustainable.
So, how might innovation for social inclusion and sustainable development actually operate? Here, I think the economics of innovation might benefit from a dialogue with political science. All forms of innovation are political in some form or other, but when we start working towards 3-D innovations then the politics becomes much more apparent. Questions like whose innovation; what for; towards which goals; who gains and loses; on what basis can this innovation be justified; and so on, are very political.
I think political science can help with the principles and practice of social justice. There is a rich literature on distributive justice, procedural justice, and cognitive justice that we can draw upon when puzzling over forms of inclusive and sustainable innovation.
But there are other Areas for Action where political science might help. Questions of accountability and authority in innovation can be informed by studies of accountability systems and unaccountable behaviours in political science. Work on governance networks and relations between different political coalitions beyond conventional government and party political systems suggest lines of accountability and authority become much less clear-cut, in similarly complex ways to those implied by the 3-D agenda. Here, work on different theories of democracy, whether representative, participatory, deliberative or radical can help us map the terrain for public participation in inclusive and sustainable innovation.
There is also a fantastic wealth of lessons from work on social movements that could inform 3-D concerns for engaging civil society within innovation systems. Whilst the study of social movements is often in relation to their sociological consequences and demands upon political systems, I have found in my own research that some themes are pertinent to the roles played by civil society in innovation systems too.
Finally, political science is the discipline where power is centre stage – indeed it is often seen as constituting the stage. The areas for action in 3-D innovation challenge many vested interests, established institutions, and powerful agendas. As such, power needs to become a greater and more explicit part of our analyses. The different forms of power theorised in political science can help us grapple with the complexities of power relations.
Now, I am aware that this suggestion could appear to contradict my point about the current economics of innovation. Having said earlier that we need to take care over how appropriate our current theories and policies for innovation are for the 3-D agenda, I then suggest bringing in perspectives from areas of political science that have had nothing to do with innovation at all! But this would be to misconstrue my argument. Just as with the economics of innovation, we need to adapt insights from political science carefully to the new forms, purposes and contexts of inclusive, sustainable innovation. The bodies of knowledge of potential help to a 3-D agenda were developed through the study of governmental systems and political systems; not innovation systems. So there is a need for very precise contextualisation, translation across different intellectual histories, and retaining throughout a clear view of purposes.
I do not think any of our disciplines has complete answers for the profound challenges of innovation for social inclusion and sustainable development. Each provides helpful clues and areas for future work. But it is work that must be done in a problem-focused interdisciplinary way.
Furthermore, it should arise through trans-disciplinary engagement with practitioners and citizens in the wider social world. In many respects, the field of innovation studies has a good track record on interdisciplinarity, and so my argument here is pushing against an open door. But given the mixed and uneven successes of many innovations, our thinking and practice on innovation has to continue to develop and challenge. Perhaps we need a reinvigorated effort at redirecting our interdisciplinarity to address the politics of 3-D innovation?
None of this was news to people here at this Globelics event. It is quite apt that this session takes place in Argentina. Forty years ago the Fundación Bariloche produced its report Catastrophe or New Society in response to the Limits to Growth report. In contrast to the Club of Rome’s extrapolation of consumption and population trends in existing, industrial societies, the Bariloche team tried to model a more participatory and egalitarian society, and by putting developing countries centre-stage. They used their model to explore the biophysical viability of such societies. Unlike the Club of Rome emphasis on bio-physical limits, and unlike the WCED’s view on limits as organisational and technological, the Bariloche team recognised that the real limits initially are socio-political. What was needed was a political analysis of the power and ideology behind different development pathways, and a focus on how social justice could be brought into development much more centrally.
Another interesting feature to the Bariloche report was that it was funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada. IDRC are about to launch a new funding programme for research into innovation for inclusive development, and are organising a workshop with GRIDD right after this conference, here in Buenos Aires. As people embark on a new round of research, I think it is interesting to learn from attempts in the past and elsewhere. Whilst the contexts are very different, careful interpretation can nevertheless generate some very instructive lessons for us now. This is precisely what Hernán Thomas at UNQ and Dinesh Abrol at NISTADS are doing with the STEPS Centre, with a new project looking at grassroots innovation movements in historical and comparative perspective.
Clearly, there is plenty of exciting and important work that has been done and is being done. Strands that help us address the politics of innovation for inclusion will be helpful for our work the future too. Read more
Globelics conference in Buenos Aires today, member Adrian Smith has created a Wordle based on the contents of his presentation for the Innovation for Social Inclusion and Sustainable Development session. Click on the graphic to have a closer look.
Innovation for inclusive development was a resounding theme in the introductory session of the 9th Globelics Conference in Buenos Aires on 15th November. Ministers, the Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires and the academic presenters celebrated Argentina’s focus on innovation, but highlighted the main challenge to the conference – developing innovation policies that generate improved livelihoods for the bulk of the population, rather than those that leave some (in some cases the majority) behind. (Photo: Buenos Aires).
Innovation scholars from Europe and the USA gave their perspectives on the challenges for the participants in Buenos Aires. Bengt-Åke Lundvall introduced Globelics and its key aim – to strengthen research capacity in innovation studies and policy. From 450 full papers submitted, the organisers had selected 240 for presentation over the coming three days.
