Genocide, community and NGOs

April 28, 2013

Daniel Nelson

Daniel Nelson
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


When Terry Cannon accused fossil fuel corporations of genocide for continuing to explore for oil, gas and coal, he caused eyebrows to rise. Yet some of his other remarks to the final session of the conference on community-based adaptation to climate change – and to a short parallel course on monitoring and evaluation – may prove to be both less sensational and more controversial (not least because he told me later that he had not intended to use the g-word).

For example, he questioned the morality of non-governmental organisations that were interested only in the people in their project areas. Given that these projects touched only a small proportion of the public, he said, unless NGOs designed activities so that they could be scaled up without cost, they would be failing. Is that ethical, he asked.

“If we don’t help everyone adapt, there will be hunger and crisis,” he told participants on the course, run by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, set up in Dhaka by Saleemul Huq, who is also one of the organisers of the conference.

That wasn’t Cannon’s only challenge.

He questioned the very idea of “community”: “Communities are not warm and cuddly… it’s we who find community convenient. It fits in with what we want to do and what funders want. Let’s not be afraid to talk about class and power.”

There was also a need to design top-down policies that would help people adapt to climate change, he said: not a revolutionary idea in itself, but not the sort of language that participants in community-based activities – proud of their bottom-up approach – are accustomed to hearing.

Investment in community-based adaptation was infinitesimal compared with the billions spent annually on subsidies for fossil fuels and agriculture and on fossil fuel exploration: “We are tiny gnats trying to push an elephant,” he commented. “I’m not convinced agencies are interested in scaling up. They are comfortable working in projects.”

Cannon, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, also said that NGOs needed to experiment if they were to find policies to deal with climate change, and that meant they should seek funds for research rather than projects. It might mean, too, going into partnership with academics and research organisations, and becoming more scientific – donors would demand that they do so.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International Conference on Community-based Adaptation which takes place 22-25 April 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Disappointing lack of representation from Arab countries

April 24, 2013

Nehal Lasheen

Nehal Lasheen
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net



Attending a conference under the title of ‘Women in Science and Technology in the Arab Countries’,  I expected to find a distinct and remarkable presence of female and male scientists from most of the Arab countries.

I therefore felt a bit down when I found that many countries were not represented, particularly countries from the Gulf that have begun to have effective impact on science field in the region, such as like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

While the number of attendees did not exceed 100, more than 20 per cent of them were from countries outside the Arab region, including India and Pakistan.

When I asked the organisers about this, they replied that they had contacted many institutions in most of the Arab countries, but had received a weak response and not much enthusiasm towards the conference.

This might reflect the lack of support that many women scientists in Arab countries face, particularly with obtaining leadership positions.

On a more positive note, a high number of Arab women scientists were persent in the conference sessions.

However, this highlighted the very weak presence of male scientists – the hall was packed with women, while you could barely find one or two men and there was only one male among the speakers.

The situation raised some laughter during the sessions, with women pointing out that although “there is no science of women and science of men”, male scientists appeared to have kept their distance.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International conference on Women in Science and Technology in the Arab Countries which takes place 21-23 April 2013, in Kuwait City, Kuwait. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Climate change delegates stranded in Dhaka hotel

April 24, 2013

Daniel Nelson

Daniel Nelson
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


A conference on community-based adaptation to climate change in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is in lock down because of a “hartal”, or general strike, which aims to bring commercial life in the city to a halt. The strike makes it risky to leave the hotel that is staging the meeting and where most participants are staying. Demonstrators use sticks and stones and occasionally fire to enforce their action, and the conference hotel has “strongly recommended” guests not leave the premises during the 36-hour protest.

That solves the problem faced by all such conferences of participants going for walks or shopping and failing to attend sessions on time. But the organisers have provided in-house entertainment with a number of “out of the box” sessions, the star of which was a climate change game under development by game champion Pablo Suarez. For more than an hour groups of participants representing communities, doctors and governments rolled dice, jumped up, sat down, made instant decisions and gambled beans competing fiercely with each other and with the clock.

The extraordinary thing about such games is how quickly players of all genders, cultures and roles assume the identities they have been assigned and enter into the spirit of role-play.

Suarez, associate director for research and innovation for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre – and a member of the Games for A New Climate Taskforce – is an enthusiastic proponent of games, which he says are an entertaining and effective way of learning.

“They can elicit behaviour that is likely to happen in the real world”, he says, and can vividly illustrate elements such as complexity, risk and unexpected events – “Knowing what is likely to happen is useful but is not enough”.

