Cover Image
close this bookEco-restructuring: Implications for Sustainable Development (United Nations University, 1998, 417 p.)
close this folderPart II: Restructuring sectors and the sectoral balance of the economy
close this folder12 National and international policy instruments and institutions for eco-restructuring
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentBuilding on small agreements
View the documentEconomic policy instruments and mechanisms
View the documentInternational distributional implications
View the documentA precondition for social breakthroughs in the context of developing societies
View the documentIssues of science and technology for development
View the documentA future united nations system
View the documentReferences

Issues of science and technology for development

The transfer of technology

In multilateral diplomacy, the transfer of ecologically friendly technologies to developing countries and related domestic capability building is indeed an agenda item of the utmost importance - especially during the first decade or so while these countries are allowed a sort of grace period before their fuller participation in the emerging conventions and protocols. Most developed country technologists contend that newly emerging technologies and related R&D have little to do with developing societies, where most of the environmental problems can be addressed with conventional technologies. Developed country diplomats still appear rather touchy about the issue of technology transfer, which all too often gets confused with that of financial resource transfer. In the UNCED process, the entire text on the subject remained "bracketed" throughout the final preparatory sessions. Contentious issues included the terms of technology transfer, intellectual property rights, and access to privately owned technologies.

The defensive argument on the part of the donor community (particularly the United States) is usually two-fold. First, most new environmentally sound technologies are locked up within private firms, with governments having very limited access to them. Secondly, subsidization of newer, "good" technologies would be less efficient because it is at variance with the polluter pays principle, leaving older, "bad" technologies no more costly than before.

How to achieve a judicial blending of public and private resources for the transfer of environmentally sound technologies is still an unresolved issue. The lack of truly effective demand for newer environmental technologies in the developing world markets of today seriously limits private sector initiatives. Even politically negotiated markets (for ODA funding) are more readily open to a lot more conventional power plants than to fewer cleaner but costlier plants. Having learned a hard lesson in that way, many donors are now trying to shift their focus in international technological cooperation towards more energy-efficient, hence more economical, energy technologies. As a first avenue towards innovative mechanisms for promoting access to newer and better technologies, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) urges governments to focus on "the transfer of environmentally sound technologies that are publicly owned or in the public domain" (ECOSOC E/1993/25/ Add.1, pare. 46).

Another, and it is hoped much wider, avenue points to long-term technological cooperation and partnership between holders of environmentally sound technologies and their potential users. This was a line stressed by Stephen Schmidheiny in his address to the UNCED at Rio, supported by his book, Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment (1992). As warned above, however, Stiglerian solutions on a global scale are scarcely visible yet.

The burden of international public policy-making in this direction may readily fall within the purview of the new World Trade Organization (WTO), as it grapples with a "Green Round." Coupled with international coordination on major economic instruments such as eco-taxes, regulatory arrangements for international trade (as has actually been demonstrated in the endangered species regime

Young 1989) should be able to offer a more realistic framework for institutional innovation toward public-private partnerships.

The UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD) has been reorganized (so as to absorb its formerly separate advisory body) only as a sop to G77 members after the battle over the United Nations' organizational slimming. The formal parallelism between the UNCSD and the UNCSTD, the latter claiming an independent role vis-is the former, is both awkward and unfortunate. Indeed, it may have added further to the apathy to technology agendas on the part of most developed countries. But both Commissions having moved well into their fully operative phase, a subtle but interesting pattern of division of labour seems to be emerging between them.

In the UNCSTD (on which I happen to serve as a national delegate), with about half of its members drawn from scientific and policy research professions, the focus tends to shift towards issues of longer term significance that require more studies and experimental research than in the more politically charged UNCSD. The 1994/95 intersectional work of the UNCSTD included such topics as "Science and Technology for Women in Development" and "Science and Technology for the Basic Needs of the Poor" in poorer societies. This is, to say the least, a challenging amalgam of the social- and the technological breakthrough agendas in the context of development cooperation.

A built-in bias of the science and technology community

From the perspective of users of science and technology (S&T), one can discern two coordinates in relation to S&T. One measures the extent of standardization or orientation to the mass market, as opposed to "privateness" or closeness to human individual's life space; the other measures the degree of cost effectiveness or profitability in competitive markets (see fig. 12.1). Here, the two axes are forced to run orthogonally, although they are conventionally treated as being non-orthogonal, almost overlapping, from the perspective of producers or technology suppliers. In fact the latter perspective tends to concentrate in one of the four quadrants, Industrial S&T. My intention here is to bring into relief a bias that has long been built into the world's science and technology community.