Luc Soete highlighted the developments since Globelics was established and described a world which could hardly have been imagined one decade ago. He highlighted the increased interactions between the local level (‘localics’) - where building human capital is at the basis of learning and innovation systems - with the global level, where the ‘Washington Consensus’ was giving way to a consensus aligned with the approaches favoured by the ‘G5 group of emerging economies’.
Richard Nelson reflected on Schumpeter’s earlier work and the implications of ‘creative destruction’ for different sections of society. Highlighting the fundamental need for strong education systems and the important role of public sector expenditures (as well as the activities of business firms) in innovation systems, he also explained that countries showed a variety of patterns of innovation-based development.
Some countries (e.g. Japan, Korea and Taiwan) have succeeded in lifting the bulk of their populations whilst others (like Brazil and China) have displayed technological ‘catching up’ in a small section of the population, whilst a significant fraction of the population has been left behind. He posed this as a specific challenge to Argentina.
From the talks of the policy makers present, this already seems to be a key focus of the Argentinean government as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner enters her second term. Establishing the new Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation and implementing talent programmes that have led to the repatriation of more than 800 scientists who had left the country because of poor opportunities are just two recent policy actions, and targets such as 1 graduate (7 years training) for every 4000 inhabitants illustrate the ambition of the administration.
At the same time, Argentina’s vision to diversify the economy will require the participation of different actors, for example through new linkages between universities and the private sector. Through new policy approaches, science, technology and innovation can thus contribute not only to a system based on production rather than financial speculation, but also to development opportunities that are more widely distributed through the economy.
With this challenge, the conference participants start their discussions, drawing on evidence and analyses from across the world. Among these is a panel session convened by the STEPS Centre and partners from Buenos Aires. Dedicated to ‘Innovation for Social Inclusion and Sustainable Development’, the session is due to respond directly to the challenge set by the introductory speakers. Read more
Friday, 4 November 2011
By Julia Day, STEPS Centre communications manager
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates was asked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to investigate finance for development and to report back to the G20 in Cannes this week. The key message of Gates' Innovation with Impact report, in a nutshell, appears to be: A levy on share and bond trading would help rich nations meet their aid pledges to the poor to the tune of $48bn (£30bn) a year.
With that kind of potential impact, what's not to love? The exploration of new ways to meet old finanical aid targets in this increasingly unstable economic climate are welcome, and the so-called Robin Hood Tax (sometimes called Tobin tax) is gaining support.
Gates told the G20 leaders that rather than being wholly used to shore up faltering First World economies, it was "critical" that a fraction of any agreed Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) should go towards helping the developing world. An FTT is gaining support - this week the Archbishop of Canterbury threw his weight behind the idea.
However, to make an FTT or other financial measure work, and work effectively, there are a whole host of non-financial issues to take in to account. The funding of science, technology and innovation – whether from public, private or philanthropic sources – needs to be geared much more strongly to the challenges of poverty alleviation, social justice and environmental sustainability.
The most blatently obvious of these issues being the need to include the poorest countries in discussion from the outset. The needs and demands of poorer and marginalised women and men as potential users of technologies, as well as the outcomes of innovation, must be addressed in funding allocations.
And becasue the potential recipients of the Robin Hood tax each have different institutional architectures for the setting of innovation priorities at national and international levels, an adaptable plan is needed. It has been said many times before, but it is always worth repeating: one-size-fits -all solutions just do not work.
Any mechanism put in place would need to enable diverse interests and new voices to be involved in inclusive debate, including those of poorer and marginalised people. In some countries and settings this will involve building on existing institutional arrangements; in others it will require establishing new fora.
But if we are to support innovation for development in the poorest countries, we must build on local innovation capabilities and include the end-users in the decision-making process. The STEPS Centre's Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto contains many more action points on delivering an equitable future for all. Read more
Posted by Julia Day at 12:46
Wednesday, 26 October 2011
By Julia Day, STEPS Centre Communications Manager
"The Prime Minister should promise to attend next year's Rio + 20 Earth Summit to show leadership on sustainability and strengthen global political will to tackle the environmental crisis," say MPs on the Uk parliament's Commons Environmental Audit Committee in a report published today.
The report warns that the planet's environmental problems are now much more urgent than at the first Rio Summit in 1992. Safe limits on the amount of waste, pollution and biodiversity loss that natural systems can tolerate continue to be breached – undermining our ability to use natural resources to support further growth.
Speaking on the publication of the report, Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: "The Rio+20 Earth Summit is a vital chance for world leaders to take action to avert a global environmental crisis. But the financial situation means minds will be focused elsewhere and there is a danger that business-as-usual may end up carrying the day.
The Prime Minister should lead by example. He could make a big difference by demonstrating his commitment to Rio + 20 and letting other world leaders know that he will personally be attending. Lasting prosperity can only be built on a healthy planet."
The STEPS Centre works on many of the issues being discussed in Rio next summer and we are embarking on a series of activites and engagements in the run up to the event.
While it looks like David Cameron will not attend, we hope a strong consensus emerges from Rio+20 that provides a global framework supporting different forms of innovation to address sustainable development challenges at local, national and global levels.