He says that “serious games” involve brain power and emotions, “and everyone engages”.

Judging by the whoops of excitement from the winning groups and the buzz and applause at the end of the session, every conference needs a game.

In a later session, a comment by Gareth Jones of Oxfam introduced a different form of reality. He told the organisers that the proceedings were engendering “a sense of false optimism”. True, said conference host Saleemul Huq, “but we wouldn’’t be here if we were no’t optimistic.”

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International Conference on Community-based Adaptation which takes place 22-25 April 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Rising from the ashes of revolution: women scientists in Yemen

April 23, 2013

Nehal Lasheen

Nehal Lasheen
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


 

Yemen scores poorly in the fields of science and technology, ranking alongside some of the world’s least developed countries, such as Comoros, Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan.

But in recent years, Yemen has also produced some distinguished women scientists, according to Rokshana Ismail, professor of chemistry at Aden University, Yemen.

“We do not have specific science policies, like Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and Tunisia, where they have [made] great strides in the field of scientific research” Ismail says.

The scientific community in Yemen is trying to invest in the Arab spring revolution to bring about change without further bloodshed, she adds.

Ismail says there are new policies in the Arab countries that aim to drive fresh insights, and that Yemen should invest in these policies positively through giving priority to scientific research.

“Unfortunately, after the Arab spring revolution, the  funding priority of many funding organisations was to attempt to save and rebuild what had been torn down”, she told attendees at the International conference on Women in Science and Technology in the Arab Countries (21-23 April), in Kuwait City.

For example, if a scientific researcher approaches a funding body with a research proposal, the organisation would reject it because new research is not a priority in the current situation.

In spite of this, 30 per cent of the total number of high school graduates in Yemen specialise in the fields of science and technology. A good share of these students are women, and there are some distinguished women scientists in the country, including Huda Omer Ba Saleem.

Ba Saleem is a Yemeni scientist who has been working to establish a network of women scientists in the Arab world. She was among five researchers to receive the first Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World, an award scheme launched in 2012.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International conference on Women in Science and Technology in the Arab Countries which takes place 21-23 April 2013, in Kuwait City, Kuwait. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Leadership role models ‘lacking’ for Arab women scientists

April 22, 2013

Nehal Lasheen

Nehal Lasheen
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net



Female Arab scientists are still under-represented in key positions and in many departments, according to Rowaida Al-Ma’aitah, a professor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, Amman.

“Although women scientists in the Arab world have leadership qualifications, the lack of female scientists in leadership positions limits our influence,” she says. “Women advance more slowly than men into academic leadership positions.”

Some of the most important barriers to leadership for women in academia, in Al- Ma’aitah’s opinion, are the lack of access to career advice, mentoring and socialising for women faculty; as well as invisible factors that keep women from rising to the top.

Al- Ma’aitah says she has personally experienced discrimination. She told attendees of the International conference on Women in Science and Technology in the Arab Countries (21-23 April), in Kuwait City, that she was a new manager when one of her male employees told her that there was “no way” that he was going to work “under a female manager”.

“I told him, do whatever you want because I am staying,” she says. “And after a few months he saw my performance and the difference I had made, and he appreciated me very much since then.”

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International conference on Women in Science and Technology in the Arab Countries which takes place 21-23 April 2013, in Kuwait City, Kuwait. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Looking for real solutions for Arab women scientists

April 19, 2013

Rehab Abd Almohsen

Rehab Abd Almohsen
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net



Fostering women’s contribution to science and technology and pursuing careers in science are among the topics that will be discussed during the International Conference on Women in Science and Technology in the Arab region.

The conference takes place in Kuwait next week (21-23 April). It brings women in the Arab countries together, with high hopes that this will be a step forward in building a real network among female scientist.

This type of meetings is not the first in the region: in September 2009 another three day meeting toke place in Dubai in UAE under a slogan ‘Arab Women in Science and Technology: Empowerment for the Development of the Arab World’.

Also in January 2007 Kuwait hosted ‘Women Leaders in Science, Technology, and Engineering’ conference, bringing female science leaders from all over the region for establishing new professional and mentoring relationships.

This time the conference will highlight topics related to science and technology, health and the environment as well as gender issues and leadership.

The Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research is organizing the event in collaboration with the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World.

According to a recent study done by the Economist Intelligence Unit, more Arab women than men are now enrolling for science degrees at university — and completing the courses successfully. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women accounted for 73 per cent of the bachelor’s degrees in science in 2010.

