Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 64-79)

23 FEBRUARY 2004


  Q64 Chairman: Can I welcome you here to our second session in terms of the inquiry into the use of science in UK international development. Today we are concentrating on capacity building in developing countries and development strategy. I am sure that each of you has a lot to say, we will have to have a little discipline. If you wish to add to somebody else, fine, but if you have nothing extra to add could you try and move it along because we have quite a lot of questions and we are looking forward to this session. I will kick off. Could you tell me that we are really doing something about this issue? Can you tell me what capacity building is, what it is for and so on? I will give each of you a minute and you will not be phoning a friend or anything, this is a minute during which you can tell me what capacity building is all about and what it is for. Could you do that quickly, please?

  Dr Smith: Capacity building is critical to development. Without capacity building development will not occur. That is simply because you need people who have expertise and competence. Capacity building, particularly in the area in which the International Development Research Centre of Canada works, is really in the area of developing capacity in developing countries, not in our countries but in developing countries, to apply science and technology to development problems.

  Q65 Chairman: Okay. Perhaps Andrew Scott has got examples of that. Can you tell me what the problems are in the developing world, as if we did not know? It would be nice to know if you have some perspective on it in terms of priority.

  Mr Scott: In terms of the science and technology capacity building, the issues are the ability and capability of institutions throughout the developing countries from government right down to community level to be able to assess and make decisions for themselves about the kinds of technologies that they want to use and about their ability to be able to develop and adapt technologies for their own use.

  Q66 Chairman: Simon Maxwell, could you elaborate more on that perhaps?

  Mr Maxwell: Capacity has two dimensions. One is capacity in developing countries and the other which is also of great concern to us, and that I hope you can help on, is capacity in the UK. Capacity means buildings, people, money to do research and networks. It is clear that in developing countries, but also in the UK, those need long-term investment and they need to be funded separately from simply funding research outputs.

  Q67 Chairman: Professor Leach, could you tell me specifically what some of the problems in the developing world are?

  Professor Leach: Many of the problems in the developing world relate to questions of livelihoods and securing livelihoods, of wellbeing, of health for a vast number of poor people. One of the crucial capacity building challenges is to make sure that people have the ability to innovate, that there are pro-poor innovations in place to be able to respond to local agendas around what the social importance of science and technology should be and to ensure that scientific agendas are framed in ways that actually respond to the needs of the poor rather than simply widening the gap between rapid scientific advance and those many, many poor people whose needs are much more basic.

  Q68 Chairman: Professor Diamond, welcome back, we have had you before us previously. Perhaps you can add to that and tell us what the differences between capacity building, training and research are?

  Professor Diamond: I think the two are completely interlinked. We need world class research, we need it to be transferred so that there are people available in developing countries to take the research forward. We need partnerships to be able (a) to develop new research appropriate to the particular problems in developing countries and (b) we need people to work to transfer that to those countries. They are completely interlinked, there is no point saying "We have got training and we have got research", we need the two together.

  Chairman: I imagine that is a soft opener in terms of nobody disagreeing with each other.

  Q69 Mr McWalter: I would like to take up something that Andrew Scott said because I was slightly concerned by what he said. When I was last in Mozambique in Beira Harbour, there were half a dozen rotting hulks of huge ships which are toxic, Beira is no longer a seaside town, the focus of the economy in that part of Mozambique has been completely wrecked. I find it very difficult to say that it is for the people in Mozambique and Beira to decide what is the appropriate technology to get rid of this. We know they need marine biologists, we know they need some heavy engineering. It is a first world problem that we have given them and they need certain first world facilities in order to address the problem. I am a bit surprised that you say this whole business of capacity building is simply empowering people to decide which technology they want to address these problems. Many of these problems need first world expertise to address them at all, do they not?

  Mr Scott: I think in many cases the capacity of developing countries to be able to tackle problems such as the one you are describing does require knowledge and information from other parts of the world in developed countries and also, I would suggest, other southern countries. I think there are ways to go about tackling such problems which involve the participation of the institutions, for instance in this case Mozambique, as we are tackling those problems to be able to develop their own abilities to learn from that experience so that they are able to deal with similar sorts of situations themselves in the future.