Crucially, we would like to see the interlinked global challenges of poverty reduction, social justice and environmental sustainability take centre-stage in discussions, rather than economic imperatives alone. Read more
Friday, 21 October 2011
By Julia Day, STEPS Centre Communications Manager
How can innovation contribute to social justice and sustainable development goals? Two of the STEPS Centre's members will be debating this issue in Argentina next month at the 9th Globelics International Conference in Buenos Aires.
Adrian Ely and Adrian Smith will be speaking on the panel of the “Innovation for Social Inclusion and Sustainable Development” session at The Global Network for the Economics of Learning, Innovation, and Competence Building Systems (Globelics) conference.
The STEPS Centre's work on Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto will inform our input to the session, as will Adrian Smith's work around grassroots innovation, social technologies and sustainable development. Patners from Africa, India and China will also be on the panel, giving insight from thier regions and experiences.
The panel has been organised by our partners Mariano Fressoli and Hernán Thomas, del Instituto de Estudios Sociales (UNQ) and the Centro de Economía de la Innovación y el Desarrollo (UNSAM). Watch this space for more news and views about the event. Read more
Thursday, 20 October 2011
By ERIK MILLSTONE, STEPS Centre Member
The 2nd Science Forum of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) took place in Beijing this week, and the discussions represented a challenging occasion for a member of the STEPS Centre, or at any rate for this member of STEPS. (Photo: still from STEPS film on maize pathways in Kenya)
One challenge is to remain awake during the meeting, at least on the first day, not just because of the effect of jet lag, but also because of the unintentional efforts of so many speakers to diminish the global deficit in clichés. The most commonly articulated cliché was the Malthusian assumption that the size of the human population is exploding and will explode so quickly that rapid increases in food production are and will be urgently required. That assumption serves to portray agricultural science and technology (not to mention the scientists and the technologists themselves) as of pivotal importance.
I am not suggesting that the scale and direction of population change are not going to be important variables, but I am suggesting rather that the main challenge to the food and agricultural system, namely chronic under-nutrition, is a function of the prevalence of poverty, rather than a consequence of a presumed scarcity of food or supposed excess number of mouths. Since there is already more than enough food in the world to feed the current population, and more, it is evident that hunger is a consequence of poverty not of scarcity. Moreover people can be a resource as well as a drain on resources; it depends on how societies are organised and how they function.
Fortunately several contributors to the debates insisted on pointing that out. Credit goes for example to Mark Holderness of GFAR, Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute and Bernard Hubert of Agropolis, all of whom insisted on highlighting those key facts, although too many of the other presentations continued to be predicated on Malthusian assumptions.
Another problematic cliché concerned the assumption, expressed by the Chairman of the opening plenary session, that discussions should focus only on science to the complete exclusion of politics, as if debates about priorities for research and resource allocation issues were entirely technical and apolitical. The choice however is not between taking a political position or an apolitical one, but between being explicit about normative framings and interests on the one hand or leaving issues of power, interests and control implicit. In practice, a vocal minority of those attending the forum declined to conform to the chairman’s injunction, and instead emphasised the values they espoused and presumed, for example by arguing that what matters is not aggregate levels of foods production or consumption, but their (mal-)distribution. While the majority chose to talk about aggregates and averages a vocal, and hopefully influential, minority emphasised distributional issues.
One of the discursive tactics that is being adopted by those who choose to keep political issues implicit has been the repeated use of the idiom that I propose to refer to as the ‘referentially opaque “we”’. For example, agricultural researchers and economists repeatedly used expressions such as ‘we can do X’, or ‘we should do X’, or spoke about how ‘we’ could or should manage some problem, where they implicitly represented themselves as if they represented humanity as a whole, or as if they could speak on behalf of poor smallholder farmers in developing countries. That way of talking fails to acknowledge the importance of empowering the poor in developing countries to make and implement their own decisions, rather than just doing what the cosmopolitan technocratic ‘experts’ think they ought to do. For example some influential speakers said things such as ‘we must transform smallholder farmers into agribusinesses’ not ‘as and when, and to the extent that, smallholder farmers wish to become agribusinesses the research and policy community should be clear how they can and should assist those farmers in taking greater control of their lives and choosing their own pathways’.
In a talk about zoonotic diseases arising from the intensification of livestock production, a speaker referred to how ‘we’ should manage such challenges. That form of discourse failed to acknowledge that in practice those challenges must be met by a wide range of different stakeholder groups, but primarily by farmers and farm workers themselves, not by the research community. Of course, other groups such as animal health workers, veterinary authorities and those trading in meat, milk and dairy products have relevant interests and responsibilities too, but theirs may not coincide with those of the farmers or farm workers, let alone the veterinary researchers. Fortunately other participants recognised the need to explore and comprehend the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders, and to explore the extent to which those diverse perspectives may be congruent or incongruent. The forthcoming STEPS project on zoonotic diseases should fit directly into a knowledge gap that was identified and highlighted by several participants. The forthcoming STEPS project on Commodities: Chains, Networks and Pathways will also find a ready audience amongst some for the more enlightened participants at this meeting.