So obviously Arab female don’t lack the passion for studying science, but as the study suggested, initiatives are needed to motivate women scientists to participate in the workforce.

The biggest challenge for this conference will be putting a real action plan and suggesting practical solutions that will survive after the conference.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International conference on Women in Science and Technology in the Arab Countries which takes place 21-23 April 2013, in Kuwait City, Kuwait. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Climate change adaptation: think of it as preparing for an alien invasion (some spaceships have already landed)

April 19, 2013

Daniel Nelson

Daniel Nelson
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net



The opposition street protests that have been damaging Bangladesh’s key textile sector and threatening the forthcoming O and A-level examinations have claimed another scalp: the field trips which were to precede the annual International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation (CBA7).

In order to ensure the safety of participants the visits to projects on 19-21 April, which formed half of the seventh conference, were cancelled.

This is annoying both to the organisers and the government, because Bangladesh has adeptly positioned itself up as a focus point for conferences and meetings on climate change. Its vulnerability – particularly to sea-level rise, floods and fluctuations in rainfall – are a strength when it comes to first-hand experience of adaptation.

“I happen to be sitting in the part of the world that has the biggest advantage on knowing how to tackle climate change,” says co-organiser Saleemul Haq, who divides his time between the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, where he is a senior fellow, and the Dhaka institution he has established, the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

Climate change is like an alien invasion

“The way I characterise this,” he tells me, “is to think of climate change in planetary terms: it’s like an alien invasion coming to planet Earth, which everyone on Earth is going to have to deal with sooner or later.  Some of the alien scout ships have already landed. One big one has landed in Bangladesh, and a few small ones have gone elsewhere. One was called Sandy that hit New York.

“But they’re all coming and we’re all going to have to figure out how to deal with them.  And as it happens, in Bangladesh we are figuring that out very fast: 150 million people are all extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and we are learning very fast as a nation how to organise ourselves to do that.”

In other words, this is a problem in which the poor have a comparative advantage: “We will figure out the solutions as we go along, rather than in Oxford, Harvard or Yale. They have computer models that can simulate everything but they don’t have the problem. They’ll have to come to us.”

Political unrest keeps participants away

Persistent political unrest and violence could upset that plan, because it puts off visiting academics and NGO workers who want to see for themselves how Bangladesh is dealing with the problem.

Several people withdrew from participation in CBA7 because of the security situation, but the main conference goes ahead as a planned on 22-25 April, and is due to be opened by Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of the country’s founding father and first president, who was assassinated in 1975.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International Conference on Community-based Adaptation which takes place 22-25 April 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Optimism emerges over European funding for African research facilities in Africa

March 11, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Political momentum is growing in both Europe and Africa behind the idea that investment in research facilities is as important as investment in roads and schools for a country’s development.

But a lot of work needs to be done over the next few months, on both sides, to ensure that a willingness in principle to commit such funding is translated into the practical steps needed to get the money flowing.

This was the main conclusion to emerge from a two-day conference that took place as part of the meeting on EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration, which ended in Brussels on Friday.

The workshop was the concluding event of a two-year initiative, funded by the European Union, known as Promoting Africa-EU Research Partnership Infrastructure Project (PAERIP).

So far, the most concrete result of the PAERIP project – considered as essential background for any future investment – has been a 227-entry inventory of existing research facilities in Africa that is already available on the PAERIP website.

The overall conclusions of the project have yet to be formally completed. But their main thrust is captured in a statement issued at the end of the previous PAERIP meeting, held in Ghana last December.

In particular, those attending the Ghana meeting agreed that that research infrastructures should be a priority focus of bi-regional cooperation in science, technology and innovation between Africa and the European Union.

The more detailed conclusions of the PAERIP project are still being drawn up, and will take into account a number of points raised in discussion during the Brussels conference.

One was that it was essential for politicians to be able to demonstrate to their electorates the direct benefits to be drawn from investment in research infrastructure, which are usually much less visible than large scale construction projects, such as building a new road or airport.

“If you can show the benefits that are likely to emerge, you will oil the process of finding development funding,” said Francisco Affinito, a policy officer with the European Commission’s development directive.

He also he emphasised that demand for investment in research facilities needed to come from African countries themselves if it was to become part of mainstream development funding.

A second conclusion likely to be highlighted in the final PAERIP report is the need to ensure that spending on infrastructure is complemented by investment in “human capacity development” – in other words, in producing the researchers able to use it effectively.

Participants at the meeting said that it was unlikely that a new funding line would be opened up to cover European support for research infrastructure in Africa; there are already too many demands on the EU budget.