Fig. 12.1 Four domains of science and technology (Source: adapted from an exploratory study initiated the Institute for Science & Technology Policy Research, Japan - Kakizaki et al. 1994)

As shown in figure 12.1, Industrial S&T has extended a limited distance into the north-western quadrant, Urban Societal S&T, which concerns the provision of basic utilities and urban infrastructural services. Here science and technology have come to address the innovation potentials in decentralized systems for energy, water, sewage, waste disposal, and recycling. Both hardware and institutional software need to be adapted to locality-specific natural and economic conditions, but a good degree of blending of private and public initiatives is feasible because the existing systems have historically evolved adjacent to industrial production systems.

In the urban societal domain, the initiative for innovation should preferably come from end-users of the technology systems. However, public utilities and transport authorities, imbued with the legacy of heavy capital investment, tend to be notoriously conservative. Household consumers, apart from those actively organized into advocacy NGOs, are not very sensitive to benefits and costs that are thinly spread over them, and are generally the last to get organized for policy change under normal parliamentary democracy. Much more has been said than done about the need for reinstating end users' sovereignty in the application of science and technology.

Industrial S&T has also stretched out a bit into the south-eastern quadrant, Global Environmental S&T. This domain seeks applications as universal as those of Industrial S&T, with major agendas concerned with primary energy substitution, anti-desertification, microbial remediation of soil and water, disaster prevention, weather watching, etc. The unfilled gap between private and social costs in this domain justifies public policy intervention to foster basic and applied research among actors within the Industrial S&T domain as well, at least in its pre-commercial phases.

In the remaining quadrant, Grass-roots S&T, efforts are directed to more humanized applications of S&T, such as highly decentralized niches of health care for the aged and the handicapped, remote-village education, and other welfare activities at the grass-roots level. In most developed countries such efforts are seen as an integral part of the "social net" policy, and as such somewhat delinked from the Industrial S&T community. Nevertheless there is great scope for new scientific and technological inputs in this domain.

Ironically, this Grass-roots S&T domain has received greater attention in developing societies, particularly in the context of international development cooperation, if not so much in the S&T community as such. The concept of "technology blending" has gained currency gradually since the early 1980s. The concept originated from a recognition that the benefits of science and technology had not trickled down to the rural and urban poor. Compared with the earlier movements of intermediate technology and appropriate technology, the notion of technology blending is weighted towards an injection of selected elements (rather than pre-packaged systems) of emerging new technologies into the traditional ways of doing things. It has been geared rather consciously to the basic developmental needs of relatively underprivileged segments of developing society. The elements of new technology that have proved useful for such purposes range from micro-electronics and telecommunication technologies to new energy technologies and advanced biotechnologies.

A panel of the UN Advisory Committee on Science & Technology for Development (UNACSTD) held at the Rice Research Institute, Los Banos, in 1982 looked upon the integration of newly emerging and traditional technologies as a "new frontier" in technology application in developing society (Weizsacker et al. 1983). The Advisory Committee's recommendation to compile a "portfolio of experiments and projects" on technology blending resulted in a first extensive state-of-the-art review by the ILO Technology and Employment Branch (ILO 1984).

Technology blending is intended not just for possibilistic scenario writing, but as an actual improvement in traditional technologies in use in terms of unit cost of production, factor productivity, and output quality. Examples include:

- micro-electronics for crop planning, livestock monitoring, irrigation control, and farm management; electronic load control for micro hydroelectric power generation and community saw-mills for rural development;

- symbiotic nitrogen fixation for food production and preservation, single cell protein to animal feed, big-pesticides and other bio-technologies being experimented in several developing countries;

- telecommunications for distance learning and rural education;

- photovoltaics for irrigation pumps and refrigerators in rural hospitals; etc.

However, such technological innovations need to go hand in hand with social institutional innovations. Complementary changes must evolve simultaneously in marketing systems, consumer acceptance, and training and education systems, as well as in the overall policy environment affecting industrial structure. There is thus a need for institutional blending in order to stimulate technology blending, as well as to ensure an ever-broader market for it (Bhalla 1995, chap. 3). Unfortunately, most "developmental NGOs" tend to be rather ill equipped with managerial and commercial skills for productive undertakings. There is a need for supplemental inputs from private entrepreneurs and public technological institutions, which in turn requires an enabling policy environment for blending public with private initiatives, rural with urban economies, and small with large enterprises.

A bolder notion of science & technology for basic needs

Both great need and large scope exist for more serious policy research on the conditions and policy instruments for the development and diffusion of alternative technology systems in the "non-industrial" domains. An example of such systems for the north-west quadrant might be a "total system" approach employing unconventional mixes of alternative energy systems for decentralized communities (wind and solar energy, tidal, minihydro or LNG power plants, etc.), combined with co-generation and "cascade" systems to minimize energy waste. Innovations in this direction, as well as in the Grass-roots S&T domain, would have to assume a greater emphasis on the socio-organizational and economic dimensions of technology diffusion.