In his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn argued that, in the natural sciences, new paradigms displace and replace the old ones not because their assumptions, analysis and arguments are superior to those of the old ones, but because young scholars adopt and accept the new paradigm, while those committed to the old paradigm simply die out, leaving the field to the young. That model seemed briefly plausible on this occasion until I realised that not all of those articulating the old paradigm are elderly, and not all of us articulating a new paradigm are particularly young. I guess I disagree with Kuhn, groups such as the STEPS Centre and colleagues elsewhere do have a more powerful and plausible paradigm, and the shortcomings of the reductionist and technocratic paradigm mean that its proponents are simply unable to account for or adequately respond to the realities and complexities of poverty and hunger in developing countries. Read more
Tuesday, 18 October 2011
Jim Watson, Professor of Energy Policy at SPRU and director of the Sussex Energy Group as well as co-convenor of the STEPS Centre's new Energy domain, has been asked to join a panel of politicians, business people and academics for this year’s Daily Telegraph Age of Energy initiative. The theme is the Green Economy.
This year’s debate was launched with a one page special feature in the Telegraph on 13th August. The feature included 200 word pieces by Jim and the other panellists on the theme, and a main article by government minister Oliver Letwin.
Read the initial articles on the Telegraph website Read more
By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre researcher
I was lucky enough to participate in a fascinating discussion on global governance and regulation, organised as part of the Bellagio Initiative last week. The Initiative involves a series of global consultations hoping to deliver a new framework for philanthropy and international development in pursuit of human wellbeing in the 21st century.
Gathering an impressive group of experts and practitioners from near and far, the event focussed on questions around the challenge of ‘providing common goods in a global system’ and was just one of a number of global dialogues being held throughout the world in 2011:
>Inclusive Economics: addressing social, economic and political exclusion– Virtual
>Rapid urbanisation & living in growing cities – New Delhi
>Cross market INGOs – International Fundraising Congress, Amsterdam
>Coping with global shocks – Bangkok
>Emerging (Philanthropic) Markets – Budapest
>Information and Communication Technologies: Promises and pitfalls – Virtual
>Environmental sustainability, climate change and economic growth – São Paulo
>BRICS Countries – New Delhi
>Increased Mobility: Forced and Voluntary – Nairobi
>Freedom and rights: – Cairo
>Recipient countries – Accra
Our discussions in London covered the ongoing challenge of bridging from local to national to international levels of governance, and raised many of the same issues that my colleagues and I encountered in the STEPS Centre's ‘Rethinking Regulation’ project and the resultant Regulating Technology book published earlier this year.
The need for transparency and accountability of different development actors featured strongly in the discussion, and the role of philanthropic organisations (both in providing a working model of how such principles could be operationalised, and in advocating their adoption in other institutions) was stressed.
The potential bridging role played by these organisations, which have the opportunity not only to network with their grantees but also often enjoy access to powerful decision-makers, was also highlighted.
A summit conference at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Centre will consider the messages from the various global dialogues in formulating a new framework for philanthropy and international development in the 21st century.
Monday, 17 October 2011
By Julia Day, STEPS Centre Communications Manager
Across the world, especially in the global South, there has been a dramatic rise in ‘land grabs’ - cross-border, transnational corporation-driven and, in some cases foreign government-driven, large-scale land deals.
In-depth and systematic enquiry in to this issue has become a matter of urgency, and to that end, the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) sponsored a successful a small grant competition last year. Now applications are invited for the second year of small grants.
Grants of up to US$3,000 per study are available to successful applicants who wish to undertake original field research, carry out follow up fieldwork on an ongoing related initiative, or write up a paper based on research that is being/has been undertaken. LDPI is particularly keen on themes around resistance and alternatives but is open to broader topics.
In 2010 LDPI were able to fund 40 small grants. Many of the papers were among the 120 presented at the LDPI-organized International Conference on Global Land Grabbing held at the Institute of Development Studies in April this year.
Some of the small grant-funded papers contributed to policy initiatives including the UN Committee on Food Security (CFS) related studies and deliberations.
Additionally, many of the papers were selected as contributions to three forthcoming journal special issues on land grabs:
>Green Grabs: a new way of appropriating nature?’ guest edited by James Fairhead, Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones, Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS), due March 2012
>The politics of global land grabbing’ guest edited by Ruth Hall, Ben White and Wendy Wolford, Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS), due May 2012
>Governing land grabs’, guest edited by Jun Borras, Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones, Ben White and Wendy Wolford, Development and Change, due July 2012
The LDPI Small Grants Competition Part 2: 2011-12 is now open. Short proposals (500 words maximum) for the research/paper must be submitted by email to email@example.com by
15 December 2011, together with a short CV (maximum one page, including the name of one referee) and small grants will be awarded in January 2012.
For a full explanation of what is required of applicants, please see this PDF document.
Thursday, 13 October 2011
by Nathan Oxley, Impact, Communications & Engagement officer, STEPS Centre
I've posted about framings before - how people's choices are affected by the way an issue is explained to them. Here's a little comic I made to illustrate the idea (click the image to enlarge).
>> Related: Virus or beast: how one word changes everything
Thursday, 29 September 2011
By Nathan Oxley, STEPS Communications Assistant
The STEPS Centre is mentioned twice in the beautifully interactive Annual Report of the Institute of Development Studies.
The Knowledge, Technology and Society section of the report cites our New Manifesto project, and Kamal Kar is quoted on our 2011 Water Symposium.
