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.

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.

Looming dangers for India’s handloom technologies

July 11, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Telling a story is an Irish way of life, and I got to hear several about druids, Celts, Vikings, and the ‘leprechaun’, a mischievous fairy in Irish folklore. So, here is mine – about a British textile loom that headed to India, but ended in Ireland’s Wicklow mountains.  I found it in a corner of Ireland’s oldest working wool mill in the village of Avoca.

The loom’s travel itinerary as it left England in the 19th century, was presumably altered by rough seas and would not have led to a ‘diplomatic incident’ as both countries were then ruled by England. And so, the old ‘Hattersley’ loom —  a power loom for textile weaving to replace hand weaving – came to Avoca.

I was curious about Avoca because I wanted to see how traditional weaving survived against the onslaught of sophisticated textile technologies, mass-produced goods and branded wear in these days of globalisation.

A man using a handloom in India (Flickr/jankie_SquareCrop)

Indian weavers, whose families for generations spun by hand some of the country’s best known (at home at least) products – from the famous Benaras (Varanasi) silk brocade saris to ‘pochampally’ (a typical bright hand-woven pattern) silks and cottons — were, and some still are, in dire straits. Their plight was highlighted by multiple suicides by poor, debt-ridden weaving families  a few years ago,  as their modern power looms took over in India’s newly liberalised economy.

Avoca long ago switched to power looms, albeit the older ones, and has retail chains of its products that are now advertised as traditional crafts. The old loom operated by hands and legs, though working, is more of a ‘touristy’ attraction, than the norm.

Sadly, scientific studies on improving traditional, less energy-intensive technologies are few as they are not recognised as ‘frontier’ science, capable of finding a place in high-impact journals or boosting one’s one scientific career.

Or maybe some  leprechaun or fairy will, one day, help organise conference sessions on how innovation can help traditional technologies survive.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

Brazil’s delicate balancing act at Rio+20

June 12, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

The BASIC countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – are trying their best to hold together as they tackle their common problem of how to maintain their current growth rates and yet not be accused of contributing to global environment problems.

It’s worse if one of them happens to host a once-in-20-years global environment summit – that country has to maintain the delicate balance between addressing the BASIC countries’ concerns and finding a global consensus that could go against the BASIC countries’ interests.

Back home in India, local dailies reported last week on Indian officials’ concerns that Brazil, as host to the Rio + 20 meet, could feel the need to break away from the BASIC group during the Rio+20 Summit.

Brazil’s minister for science, technology and innovation Marco António Raupp voiced the BASIC group’s views in a keynote address on the opening day of the Forum here in Rio de Janeiro.

Raupp mentioned three shifts of the past 20 years. There is the huge global interconnectivity and the emergence of the anthropocene age of human impact on Earth systems.

The third, said Raupp, is of a geopolitical nature: Brazil, China and India are now critical to global sustainability in the next two decades.

Raupp said that in the global quest for a green economy, the economic crisis that started in 2008 posed additional challenges, not only for the developed countries, but also to the emerging economies which needed to continue their fight against poverty in their societies.

The Brazilian minister described the green economy as a “controversial subject”, adding that it should be an inclusive green economy covering the three dimensions of sustainability: economical, environmental and social.

It must promote new jobs, technological innovation, science, social inclusion and the conservation of natural resources.

Each country must develop its own strategy for transition to a green economy, he added.

So far, echoing what many developing countries are saying not just BASICs. What emerges next week as Brazil hosts Rio+20, remains to be seen.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

World Science Forum: how did it do?

November 22, 2011

Yuan Tseh Lee (with microphone): 'this forum has been very successful in many ways' (Credit: Flickr/gedankenstuecke)

The World Science Forum has been held every two years, since 2003, in Budapest, Hungary, but now it will alternate between Hungary and other countries, starting with Brazil in 2013.

Aloizio Mercadante science and technology minister of Brazil, called the forum “one of the most important scientific events in the world”. He announced the theme of the next forum to be ‘Science for Global Development’ and promised regional preparatory meetings ahead of the forum.

Indian science and technology minister, Vilasrao Deshmuk, invited the forum to India in 2017.

Yuan Tseh Lee, president of the International Council for Science (ICSU), said that “forum has been very successful in many ways”. Despite numerous presentations, discussions and different views, he said, “we did come up with some common agreements and common views”.

Alice Abreu, professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said this forum was better than the previous one, but still lacked time for discussions. This was also a general feeling among the other participants I talked to.

Zaid Naffa, honorary consul from Jordan, said that line-ups of 5-6 speakers in two hour blocks were not a friendly enough format for the politicians and diplomats, who need shorter presentations and more opportunity to ask questions.

Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net

Science commercialisation should be the new mantra: Dzinotyiweyi

October 20, 2010

Heneri Dzinotyiweyi (MDC)

Zimbabwe’s minister for science and technology development Heneri Dzinotyiweyi wants Africa’s scientists to adopt a new mantra of commercialisation of their research — indeed, devote about 20 per cent of their science efforts in commercialising and ploughing back the returns into research and development. This was his message at the ministerial round-table on India-Africa science collaboration on Tuesday (19 October).

For so long the buzzword at both national and international fora has been ‘capacity building’ on the continent.  Which is all very well, Dzinotyiweyi, a TWAS fellow and former mathematics professor at the University of Zimbabwe, told me and Danny Schaffer from TWAS last night. But by now African scientists have some degree of ‘capacity’ in some science sectors at least, both within the country and among its diaspora. “What is missing is that we do not see significant transformation of our economy despite this capacity building in science”, he said.

“We are now in an era where we should seek to get immediate benefits, especially market benefits [of research],” he added.

Dzinotyiweyi also suggests a reverse thinking on science investment and national wealth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP). Policymakers are used to thinking in terms of percentage of GDP devoted to investment in science. “If we seriously address commercialisation of science and technology, we can tell on a year-to-year basis how much [a nation’s] GDP has grown due to commercialisation of S and T.”

Dzinotyiweyi uses diamonds as an example. There is nothing so complex about diamond processing techniques that African scientists cannot master and emerge as major players in the international markets, he said.

So far so good. But as India’s experience — a rise in GDP but fall in global hunger index — shows, developing countries still need to go a long way to ensure a more sustainable development that ensures a more equitable distribution of economic gains.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

Not just microbes, missing micronutrients culprits too

October 20, 2010

Countries that have adopted zinc as national diarrhoea treatment programmes (Zinc Task Force, 2007)

Conventional wisdom assumes a clear direct link between a bacterium or virus and the infection it causes. Then how does one explain why the same microbe may not cause much illness in a developed country, but could wreak havoc in a developing country?

The answer lies in deficiency of zinc, a crucial micronutrient (needed by the body in trace amounts). Zinc deficiency weakens immunity against infectious diseases, and could have important implications for not just poor response in developing countries to oral vaccines against polio and cholera; but also other infections such as malaria and tuberculosis, Maharaj Krishan Bhan, secretary of India’s department of biotechnology (DBT), told the TWAS meeting on Tuesday (19 Oct).

“An infectious disease can be initiated by a microbe. But the outcome of an infectious disease in developing countries depends entirely on nutrition, as opposed to a developed country,” Bhan said.

The link between zinc deficiency and weakened immunity came to light thanks to collaboration among nine developing countries that pooled their knowledge together for over a decade; and took part in WHO trials to provide sufficient study data to identify the crucial link between zinc and diarrhoea. Currently, diarrhoea kills over a million under-fives in Africa and Asia.

Zinc deficiency has up to 43 per cent prevalence in India, 68 per cent in Mexico, 80 per cent in Lima (Peru), and 37 per cent in Papua New Guinea. Much of the deficiency in the body and diet can be traced to deficiency in soil — for example, half of arable land in China, India and Turkey is deficient in zinc; and so is 60 per cent in Iran and 70 per cent in Pakistan.

Thanks to the data from different country studies, scientists have now clearly established that zinc supplements can, not only treat diarrhea, but also help reduce pneumonia incidence, and deaths in babies with low birth weight.

Zinc supplements have now been adopted as part of national programmes to treat diarrhoea in several countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

That does not mean the problem has been solved. A study in Bangladesh showed that despite mass media campaigns, children still miss out on zinc treatment. And as Bhan observes, zinc deficiency in pregnant women will have implications for the foetus and the new born.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

The Toymaker at TWAS

October 20, 2010

Arvind Gupta with his toys (

“I am a toymaker,” Arvind Gupta cheerfully introduces himself. Gupta, one of India’s leading science popularisers, is being modest. This ex-alumni of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, in fact, received a TWAS-ROCASA (Regional Office for Central and South Asia) regional prize on the opening day (18 October) of the TWAS annual meeting. Gupta, a former electrical engineer, has been making toys for the past 25 years and his students science centre  operates from the campus of the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune.