But there was general optimism among those leaving the conference that, providing the ways can be found of using existing funding instruments, the money will begin to flow before too long.


This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Looking up at the stars for inspiring African scientists to become world leaders

March 11, 2013

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net



To see a major part of scientific collaboration going forward, all we need to do is look up at the stars.

At least this was the case made repeatedly, and often passionately made by leading members of the global scientific community during the five-day EU Science: Global Challenges and Global Collaboration conference in Brussels last week.

The study and exploitation of space, offers one of the most fertile ground for nurturing the seeds of scientific collaboration and development that we have, they say.

Although other areas of science, such as health and information and communication technologies (ICTs), were also held up as examples of current and potential collaborative research, it was what exists beyond our atmosphere that received the most attention.

“The most important thing we learnt from going to the moon was when we looked back at our own tiny planet,” says Mae Jemison, head of the 100 Year Star Ship Initiative, alluding to the ability of aspirational science to frame society’s biggest questions.

“Imagine what we will learn from the nearest star,” she adds.

While the inspiring and expansive nature of space is in itself a cohesive factor, the drive for collaboration comes from a much more pragmatic source. The huge quantity of money and expertise required for space exploration or the need for telescopes spread over large regions in astronomy, for example, demand cooperation — almost as a prerequisite — to achieve their goals.

And with this promise of collaboration comes huge potential for scientific and economic development, not least in the world’s developing nations. While perhaps the most obvious tool for development, numerous examples throughout the conference highlighted how space research can touch the world’s poor.

For example, the organisation of the African-European Radio Astronomy Platform is taking shape, as is the pan-African and Australian Square Kilometre Array project. The  improvements in infrastructure that these will bring, could result in high-speed internet and renewable energy, and human capacity building in remote regions.

What is more, says George Miley, vice president of the International Astronomy Union, the relative infancy of large, multinational, radio astronomy projects offers a unique opportunity for African researchers to get in on the ground floor.

By investing now in research and capacity building, African nations with links to radio astronomy projects could establish themselves as world leaders in the field, he adds.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Africa’s astronomy facilities ‘must not become white elephants’

March 11, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Astronomy facilities built in Southern Africa are likely to remain irrelevant to many countries in the region unless greater efforts are put into training the researchers needed to make good scientific use of them.

This was the warning given by Nithaya Chetty, group executive for astronomy at South Africa’s National Research Foundation, during a two-day workshop on research infrastructures in Africa held as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Namibia's HESS telescope: high-level science, but little local involvement

Namibia’s HESS telescope: high-level science, but little local involvement

In recent years, it had become widely accepted that Africa was an excellent place to do astronomy because of its climate and viewing conditions, said Chetty, who is also professor of physics at the University of Pretoria.Referring to the recent decision to build part of the new Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in South Africa – the other part will be in Australia – he also accepted that construction of such scientific infrastructure was likely to have important socio-economic spin-offs.

For example, much had been made in generating political support for SKA of its potential role in boosting the country’s IT industry and capacity for high-speed data transmission.

“But attention must also be given to human capacity development,” said Chetty. “We want to go beyond simply building, maintaining and operating telescopes and making observations  –  we also want and need to be involved in creating and using the science.”

Chetty pointed to the example of the HESS (High Energy Stereoscopic System) telescope in Namibia, built and operated by Germany’s Max Planck Society, which had been operating successfully for just over ten years.

“HESS is now ranked among the ten most productive telescopes in the world. But the impact on astronomy in Namibia has been rather low, and this has been disappointing,” he said.

“It is a forewarning of what we may or may not achieve for the development of astronomy on the African continent. If we cannot do it in Namibia, we have an even lower chance of achieving it in countries such as Mozambique or Madagascar.”

Chetty said that it had been a similar experience with the South African Large Telescope (SALT), which opened in 2005. Apart from South Africa, there had been virtually no involvement by researchers from other countries in Southern Africa; almost all had come from Europe and the United States.

“The original idea was that SALT was to encourage growth of astronomy in Southern Africa,” he said. “But we do not have a sufficient number of scientists from other parts of Africa using SALT.”

The lesson was that it was not sufficient to build the infrastructure for doing a science like astronomy. It was also important to create a nurturing environment for the science to thrive, including building the required human capacity.

“We need astronomy researchers, engineers and technicians, we need a concerted effort to attract young people into mathematics and science, and programmes to inspire a new generation of children,” he said.

“Otherwise we will just end up building white elephants.”


This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


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