The report's a good way of getting an overview of what IDS is doing - from research into sexuality & development to building knowledge networks.
>> IDS Annual Report 2011
Tuesday, 20 September 2011
By Hayley MacGregor, STEPS Centre member
The UN High-level Summit on Non-communicable Diseases now underway comes at an important moment for the development community. With just over 50 per cent of the world now living in cities, and with the percentage of the global population over 60 years of age expected to double by 2050, we must recognise and internalise that the demographics of the world are changing.
We must think through the implications of urbanisation, not only for health, but also for development and governance approaches more generally.
Societies and systems from the US to Uganda are groaning under the pressures of demographic shifts. Focusing attention on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) at such a high-level forum is one good step in this direction.
The only other time that the UN has focused on disease in this way was in 2001, when concern regarding the effects of the HIV epidemic led to the formation of the Global Fund to fight the 'big three', AIDS, turberculosis and malaria. The discourse today resonates strongly with that time: the urgency of the issue is being conveyed through the language of pandemics, a global crisis and dire consequences if a coordinated response is not forthcoming.
The challenge of non-communicable diseases
The quoted figures are indeed alarming. In particular, it is the growing 'double burden' of communicable and non-communicable diseases in low- and middle-income countries that has crept up on us – a burden that is predicted to increase. 29 per cent of deaths from NCDs are in people under 60 years of age, which has significant economic and social costs.
Diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, long associated with rich Northern populations, are inflicting a heavy toll of suffering and disability around the globe.
There are the conditions included in the NCD category that have had less time in the limelight, such as: mental disorders; chronic lung conditions associated with smoking; and environmental health effects linked to industrial pollution. Several disease lobby groups are crying neglect and articulating their agendas.
Preventing non-communicable diseases 'upstream'
But a politics of disease hierarchies is not the point. It is the fact that these conditions are considered to be to some degree preventable. They tend to run a chronic, progressive course if not detected early and managed carefully. In this respect, the regimen is classically a combination of long term drug treatment and risk reduction, mostly prescriptions for lifestyle change.
A medicalised view focussing on individual behaviour change modification, or even a health systems approach, is too limited a focus. Key figures in the medical establishment have pointed out the importance of structural factors that need to be addressed in the name of 'upstream' prevention: the regulation of the food, tobacco and alcohol industries has been mentioned repeatedly.
In this respect prevention is no easy challenge and will require considerable political will to take on powerful global players.
The interests of the big drug companies also require greater scrutiny: do they not stand to gain from an increased profile and a 'pharmaceuticalisation' of the problem? And who among them will be the winners and losers as these 'Northern' medical problems go global?
Chinese and Indian firms are on the brink of being able to manufacture generic biotech medicines used to treat various NCDs. In the early 2000s, after a protracted patent battle, generic HIV/AIDS medicines were made available in developing countries. Will drugs for NCDs follow a similar path?
Lessons from development for addressing non-communicable diseases
This is one area where a development perspective could add to the understanding of NCDs: there are lessons to be learned from the HIV experience.
But development perspectives also tell us that it is vital that the experiences and viewpoints of people living in the global South are taken into account in the debates, because policy responses and invested resources are going to require difficult negotiations and trade-offs.
Will the poorer sectors of the rapidly growing urban populations prepare food at home or eat from street vendors in the years to come? How will regulation of the food industry relate to the informal food sector? What will tobacco controls mean for the livelihoods of small-scale farmers? As the world's population ages, who will fill the gaps in the formal and informal care sectors?
The link between chronic illness and poverty is well established. One study for POVILL found that in two rural areas in China, the costs of long-term outpatient treatment of chronic diseases like diabetes were equivalent to one-off inpatient care that did not require surgery. While the costs were similar, inpatient costs were covered by the state-run medical insurance, while outpatient costs were not.
The current millennium development goals (MDGs) do not include targets for NCDs. As we look beyond the MDGs, it is timely to consider what research in governance, social protection, changing livelihoods, patient participation in health care, and health and urbanisation can add to the current debates and future policy processes.
This article was also published on the Institute of Development Studies website Read more
Thursday, 8 September 2011
I've been looking at the most-viewed posts on the blog since we started in January 2007 (with a post on pro-poor rice farming). It's interesting to see how the blog's developed since then, with a growing number of contributors, from visiting fellows and partners to speakers at our events.
A good number of the Top 10 are from the last few months (including Andy Stirling's piece on Fukushima and selling nuclear safety), but there are some oldies there too, from topics as diverse as innovation theory, science in Venezuela, and water in peri-urban Delhi.
Here's the list:
1) Neglected nuclear lessons by Andy Stirling
2) Challenges for the future of primary health care by Gerry Bloom
3) Feeding the Future? The foresight report on food and farming by John Thompson & Erik Millstone
4) Transitions: how good ideas go global by Adrian Smith
5) La ciencia y la tecnología en Venezuela: Reflexiones sobre un nuevo manifiesto by Enrique Cubero
6) Virus and beast: how one word changes everything by Nathan Oxley
7) Peri-urban futures and sustainability by Pritpal Randhawa, Lyla Mehta and Fiona Marshall
8) Indian villagers fight poor water services by designing their own systems by Alankar and Bhagwati, Sarai
9) Solar stoves: making things people actually use by Adrian Ely
10) What does peri-urban sustainability mean in the context of Delhi? by Fiona Marshall
Friday, 15 July 2011
At last month's seminar on Innovation, Sustainability and Development at NISTADS, participants reflected on the state of innovation in various fields - in food and agriculture, health, ICTs, low carbon technology, and at grassroots level. This is an invitation to talk more about the issues.