  Q70 Dr Turner: Coming to DFID and their role in this, they have expressed an interest in evidence to us that they want to explore what they can do in terms of developing capacity in developing countries and so far their capacity building has been restricted to institutions in countries other than science and technology. How do you think DFID could make an impact in building science and technological capacity in developing countries?

  Mr Maxwell: Capacity building needs investment, and you know that from your studies on research in capacity building in the UK and so do we. It is a 10 year job at least. It is money for all the things that I listed in my previous answer. It cannot be tacked on to existing research projects. DFID is in a difficult position because it has committed itself very publicly to the Millennium Development Goals, of which the most important are to do with absolute poverty, basic health, basic education. It has said that the countries would take the lead in devising strategies to meet those goals, through Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. These are supposed to be honed by the countries and driven by local political processes, but if a donor goes into countries and says, "We want our aid money to be used to pursue the Millennium Development Goals", you are unlikely to get them coming back saying, "We regard creating international networks and centres of excellence in science and technology at the top of the list". As a result, and not surprisingly, capacity building of the kind you describe has not received the priority we might expect and that it should.

  Q71 Dr Turner: Do you think that DFID within its own structure has sufficient capacity in this area to be able to do anything useful?

  Professor Leach: If I could come in there. I think DFID, in a way, has had two parallel very important areas of work in the last years. There has been an enormous capacity in scientific and technological research relevant to the problems of development as represented by the natural resources systems programmes and, much of the work around health technologies, but that has proceeded largely in parallel to the enormous body of work around questions of governance, participation, livelihoods and poverty reduction. The real need within DFID, as I see it, is for some much more joined-up thinking and integrated research in capacity building efforts which can draw the lessons from that institution building in other areas of development into the science and technology field, and equally look at where science and technology provide key entry points for dealing with the broader problems of poverty.

  Professor Diamond: This is, if you like, a long-term vision because what we are talking about is putting in place the infrastructure to develop the research in order to get the answers in the future rather than, as I think has happened quite often in the past, saying that we need an answer for something tomorrow afternoon. I believe very strongly, and certainly the Research Councils want to work in partnership with DFID, that there is a potential to develop capacity in developing countries, to undertake the science which would potentially in the long-term start to have an impact on answering some of the important Millennium Development Goal questions, but it does not come overnight and it is a long game. DFID has the capacity to do that if it so wishes, and the Research Councils will work with them to do that, but that is not something that has been top of the priorities recently.

  Q72 Paul Farrelly: Mr Maxwell, you actually pointed out the fundamental dichotomy in terms of what capacity building means: is it in developing countries or is it focused on developing your own base domestically? I wanted to ask all of you for your thoughts on a general point. How much of a priority do developing countries themselves attach to their own domestic capacity building? Indeed, how much are they encouraged or allowed by major aid providers to do that? Can you give us some examples of who is the best at encouraging and facilitating that and which countries or major aid providers are the worst?

  Dr Smith: I would just point out that as a Canadian the last thing I would want to do is to be offering any advice as to how DFID should operate. I want to very briefly recall our own experience. We decided precisely because we believed that technology was important to development to create these separate institutions in the International Development Research Centre just over three decades ago. We felt strongly, and this came out in the report that Lester Pearson did in the 1960s, that there is scope for technology transfer in the example that Andrew replied to your question, but you really do need to develop the capacity in the south to deal with their particular problems and that has been very much our focus in Canada. Consequently, at least 80% of IDRC money goes to researchers in developing countries.

