The climate and financial crises, AIDS and SARS drive the point home: Many problems in today’s world flow freely across borders. They threaten us all, and we all have a stake in resolving them. At the same time, the people and ideas needed to address global challenges can be anywhere. My organization, Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), helps developing countries use science, technology and innovation to solve practical problems. We also help both Canada and the developing world tackle our shared challenges, drawing on talent and experience from everywhere.
Take Yiming Shao, for example. As chief scientist at China’s national AIDS agency, he works on the frontlines of disease control in the populous and fast-changing country. Thanks to a partnership between IDRC and the Canada Research Chairs program, Shao will pool his talents with Jianhong Wu, an internationally recognized mathematician at York University in Toronto. Wu’s modelling of infectious diseases is considered of critical importance to the fight against health threats such as pandemic influenza and West Nile virus. Shao and Wu will focus first on HIV as they analyze and predict disease transmission pathways and work with health agencies to design prevention strategies.
Public policies in Canada and beyond are set to benefit from this international collaboration, as well as that of seven other stellar teams. Shao, the new IDRC Research Chair in modelling and management of communicable diseases, is one of eight scientists from the developing world chosen to join forces with a Canada Research Chair on a five-year program of research and training. With each team receiving a grant of up to $1 million, IDRC Research Chairs will have the funds to hire graduate students, attract post-doctoral researchers, and fill laboratories with the equipment they need to do cutting-edge research.
For nearly 40 years, IDRC has supported scientific research in the developing world, helping to nurture the innovative capacity that resides there. Sometimes, support for research means building the bridges that bring top scientists such as Shao and Wu together. In other instances, IDRC support helps to build the long-term capacity of developing-country researchers as they seek locally appropriate solutions to development challenges. In every case, the goal of IDRC’s science cooperation with developing countries is research excellence, to improve people’s lives.
Helping to boost research capabilities in the developing world is the right thing to do for altruistic reasons, but it is also an investment in our own future prosperity. It is in Canada’s interests to have highly skilled partners with whom we can collaborate and trade and innovate, in ways that benefit our economy and theirs.
According to the tired old stereotype, developed countries produce knowledge and transfer it to the developing world. In reality, Canada has much to learn from less prosperous societies – about resilience, support networks, and adaptive capacities, for example. One project IDRC is funding in partnership with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is looking at formal and informal sources of mental health support available to young people growing up in challenging environments in Canada, China, Colombia and South Africa. Another project links coastal communities in Canada and several Caribbean countries, creating synergies among them as they exchange ideas on how local organizations can help these mostly rural and indigenous communities adapt to climate change.
Good ideas abound around the world, and the best expertise is not always found in the most obvious places. For example, one of the impacts of climate change in some parts of Canada will be water shortages. Because most of our fresh water lies in the North and most of our population lives in the South, at some point we will want to conserve fresh water by recycling greywater – household wastewater that does not come from the toilet. Where are the top experts in this field? They are not in North America or Europe but in countries such as Jordan, which has been forced to deal with water shortages before us and where IDRC has been supporting research on greywater for more than a decade.
To address our common problems and to prosper, science, technology and innovation are critical for Canada, as for developing countries. Innovation can mean converting knowledge into something of commercial value. It can also mean adding value by taking new approaches, or applying existing ideas in places where they have not been applied before. In development terms, adding value means alleviating poverty, enhancing social welfare, and improving people’s lives.
In the program that I manage at IDRC, we have projects that help firms innovate – in biotechnology, for instance – so they can generate income, take products to market, create jobs and compete on world markets. But we also support innovation by and for the poor, fostering technological and social innovations that help alleviate poverty directly. For equitable growth and for solutions to our shared global challenges, we need both kinds of innovation – nourished by the energy and intelligence, ideas and expertise from everywhere.
This article first appeared in a special section on Innovation in the April 6, 2009 edition of The Hill Times.
Naser Faruqui is the Director of the Technology and Innovation program at IDRC.