For those who couldn't make it to the seminar, or need a reminder of what was said, here's a link to the programme with videos of all the presentations.
Leave a comment below with your views.
Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Batman and Robin: fighting crime
How does a single word affect the way we deal with a problem? Last night's edition of All In The Mind on BBC Radio 4 offered a striking example. Researchers at the University of Stanford worked with two groups of people, asking them how they would respond to rising crime in a city. Both groups were given the same facts and figures about the crime: the only difference was that for the first group, the crime was described as a “virus”; for the second group, the crime was talked about as a “beast”. In one of the experiments, only a single word (virus/beast) was changed - all the other information given was identical.
On the programme, Prof Lera Boroditsky, one of the authors of the research, explained that the results were as predicted: each group chose strikingly different policies, influenced by the wording. Group A went for diagnosis and prevention, aiming to analyse the causes of crime and “inoculate” the community with social reforms to stop it happening. Group B, who were encouraged to see crime as a beast, chose policies that tended more towards “hunting down” crime and criminals, impose harsher sentences, etc. The use of one word radically altered the way each group went about solving the problem.
This is fascinating enough, but it gets better. How did the groups explain their policies? At this point, they weren't in on the secret. Interestingly, each group claimed their policies were based on the facts and figures given to them about the crime. Neither brought up the wording used. The metaphors of virus and beast had slipped into people's thought processes unnoticed, and were all the more powerful for it.
The virus/beast research is only one more example of how words can have a hidden effect on the shaping of policy - from "floods" of immigrants, to "perfect storms" of food shortages and droughts in poor countries, to disease "emergencies" and "crises". Of course, as Boroditsky points out, it's virtually impossible NOT to use metaphor when talking about complex problems. Even where facts and figures are used, and even if they're accurate and wisely selected, the images and words we use often push or pull us in certain directions, reinforced again and again over weeks, months and years. True, these metaphors can be helpful – but what's even more helpful is to examine them, bring them out into the open, and reflect on their influence. We need to know whether it's a virus or a beast we're facing, or something altogether different.
>> Thibodeau, P.H. and Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782
>> All in the Mind (5 July 2011): BBC Radio 4
Tuesday, 5 July 2011
by Adrian Ely, Manifesto project convenor
Last week, STEPS participated in a 3-day seminar on "Innovation, Sustainability and Development" in Delhi, India. It was hosted by the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS) in partnership with the Centre for Development Studies-Trivandrum and the STEPS Centre. A full programme with links to video from of each speaker is on the Manifesto website.
Video: Anil Gupta, creator of the Honey Bee network, giving his keynote address
Emerging from three days of discussions around innovation, sustainability and development, I was struck by the depth and diversity of knowledge and experience that had gathered together at NISTADS. It has been a true pleasure – both in terms of academic stimulation and practical inspiration - to see the rich history of alternative thinking around science, technology and innovation in India. As young Indian scholars work to turn innovation towards the goals of sustainability and equitable development, they will indeed be standing on the shoulders of giants.
The discussions were hugely broad and wide-ranging, taking in the fields of food and agriculture, health, information and communication technologies, low-carbon innovations, grassroots innovations and indigenous knowledge. Only the field of water and sanitation was notably and regrettably absent (as remarked by Manish Anand from TERI in the final discussion).
As well as interventions on theoretical frameworks, research methodologies and empirical findings, the programme was filled with seasoned activists illustrating many of these ideas through concrete action. Policy makers discussed the role of government as a facilitator and supporter of these efforts - in many cases embracing ideas that had originated within civil society, as illustrated by the example of the National Innovation Foundation and the widespread adoption of non-pesticide management in Andhra Pradesh.
Many of the projects, initiatives and movements discussed over the three days echo the calls of the revised version of the ‘Knowledge Swaraj’ manifesto, presented by Shambu Prasad (video) on Day 1, by reflecting principles of sustainability, justice and plurality. Others illustrate perfectly some of the messages in ‘Innovation, Sustainability Development: A New Manifesto’, and will be written up as examples of how the ‘3D’ agenda has already been implemented by groups across India.
Working with NISTADS and other networks of partners, the STEPS Centre is keen to translate some of the momentum generated by the Manifesto project (and its other research initiatives) into practical policy engagement and impact in different places and at varying levels. As Navjyoti Singh said in his presentation (video) on Day 3, the transition from projects to a movement is always an ambitious programme. The individuals and institutions discussed at this three day meeting give us hope that it is possible.
>> Programme: Seminar on innovation, sustainability and development, Delhi (with links to video)
>> YouTube playlist: Videos from the seminar
Thursday, 30 June 2011
Photo: Jatropha curcas - the biofuel plant from tonrulkens' photostream on Flickr
Our director Melissa Leach is giving the first Annual Piers Blaikie Lecture on Environmental Politics at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in July. She'll be speaking on ‘Green wins or green grabs? Contested pathways to sustainability in Africa’.