  Mr Maxwell: I worked in India in the mid-1970s and it was extraordinary to see the investment that India was making as then a largely agrarian country in science and technology. It had a network of research institutions which are now amongst the best in the world. I worked for the UN and was the project officer for a UN aid programme to India's first research laboratory on microchips, a research centre out in the middle of the Rajasthan desert. We know, because we see it every day in the papers, how fast the Indian software and computer industry has grown, how it is linked into telecommunications, how it is taking jobs from call centres in the UK. That is 25 years later but the initial investment has had a very, long-term pay-off. This confirms what Professor Diamond has said, a country like India that has made a real investment over many years in building research capacity is now able to diversify its economy to go for the higher value added sectors and create jobs in completely new ways. If you do not have that underlying capacity it is much harder to do.

  Professor Leach: Much of my own research has been in relatively poor countries in West Africa which have extremely limited research capacity and there the problem one often sees is that enthusiastic university researchers who want to do work on local problems around livelihoods, around environmental degradation, are hamstrung by donor dependence. Even where one has well-funded capacity building programmes which are putting money into institutions it is often doing so on the basis of globally defined commonsense ideas of what their problems are which often simply fail to hit their targets because they are on the basis of ideas about deforestation or overall soil loss or broad ideas of health problems which are not the local agenda. In my experience, researchers in Guinea, Ghana and the Gambia and so on, are often very aware of what the local problems are, they simply do not have the ability to pursue them and they have to go for funding which is within the remit of donor projects and, indeed, need to appeal to those audiences in order to publish. One of the real needs, as I see it, is for capacity for critical independent research by researchers in developing countries who can respond to the agendas that they see as important.

  Professor Diamond: It is very, very clear to me that when we train a new PhD in this country and then they go to work as a lecturer in this country, they are part of a team, they have senior advice, they have the infrastructure that goes with their institution and a mentor to take them up. But quite often we train someone at PhD level and then they go back into their developing country and suddenly they are without, if you like, the kinds of networks that enable that research to continue so they have difficulty then continuing at the leading edge of research. Not only that, but some of the aid agencies really require consultants, and it is consultants that they end up being, who are just turning around quick reports rather than engaging in that long-term critical research. That is a real problem that we need to address.

  Q73 Paul Farrelly: Are there particular countries—Canada has just been mentioned—which our witnesses feel that the UK could learn from in terms of the way they allocate the budget and the way they pursue the Poverty Reduction Strategy? The 20% benchmark—if it is a benchmark—has been mentioned. Are there specific things that other countries do that DFID can learn from? Are there any specific examples that come to mind?

  Mr Maxwell: I have seen some very good US investments in universities, in agriculture universities in India, for example, again in the 1970s. I also did some work on Danish development research and they have a very good twinning programme. However there is an important word of caution here which is we must not have development programmes free riding on UK research capacity. The Danish research programme, for example, is a twinning arrangement that only pays for the marginal costs, the air fares and a bit of training at the other end; it does not pay for the core salary costs of the Danish researchers. Quite a lot of development funding of overseas capacity building looks a bit like that and serves to undermine and weaken the home country investment which cannot be in anybody's interest.

  Q74 Paul Farrelly: Professor Leach, have you got any specific examples from your work in poorer countries?

  Professor Leach: I am thinking of a programme that we had at IDS in the era of core funding from DFID, then ODA, which was an international collaboration programme which twinned us with the Institute of Development Studies at Jaipur in India and with the University of Makerere in Uganda. It gave an opportunity over a long-term period for a set of exchanges and partnership arrangements in research and exchanges in faculty which did help in a very useful way, in fact both ways round, to develop cross-learning, to develop capacity in this country. That was a British arrangement which fell away with the end of core funding arrangements that at that point the ODA were undertaking which were really lost with the movement to a much more market oriented approach within DFID. It is possible to look back to the history of development aid in this country and see some examples which could be resuscitated in some form.

  Professor Diamond: I think the importance of what Professor Leach has said is that they have to be properly funded. An example of good practice which was not properly funded would have been the British Council programmes in the 1980s. The department which I was in in the 1980s which links with the University of Dar es Salaam. There was a huge need for people in the University of Dar es Salaam at that time but the link was deeply under funded on the UK side which meant that people were volunteering their time rather than the university being able to commit the time of academics to that. It seemed to me that it was disappointing when the British Council projects died away. Some people argued that was because they did not develop very much but it was a chicken and egg situation, they were not developing much because there were not the funds, so you say "they have to develop or we do not fund them". If you do this you have to do it properly.