Gupta’s passion is toys, more so toys made from trash. He believes the best thing a child can do with a toy is to break it (“children are the last curious cats we have,” he says). In fact, I would urge you to check out his toys website:

So what have toys got to do with a meeting of serious and senior scientists? For one, Gupta’s passion for science popularisation is winning accolades both nationally and now internationally. As he told me over dinner last night, there are thousands of bright, inquisitive young minds in developing countries, for whom poverty is the major barrier to a decent education. Their poverty keeps them out of the exciting pursuit of their scientific curiosity and learning as they cannot afford fancy science books or have access to nice school laboratories the urban elite’s children enjoy.

This is where Gupta steps in. His technique of using toys to explain science covers topics from astronomy to beginner’s biology, pressure, light, electricity, magnetism, even ‘Newton Unplugged’ and many more.

Gupta is also a staunch believer in ‘copy left’ philosophy (in which authors forgo copyrights and make their work freely accessible to all.) His website hosts a collection of 2500 science books — his and those that he simply buys and puts up on his website. They have been translated into 13 Indian languages so that poor students in remote areas with no access to well equipped public libraries can read them. As he explains to the original authors, what matters is that their books are being read by hundreds of thousands of poor children with an interest in science. And they end up agreeing with him!!

May Gupta’s tribe increase.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

Minority report

October 19, 2010

Women in a lab (Flickr/Argonne National Laboratory)

At the registration counter for the 21st General Meeting of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), in Hyderabad, India, this morning, a young volunteer mistakenly assumed that I must have come as a delegate’s spouse.

This reminded me of one of my favourite anecdotes about a French teenager’s description of a science academy as a club of old gentlemen. French physicist and former co-chair of the InterAcademy Panel, the global network of science academies, Yves Quéré wrote in Nature that the teenager unwittingly zeroed in on three problematic features of science academies: few women, few young people and their modus operandi being akin to private clubs.

Shrugging sniggers from men, I will focus on the first point: few women. At this meeting women participants form about a tenth of the entire meeting. This, some women participants assured me, is a generous estimate.

A 2004 report on science careers of Indian women, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, says women form less than 5 per cent of fellows of each of the three major science academies in India: Indian National Science Academy, Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

This seems reflective of the more general gender malaise. A 2006 report of the InterAcademy Council says 95 per cent of science academy members world over are men.

In the United States, the proportion of women scientists in the National Academy of Sciences is around seven per cent, and in the UK’s Royal Society only 4.5 per cent.

Recent years have seen repeated calls for more incentives for women in research.

I must say the Philippines is refreshingly ahead of India on this front. The National Academy of Science and Technology in the Philippines has had a woman head for at least two terms.

“Academies must set an example for all of the world to see of welcoming women scientists and engineers to their ranks and treating them as full partners with men,” the IAC report said four years ago.

I am not confident that the academies have taken this seriously yet.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

India too big for a science straight jacket?

October 18, 2010

Prithviraj Chavan (TWAS)


“India’s too big to be straight-jacketed into a single framework for science and technology [S&T],” said India’s science minister Prithviraj Chavan, in an interview for TWAS, ahead of the 21st General Meeting of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), in Hyderabad, India.

Chavan said that “some areas of Indian S&T will continue to develop at a steady pace, while other areas will experience accelerated growth — at times leading to the discovery of ‘leapfrog’ technologies that will have a dramatic impact on the economy”. That would be welcome, but not quite everything.

I do not want to be a wet blanket, but somehow improvement in India’s economy has not translated into equitable growth. Chavan’s facts about seven per cent increase in India’s gross domestic product (GDP) is true. Equally true is that the country has slipped down the global hunger index (GHI), ranking 67 out of 88 nations in the 2010 report released by the International Food Policy Research Institute in October. Home to 42 per cent of underweight children under five years, the country still lags behind Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan in the GHI. Maybe that is why the Indian jacket’s fit in general is not quite so good.

Even on the science front, there have been a couple of disquieting reports of late. One is about the country slipping down (and a nasty fall that too) in the technology index, though some experts did tell SciDev.Net that different methods of measuring science performance could yield a different result.

The latest Goldman Sachs report confirms India lagging on R&D intensity front. Chavan also noted the need to increase, rather double, India’s spending on research and development (R&D) from the present less than one per cent of the national wealth to two per cent. For some reason this “doubling” of India’s R&D spending, as a per cent of its GDP, has not occurred, although one has heard it often, from prime ministers, their scientific advisors and senior scientists.

On the other hand, the Research Councils of UK’s latest report, based on a survey from 1981 to 2008, says India’s scientific output is growing rapidly, and its science citation impact — a measure of how often its papers are cited by other scientists — has doubled. Although India’s share of the global output remains low, it has nevertheless, shot up fast.

That is possibly why the Indian science jacket is a bit tricky to judge at first glance.

What’s your view?

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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