In our environmentally-anxious age, ‘win-win’ solutions that address climate change, resource scarcity, food security and poverty simultaneously are hugely enticing. But what if the ‘green wins’ become ‘green grabs’? What do political-ecological pathways mean for farmers - what vision of life and landscape are suppressed?5-6.30pm Monday 18 July 2011
This public lecture will reflect on these questions through compelling stories from the forests of West Africa and discuss an alternative politics through which emerging global political ecologies might bring justice, rather than oppression.
Thomas Paine Lecture Theatre, UEA
Event details (PDF flyer)
STEPS Centre events
Tuesday, 28 June 2011
By John Thompson, co-convenor, STEPS Centre food and agriculture domain and joint coordinator, Future Agricultures Consortium
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) chose Brazil’s José Graziano da Silva as its Director General, the first new leader in almost two decades as the world faces near-record food prices that are driving millions into poverty. Graziano da Silva, 61, the former Brazilian Minister of Food Security, will replace Jacques Diouf, who has served as the head of the biggest UN agency for 18 years, in January 2012. Graziano received 92 votes against 88 for Spain’s Miguel Angel Moratinos Cuyaube.
The FAO, which was set up in 1945 by the UN to lead international efforts to reduce hunger and help developing countries improve agriculture, has often failed in its duties. The agency, whose Latin motto ‘Fiat panis’ means ‘Let there be bread,’ needs a major reform to better tackle food insecurity and poverty. The current administration has been in power far too long and has failed to provide the leadership to fulfil this mandate. Relations between the FAO headquarters and field operations have tended to follow ‘an “all things lead to Rome approach” which, according to a 2007 external evaluation, ‘has been high on costs and low on benefits, with an absence of shared goals.’ This has led to disillusionment among its major donors, who have tended to look elsewhere for technical advice and support on food and agriculture issues. Consequently, the FAO’s funding fell 31% between 1994 and 2005, and staffing dropped 25%. Furthermore, the report concluded that its finances were ‘dire’ and ‘rapidly deteriorating’, and concerns by member states about FAO’s priorities and effectiveness were ‘well-founded’. As a result, today the agency suffers from a credibility and relevance problem, as other groups including the G-8/G-20, the World Bank and the UN Secretary General’s own High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, have filled the leadership vacuum and assumed responsibility for driving efforts to confront global food challenges.
But soon the FAO will have a new DG, one who has a strong track record of addressing food insecurity and appears reform minded. Graziano da Silva was in charge of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s ‘Zero Hunger’ programme, which started in 2003. The plan reduced hunger in Brazil by half and cut the percentage of Brazilians living in extreme poverty from 12% in 2003 to 4.8% in 2009. FAO awarded Lula the 2011 World Food Prize for Zero Hunger, but it was Graziano da Silva who led the programme. Thus, he has a track record of delivering on big commitments.
The Brazilian Director General-elect said in the statement before the election: ‘The FAO must work more transparently and ‘free staff from time-consuming bureaucratic procedures… Country offices need to enjoy greater autonomy in initiating and implementing projects.’ He went on to argue: ‘I subscribe to the view of FAO’s founders that ending hunger is entirely possible… Ending hunger is not a charity, but an investment in our poorest people and a key to sustainable development.’
Offering an ambitious view of where the FAO should go and what it should do is a good beginning, but if he is to succeed in revitalising that moribund organisation, Graziano da Silva will also need to roll up his sleeves and really get stuck in to driving through long-awaited reforms, including reducing the size of the sclerotic bureaucracy, devolving decision-making at all levels, rebuilding staff morale, and breathing new life into its country programmes and partnerships. He must champion improved governance and coordinated action on hunger and malnutrition internationally, even when it means speaking unpalatable truths to rich countries and agencies that give aid to developing countries to improve their agriculture with one hand, while maintaining restrictive trade tariffs and providing distorting subsidies for their own farmers with the other. Finally, he must build consensus among member states around a vision for a new future for agriculture which puts small-scale producers – who offer the greatest potential for increasing productivity, enhancing growth and reducing poverty and hunger – at the heart of any global food security agenda.
By John Thompson, co-convenor, STEPS Centre food and agriculture domain and joint coordinator, Future Agricultures Consortium
The Group of Twenty (G-20), comprised of the world’s 19 largest economies, plus the European Union, was created as a response both to the financial crises of the late 1990s and to a growing recognition that key emerging-market countries were not adequately included in the core of global economic discussion and governance. Collectively, the G-20 countries account for 85% of global gross national product, 80% of world trade and 66% of the world population. On 22-23 June 2011, a meeting of the group’s agriculture ministers was held in Paris – the first of its kind – after France made global food security and commodities regulation a centrepiece of its G-20 presidency following the 2007-08 food crisis. At the end of the meeting, the ministers issued a 24-page communiqué called ‘Action Plan on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture’, which addresses some of the symptoms of price volatility on agricultural markets, but fails to confront its root causes.