  Paul Farrelly: Bring on Commissioner Kinnock!

  Q75 Chairman: Why do DFID not do this? There is hardly anything brilliant coming out of it. What is the problem? I am playing Jeremy Paxman, I guess.

  Mr Maxwell: It is a question you should ask DFID, of course, but I do think that there are one or two blockages.

  Q76 Chairman: Their time will come!

  Mr Maxwell: The first is the emphasis on the Millennium Development Goals and the strong focus on basic education. The other is the question of who has responsibility for the UK research sector and I think it is true to say that DFID has always said it does not have that responsibility. One of the points it would be tremendously helpful for your Committee to examine would be the question of who does have that responsibility and how good is the joined-up thinking across Government as between the university funding system, HEFCE, the Research Councils and individual ministries, not only DFID but also some others. As a starting proposition I would say that we do not have strong joined-up thinking and that one of the things to fall through the cracks is the sustainability and the long-term success of UK research. It would be really interesting to invite you to some of our institutions to see this problem from the bottom up and to see the different kinds of patterns of funding that we have to deal with. We are just across the river, so any time you would like to come over we would be happy to see you.

  Q77 Chairman: Send a boat and we will come. That is obvious, yes, because we have had the DTI and OST and other organisations in but perhaps you could advise us who else we should have and we will be asking them the same kinds of questions. How do you integrate these things? If you were Prime Minister for a day, or even Minister for International Development, what would you do? What would be the essential feature that is necessary to move this forward other than departments? Everybody talks about the need to get government departments to work together and then we all go in the pub and say "That is the answer", but how do you do it?

  Mr Maxwell: What I would want to do is to have if not a White Paper then certainly a strategy for integrated research capacity development in the UK as a public good which would help to serve development in developing countries. That would require cross-departmental work to produce a document that could come to this Committee, because you are the ones with oversight of science and technology. I would then have some indicators coming out of that exercise to tell me what kind of research capacity was wanted. I often say about the European research sector, never mind the British one, that it is a bit like a mediaeval guild, it resembles nothing so much as lots and lots of tailors each working independently. If we were the defence industry there is no doubt that the government would say to itself "the funding we provide, inadvertently or otherwise, shapes this sector, we should stop and ask ourselves what structure of research sector we want, what is going to deliver the best value for money for the taxpayer and for public good internationally, and the use our money strategically in order to fund it." DFID cannot do that on its own, it requires Professor Diamond and his colleagues, the ESRC, then counterparts in the Higher Education Funding Council, and the ministries, many of which own research centres of their own, to come together and ask themselves some pretty tough questions.

  Q78 Chairman: Come on then, do we set up a structure where all that happens, where there is something there for every department? Do we set up a new unit, for example, that does this? Would that be an advantage?

  Mr Maxwell: We have an Office of Science and Technology which has overall responsibility for this but it seems to me, as somebody sitting in a very small corner of this particular forest, that it does not bring together the very many different elements of the funding package which go together to institutions.

  Q79 Chairman: They would deny that, I am sure, and they would say, "We have three meetings a year and get people together". What is your suspicion why it does not happen? Are we playing at it? Are we not keen on it? Is it political?

  Mr Maxwell: Let me not hog the table but I just want to say one final thing which is that there has been a helpful report to DFID by the Rand Corporation which talks about two particular modalities. One is a development donor funding forum. Apparently the funding forum idea exists in other sectors and is a way to help encourage co-ordination. The other is a set of concordats between DFID and other ministries. I think in DFID's case the problem is partly that they have been so concerned with what happens in developing countries they have not looked at what happens in the UK and partly they just have not had the resources in terms of numbers of people per research pound spent to do this job properly.

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