The bottom-up approach is essential but is by no means a sufficient condition for global eco-restructuring. The world's science and technology community has not only been guilty of the bias of "technological determinism" in grappling with societal problems, but its major outputs have tended to respond sooner to signals from lucrative urban markets than to basic human needs in underprivileged regions. There is no way to change the ethical foundation of the science and technology community overnight. So, a bolder exploration into science and technology for the basic human needs of the poor ought to be extended to the south-east quadrant (Global Environmental S&T) as well.

In fact, some of the avenues for primary energy substitution suggested in this book seem to open up opportunities of particular interest to currently energy-deficient and water-deficient parts of the developing world. Among others, the potential of combining solar energy and hydrogen energy with hydropower energy - all so-called "clean" energy sources - would invite attention in a broader, possibly interregional, perspective.

According to the World Resources Institute's survey (1992), only 14 per cent of the world total hydropower potential (some 2 million GWh out of 15 million GWh) has actually been developed into use. The rate of development is still very low in developing regions: 3.3 per cent in Africa, 9.4 per cent in developing Asia, and 10 per cent in Latin America (and also only 5.8 per cent in the former USSR). Leaving aside many environmentalists' objections to large hydropower projects (owing to village dislocation and habitat destruction), the potential of hydropower has been seriously deflated not only by the geographically uneven distribution of water resources but also by the seasonal instability of hydropower supply, with much of the existing capacity being wasted in rainy seasons.

To resolve this problem, an attractive option might be to utilize (cheap) surplus hydropower during rainy seasons for the mass production of ultra-pure solar cells. This could also be coupled with the production of hydrogen (for fuel cells), based on electrolysis of water using photovoltaic electricity. Many energy experts expect hydrogen to become the chief energy "carrier" in the future, replacing both natural gas and liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Remarkable progress is being made in the complementary technologies to make energy storable and safely transportable even between distant regions (see Yamaguchi 1994; and chaps. 5 and 7 in this volume).

The probably century-long transition phase towards a hydrogen based energy system is likely to be driven by an era of natural gas and methane. This intermediate phase will familiarize society with innovative gas-handling infrastructures, liquefaction technologies, and cryogenic storage. It will give rise to an interesting, albeit somewhat controversial, scenario that would be of particular interest to developing regions.

During this transitional phase (possibly lasting for about half a century), even the developed world might come to utilize biomass as a primary energy source with a wide range of new energy carriers. Today, biomass accounts for a negligible proportion of energy consumption in the developed economies. But the proportion amounts to 38 per cent in the developing world. Several experimental projects have been going on in India, Tanzania, etc., aimed at high-rate mechanization for electricity generation as an option for environment friendly extra energy supply. Some 100 million hectares of land could possibly be taken out of farming in the United States and Europe if agricultural surpluses and subsidies were really brought under control. In the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South America, potential croplands are nearly three times larger than those currently in use (according to a 1991 FAO estimate), and some 1,000 million hectares might be left as surplus cropland even after allowing for a 50 per cent increase in future food requirements. (Regrettably China is excluded from this scenario.)

Although the surplus land is mostly "degraded" (in the form of logged forests, deforested watersheds, and semi-decertified drylands), Grainger (1988) estimates that some 750 million hectares would be suitable for reforestation. An appropriate sequence of planting could restore the soil condition of these degraded lands. Thus, Johansson et al. (1992) draw our attention to a "potential not yet well understood by most people." That is, plantation biomass in sub-Saharan Africa and South America could make a substantial contribution to the world's primary energy substitution path without serious conflict with food security. Countries in these regions (with China excluded) would then become major economic powers as large-scale exporters of big-fuels as the biomass age sets in.

Heinrich Wohlmeyer (chap. 9 in this volume) complements this scenario by his thesis that biomass plantation would offer a good "bridging" strategy to conserve an enduring productive capacity even for marginal lands as the world moves from the present phase of food surplus to a possible future phase of food shortage. Growing non-food plants (for biomass energy, natural chemistry, and biotechnology) would help sustain the productive condition of disadvantaged lands during the food surplus phase, if farmers in these lands received compensatory grants in inverse proportion to the quality of the soil and climate.

Preaching socio-political reformation at micro levels (decentralization of public service authorities, blending of public services with markets and grassroots organizations, and so on), fashionable as it is today, is not the only avenue for technology blending for the poor. There is scope for bolder global scale schemes of international cooperation for technology blending in addressing the basic infrastructural conditions in the currently water-deficient and energy-deficient developing regions. Controversial as they may be, the long-term scenarios mentioned above suggest attractive ideas that are worthy of further technical and institutional feasibility studies under the aegis of a GEF-like multilateral facility. Certainly a "design-in" type participation of the science community of the developing countries would be desirable for such studies from the outset. It is to be hoped that the challenge in this direction may sooner or later make inroads into the multilateral agendas of sustainable development, given due pressure from the engineering consultancy communities for development cooperation.