We live in an unequal world, where rich countries spend billions of dollars every day on wars and weapons. A fraction of these funds could help resolve most of the problems faced by the developing nations, from rampant disease to acute hunger.
There is no doubt that the developed nations – also called the Global North, should help the developing ones, called the Global South. Unfortunately, the developed countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) divert only a fraction of their collective GDP to the Global South for various causes.
Instead of always looking towards the OECD Club for assistance, the time has come to intensify South-South cooperation. This was in fact the crux of the speech delivered by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to the G77 Plus China Summit in Havana, Cuba on Friday.
President Wickremesinghe proposed a scheme akin to the Colombo Plan to enhance collaboration, exchange best practices and develop policies that harness the transformational potential of science, technology and innovation in the Global South. This is a farsighted proposal that the Global South and its various blocs such as BIMSTEC, ASEAN, SAARC and IORA should work on. The President’s call is rather timely also in the context of Sri Lanka assuming the Chairmanship of the IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) in a few weeks.
The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is a good example for South-South cooperation as the two countries recently signed an agreement on development and connectivity on multiple fronts. Likewise, Sri Lanka is cooperating with many other developing countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Bangladesh in a variety of fields. The Global South can find opportunities even in the midst of competition among themselves – for example, if Kenya and Sri Lanka cooperate on tea research, both countries can benefit.
The President also called for effective cooperation mechanisms within the G77 and China, including the revitalization of the Consortium of Science and Technology and Innovation for the South (COSTIS) and the commitment of member countries to earmark at least 1 percent of their GDP for Research and Development (R&D) over a decade. These two proposals must be implemented without any delay by the Member States.
Indeed, the many advances made in science and technology in recent times must be harnessed by the Global South. In his speech, President Wickremesinghe emphasized the crucial role of science, technology and innovation in overcoming the current development challenges faced by developing nations worldwide.
He explained the unprecedented challenges confronting the Global South, including the Covid pandemic, Digital Divide, Climate Change, food security, fertilizer and energy crises and the lack of basic facilities which threaten the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and exacerbate the global debt crisis.
It is important for the Global South to cooperate on preventing the next pandemic and should the worst happen, minimising the damage. Vaccine research need not be the preserve of the rich countries, as some of the biggest vaccine manufacturing sites are actually in the Third World.
Climate Change is likely to affect countries and islands in the Global South disproportionately – the President’s proposal to establish a Climate Change Studies University (CCSU) in Sri Lanka is thus timely. Along with the CCSU, four more tech universities will be established, which will give students and scholars from developing countries an opportunity to share ideas, participate in research and reach new frontiers in innovation. All five universities will collectively benefit the Global South.
It is important that these universities are focused on new technologies such as Big Data, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, Blockchain, Biotechnology, Telemedicine, Drone Technology, Nanotechnology, Electric Mobility, Green Hydrogen, Quantum Computing, Renewable Energy, Nuclear Fusion, and Genome Sequencing. Any new developments in these fields could give an edge to the Global South.
However, we need to drastically transform our approach to education in order to produce students who are well versed in these subjects. The mismatch between school and university curricula and the requirement of the job market has impeded our progress by several decades. Our curricula should reflect the changing needs of the world at least from Grade 6, along with a firm focus on languages such Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, Japanese and French in addition to English.
We hope that the new tech universities will address this glaring lacuna. As the President rightly pointed out, an educated workforce well-equipped with knowledge and technological know-how is essential for the smooth flow of the needed transformations which will lubricate the development and catching up process in developing nations.
All developing countries must also address the issue of brain drain from the South to the North. Sri Lanka has experienced an exodus of doctors and other professionals to foreign shores due to a variety of factors. This is a major threat to the development of Science and Technology and Innovation of the South, as President Wickremesinghe said. The Global South must take serious note of his proposal for seeking compensation from the North for the loss of manpower in this manner. The President will hopefully gain more traction for this groundbreaking idea at the forthcoming UN General Assembly Sessions.