The focus on innovation and technology has become synonymous with the narrative on the advancement of so-called developing countries as one of the most important means by which countries can move from low to high levels of economic development, to the extent that some are advocating for the renaming of the world groupings from developed and developing to technology rich and technology poor. This does not however properly take into account the economic dynamics which underlie the categorizations as they have come to be known.
The World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) report prepared by the United Nations categorizes countries into three broad areas, developing economies, economies in transition, and developed economies, and it seems as though movement through the categories follows a linear pattern from the least to the greatest. It is not quite so certain how so-called technology poor countries move into becoming technology rich without any definable transitory stages. The impassioned clamoring of advocates for changes in the way the world is viewed is of little value where it is unaccompanied by real solutions to the challenges faced in creating the kind of impetus needed for poor and developing countries to propel themselves from one level to the other. It is highly unlikely that the re-naming of categories of countries can actually change the reality on the ground. The fact is that the North-South (developed-developing) delineation exists along with particular distinguishing conditions.
It is the same with many of the well-meaning initiatives which come from many developed countries through assigned agencies and funding for the promotion of innovation and technologies in developing countries. These efforts are often short term project cycles which assume that what is needed is a demonstration of the worth of innovation, a contest for young innovators followed by a brief period of mentorship for contest winners, and away will go the innovation for development train – or not.
The advocacy for innovation and the quest to find the means by which it can be propagated in countries that seem unable to initiate and sustain programs which actually work are important, and are not actuated out of pure philanthropy. Rather it is a combination of the considerations of the considerable economic advantages which can be gained by bringing an end to a parasitic relationship in which billions of dollars in possible revenues to developed countries are lost in countries which are weak in innovations and her twin sister intellectual property rights. Wholesale copying and reproduction of certain goods result in potential and actual losses which it is believed would be avoided where countries are doing more for themselves in creating an enabling environment for the growth, development and exchange of technology and information.
Without doubt there is the firm belief by some academics and volunteer service sectors that developing countries can begin to bridge the technological gap by making use of old technologies from developed countries, and that with globalization as a catalyst, the process must necessarily move much faster. The instance of the widespread use of cell phones in Africa is an example of how imported technology impacted the everyday life across an entire continent, but the actual evidence of other technologies having the same effect is chastening. There has been little success in the importation and widespread adaptation of technologies in local usage in many developing countries for several reasons, among which are the lack of knowledge about the how to use them, and that the scale of usage is often so small that it remains within the purview of a few and often privileged sections of the society.
All of this would seem to augment the argument for the approach of the governments and agencies mentioned before, except that it too has failed to result in any lasting momentum in innovation in developing countries in the Caribbean. The reason for this is that the programs are not sustained for any lengthy time periods that would serve to institutionalize the culture of innovation and technological development. Undoubtedly this kind of effort should come from a sustained policy position of regional governments in which there is a dedication of resources towards science and technology, perhaps as a fixed percentage of each country’s GDP. Among countries which were formerly in the South category, Singapore is a prime example of how government economic policy which centralizes science and technology as a means of growth and development can propel a nation to economic prosperity. It is now reportedly the third richest country in the world.
So what about the Caribbean countries and the ‘donor industry’ which arrives on their shores in conquistador fashion with nicely packaged solutions to their challenges in innovation, technology and intellectual property? The Caribbean operatives seem willing to take whatever is handed out without thinking out what is needed and formulating policies that can direct assistance where it would be most useful.
Donors need to rethink the ways in which they approach handing out goodwill. It should be common practice that a needs assessment is done before creating projects which are aimed at bolstering the promulgation of innovation or any other sector, but it often is not. It is quite common that assumptions are made on what should be useful in the region without actual research which results in the expenditure of millions of dollars and strenuous effort which amount to nothing. For example, someone with the best of intentions sitting in an office somewhere in Europe dreams up a project for innovation in energy conservation in Caribbean countries, when in actual fact the countries are plagued with blackouts for lack of energy resources and the most pressing concern in the region is really food security.
It is necessary that donors work with organizations that are already on the ground to conduct research that can guide their efforts and carry out some of the work. Collaboration must begin at the point of conceptualization of programs. not merely in the implementation phase.
The regional governance body CARICOM and some of its member countries have shied away from creating programs and policies which are truly focused on science, technology and intellectual property in ways which focus on the development of skills, exchange of information and the promotion of local innovation to the degree at which there could be significant change for the better. There is no question that all the help that can be had is needed, but it is equally important that those with actual knowledge of what is needed are properly engaged.
Abiola Inniss is the executive director of the Caribbean and Americas Intellectual Property Organization (CAAIPO) headquartered in Jamaica. She is a leading analyst and author on Caribbean Intellectual Property and the founder of the Caribbean Law Digest Online. She is also a law teacher, ADR practitioner and presenter and has lectured on Caribbean IP worldwide.