Wanted: better bridges between science and aid efforts

Imogen Mathers
17 August 2012 | EN

Science and new technologies underpin many humanitarian products
SunFire Solutions

Aid innovators are calling for more interaction with research and development communities, ahead of World Humanitarian Day, reports Imogen Mathers.

[LONDON] In the aftermath of the devastating bomb attack on the UN’s Baghdad headquarters on 19 August 2003, the UN General Assembly pushed through a resolution to hold an annual commemoration of those who were killed, and to celebrate those engaged in international humanitarian work across the world — World Humanitarian Day.

Science, technology and innovation are often integral to humanitarian work. Innovative design can help drive development, providing solutions to poverty or disaster-related challenges, and adapting technologies to local demands and contexts.

The technology supplied by humanitarian organisations, ranging from solar-powered stoves to ‘bamboo bike’ ambulances, is always inspired by a commitment to harnessing the potential of science for the benefit of the poor, and tailoring innovation to needs at the grassroots level.

Yet accessing the required scientific and technological knowledge is not always straightforward. In developing countries, in particular, platforms for dialogue between the scientists and engineers who devise technologies, and the development agencies providing them to communities, are often scarce or even non-existent.

In Togo, for example, where a stuttering energy infrastructure provides electricity to just 20 per cent of the population [1], the government “gives absolutely no support to renewable energy at all,” says Lare Toumpane Daméssanou, chief executive of ACDI-SOLAR, an organisation that provides solar energy solutions to ‘off-grid’ communities in Togo’s rural north.

ACDI-SOLAR has some contact with scientists from the only university in West Africa dedicated to renewable energy, the International Institute of Water and Environment (IIWE) in Burkina Faso, and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

But when it comes to productive communication with scientists in Togo, “there is nothing”, Daméssanou says. “We are looking to improve communication with scientists so we can develop our designs, but opportunities are very limited.”

Lack of communication across the sectors

Crosby Menzies, director of Johannesburg-based solar cooker development organisation, SunFire Solutions, and founder of the Solar Cookers for Africa network, tells SciDev.Net that accessing scientific developments in solar design can be challenging despite science being “very much part of the products that we put out”.

“We have contact with external scientists who have shown great interest in what we do,” Menzies says. “But the working nature of these interactions is not as strong as it could be — not by a long way.”

There is a wealth of technology developed in universities that never sees the light of day
Shutterstock
According to Menzies, this dearth of productive dialogue stems partly from the government’s “lack of forward thinking” and failure to invest adequately in solar cooking innovations, renewable energy and tertiary level science education.

Exacerbating the situation, research that is undertaken often remains locked in the laboratory, Menzies says. “There is a wealth of fantastic technology developed in universities that never sees the light of day, and fails to progress beyond prototype stage,” he explains.

Ironically, says Menzies, while the dialogue with scientists in southern Africa leaves much to be desired, knowledge-sharing with organisations outside the country — particularly in China, Europe, and the United States — is much stronger.

“China and India have been looking to supply us with technology, and we in turn send them back design and development issues that we observe on the ground, so that we can make the products more ‘Africanised’ and better-suited for our purposes,” Menzies says.

The lack of local platforms for sharing ideas between scientists and development agencies is also a challenge in Ghana, says Bernice Dapaah, executive director of Ghana Bamboo Bikes, which specialises in developing vehicles for rural environments.

“The relationship between the science and aid communities should be very dynamic and cross-cutting,” Dapaah tells SciDev.Net. But “in West Africa it is very poor indeed” and “needs to be much stronger”, she says.

Divyesh Thakkar, founder of Sunlite Solar — a Mumbai-based development agency that provides Indian-designed solar-powered lanterns to refugee camps and rural communities — agrees that there is a lack of communication between scientists and innovators, although “contact with scientists is hugely important”.

All of the organisations SciDev.Net has spoken to for this feature say they have in-house scientists on whom they rely. And Thakkar says he has found scientists to be “very receptive to being approached; like us, they want to increase awareness of their research […] If interactions could be enhanced, this could bring huge positivity to the development sector.”

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