TCS Daily

North Can Help South

By Michael Standaert - August 6, 2002 12:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- The situation in much of Africa is dire. Half the population lives on less than $1 per day, illiteracy is climbing and school enrollment declining, AIDS/HIV is rampant in many areas of Sub Saharan and Southern Africa. War, crime, poverty and hopelessness are all endemic to the lives of millions of people.

But technology, in particular biotechnology, brings some hope. Biotechnology will not solve all these problems, but it may help make a dent in fighting some of the scourges of farmers there - diseased crops, drought stricken crops, and nutrient depleted crops that offer satisfied bellies while providing low nourishment value.

Just a few weeks before the G-8 summit in the mountains of Alberta, Canada in late June, the US announced an international biotech collaboration aimed specifically at spreading agricultural technology through regions in Africa. The international biotech initiative -- called The Collaborative Agricultural Biotechnology Initiative (CABIO) and sponsored by US Agency of International Development (USAID) -- offers much in the way of concrete plans and lays out a strategy for technology development, management and use. Among its guiding principles:

  • Introducing biotech in agriculture to Africa cannot be a one-way street, meaning profit one way into the hands of biotech companies in the West and no potential benefit for African farmers other than better crops. Better crops and better yield mean nothing if they can not be sold fairly and on a level field. Forcing open markets without opening our own is hypocritical, unfair, and detrimental to those who would like the tools of free markets.

  • Ownership potential must be enhanced. People are generally more likely to protect and use something they own and trust in its use if they have some ownership in this technology. Establishing trust through stock ownership -- not just in the hands of officials and already established business leaders on the continent, but with regular farmers -- would lead to a mutual trust in this technology and a cooperation on its better uses. This is long term gain for both and not just short term profit for one.

  • Part of the CABIO plan for Africa states the goal of 'establishing African centers of excellence in biotechnology' through working with governments of six key African countries - South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, Mali, and Uganda. There will be support for the development of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation linked with the Rockefeller Foundation and setting a regional research agenda for African sub-regional agricultural research organizations.

Most of this is all well and good, but there is a problem that must be solved if we are to make partners in the use of biotech in Africa, rather than servants of consumption. For example, due to the demand for technological and scientific expertise in the West, many Africans that do get the education in these fields migrate to the West where they are paid better, receive better benefits, and can give their families better futures. This is natural in the free flow of labor and is very beneficial. But encouraging African technological and scientific experts in the biotech to stay in Africa to develop Africa is critical, too. They must be offered benefits that they would see now only by leaving Africa. Without the appropriate real structures and tools that foster economic growth and give Africans a sense of a developing and promising future, a debilitating brain drain will harm African countries. Europeans and Americans should work with African governments to ensure those structures take hold.

The CABIO plan is a beginning, and its aims to stimulate economic growth and food security by increasing agricultural productivity are admirable ones. Africa is deserving of the chance to develop its resources. There has been little remedy or freedom given to the vast majority of regular Africans to choose their own destinies. A mutual road of cooperation, trust and accountability must be recognized - on the side of the West to give the tools Africans need to empower themselves and establish a fair level of competition, and on the side of the continent of Africa to demand that the West and their own leadership be free from corruption and power-games, thus giving them the opportunity to play on a level field. If implemented correctly, the CABIO initiative is one step in the process that will help open up the potential that is in Africa.



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