The ministers sidestepped many of the most contentious issues facing global food and agricultural policy, including biofuel subsidies and export bans, as a serious split hampered efforts to reach a broad consensus. The event highlighted how many large agricultural economies, such as the Argentina, Brazil, France, Russia and the US, remain deeply divided over how to respond to record high food prices around the world and improve governance of the global food system.
The action plan does include three notable initiatives: the International Research Initiative for Wheat Improvement (IRIWI), Global Agricultural Geo-Monitoring Initiative (GAGI) and the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS). IRIWI will coordinate research efforts across major wheat growing countries in both public and private agencies, while GAGI would be launched to aid better crop forecasting. AMIS will seek to develop early warning systems on looming food crises in any part of the world by providing a framework for monitoring country-level data production, demand, price, trade and stocks. A 'Rapid Response Forum' will be created in the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to take note of the alerts provided by the early warning system under AMIS – although the agency, already short of money, will have to run it without new funding, so questions remain about its long-term viability. Moreover, private sector players, such as the large grain traders (e.g. ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus), for whom knowledge of stocks and harvests represent a key competitive advantage, are ‘urged’ to participate in AMIS (with promises that it will have ‘a framework to ensure the confidentiality of proprietary and sensitive information’), but no measures are set forth to make certain they work in the public interest. Nonetheless, the good news is that China and India have both agreed to participate in AMIS – a major advance, given that both countries regard food stocks as a strategic issue and have resisted reporting on stocks levels and harvests in the past.
Beyond these valuable, but largely technical efforts, the watered down communiqué contains only vague references to some of the most difficult issues facing agricultural producers in developing countries. While the G-20 nations largely agree on the need to improve agricultural productivity and enhance transparency, they disagree on biofuels, export controls and on the regulation of commodities and financial markets.
The G-20 commissioned international bodies, including the FAO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank, to research how best to deal with rising food prices. A key report, Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses, underlined the negative role of biofuels on price volatility and recommended a rethink of policies which incentivise biofuels, adopted by many G20 States members. Not surprisingly, two big ethanol producing nations, the US and Brazil, blocked agreement. American geopolitical interest lies in using its vast agricultural surplus to wean itself off Middle Eastern oil, while Brazil's growth is driven by its agroexports. So the biofuels issue has been kicked into the long grass of ‘more studies needed’.
There is also no deal either on giving up export bans when prices spike. During that last food price crisis, several countries stopped exports of key crops to keep the cost of staples in check at home, but added to anxiety about global supplies and fuelled further price rises by doing so. Emerging economy governments, perhaps not surprisingly, were not keen to give up one of the few tools they have to keep the lid on urban unrest in times of food inflation. However, there is agreement that exports for humanitarian aid will not be caught up in export bans in future, but the details are lacking.
Another glaring omission from the action plan is climate change. The impact of extreme climate events – droughts and floods – has been one of the major drivers of food price volatility in the last few years, but it gets short shrift in the communiqué. In it the G-20 stresses ‘the need to invest more and increase cooperation in research and development for climate change adaptation, especially for smallholder farmers, and mitigation technologies, and to help developing countries to enhance their capacity for addressing climate change in agriculture’ and that it supports the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But there are no specific commitments or initiatives on either the adaptation or mitigation agenda. Instead there is mention of the need for more sustainable agriculture and more responsible use of water resources. Consequently the challenge of meeting growing demand for food as global environmental change impinges on agricultural productivity is reduced to little more than business as usual statements and diplomatic hand-waving.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there was no clear agreement on the regulation of agricultural financial markets, which was supposed to be the cornerstone of the ministerial meeting. While the action plan reflected many of France's ambitious proposals for its G-20 presidency this year, it falls short of calls by Paris for a tough crackdown on derivatives trading, thanks in part to strong resistance from the UK. France had wanted all G-20 countries to commit themselves to imposing so-called ‘position limits’ – a curb on how much of the market an investor can buy into – but this was removed from the final version of the communiqué. Instead, we are left with insipid statements from the agriculture ministers about how ‘appropriately regulated and transparent agricultural financial markets are indeed key for well-functioning physical markets’, but no concerted action for better regulation of those markets. Further, the ministers ‘strongly encouraged’ their counterparts in the G-20 ministries of finance to take decisions for better regulation of agricultural financial markets, leaving it up to them to adopt concrete measures on the matter.
It would appear that we will have to face another food price crisis before the world’s most influential nations get serious about tackling the really tough issues.
Tuesday, 21 June 2011
In a world where systems change and interact unpredictably, there's a growing interest in using complexity science to tackle questions in international development. Our director Melissa Leach spoke last month at a UKCDS workshop on complexity science and international development (Melissa's slides are on our Slideshare). Ben Ramalingam, visiting fellow at IDS, has written some reflections on the day:
The ideas and concepts of complexity science do have considerable potential relevance for development work. Areas highlighted as worthy of further exploration included economic growth, innovation, institutional change, sustainability, implementation and networks.
There were also some common caveats. Complexity sciences should not be seen as a new 'flashy' technical approach to developing the right answer – instead, it should be seen as vital that this agenda is taken forward in a way that acknowledges and respects diversity of perspectives, cultures and opinions, especially across the so-called ‘North-South divide’.
You can read more of Ben's post on the UK Collaborative on Development Studies website.
Ben also blogs at Aid on the Edge of Chaos.