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Unit for Sustainable Development and Environment

Stephen Bender

Organization of American States

Experiences in Sharing Science and Technology related to Vulnerability Reduction to Natural Hazards

Sharing science and technology among OAS member states in the hemisphere is conditioned to a great extent by the fact that almost all those countries consider themselves on the road to development, thus development is their countries goal and daily task. All development activities have beneficiaries and contributors, in addition to those who are negatively impacted by the activities. Sharing science and technology through development activities are no exception.

Looking at natural hazard vulnerability reduction in terms of political vision, institutional mandates and project decisions as related to sharing science and technology, several comments can be made on experiences during the last three decades.

An initial comment is that there is a difference between demand-driven and supply-driven science and technology transfer of information for development policy adoption, program formulation and project execution. Much of that transfer has been supply driven by the international community. Fundable themes in hot topics in developed countries become fundable themes in developing countries, sometimes without regard to the needs of the beneficiary country. Another segment of transfer has been demand driven by recipients with little concern for policies to distribute the benefits of access to information to a broad set of possible beneficiaries.

Often those participating in science and technology transfer in developing countries are simultaneously involved in university-based research, government administration and private sector business given the economic and political circumstances in which they find themselves. These individuals often have limited discretionary resources, but they are in a position where they can choose between supply-driven international assistance offerings, such as natural hazard event monitoring technology options. Their policy choices as to which transfer options to follow, as well as the choices made by the international community, are crucial. Too often policy decisions are bounded by both the supporting entity and the recipient in what might be called the “we are what we will fund” syndrome. This syndrome leads to “development by program” with inflexible program definition and management reporting criteria sometimes referred to as the tyranny of the process. This syndrome sometimes thwarts the possibility or desire for a comprehensive look as to which transfers are not only necessary but also most advantageous in the long run. It also thwarts taking the best next step without creating the policy environment for another “program.”

Once policy is adopted covering by whom and for what purpose, the when, where and how is determined to institutionalize the actions to be taken. Here competition between institutions, within institutional units and between individuals in a given unit is not only evident but also part of the challenge of a successful transfer. Stories abound where a technology in the inappropriate institution only led to a cessation of activities once the international support stream dried up or the government changed political leadership. On the other hand, participation by the local community (including the scientific community) responding to felt needs as part of a shared development agenda at all levels has been successful. The partners must share in the design and implementation of the transfer. In such cases the experience has led to the ongoing use and expansion of activities, even after international financing has ceased.

Finally, in the project dimension where development is implemented, the transfer is accomplished in institutional environments under policy decisions where international participation in both providing technical information and project management orientation can enhance or destroy promising successful science and technology transfers on the ground. What must be avoided is that the technology becomes the master of the purpose for which it was sought. A classic example is the gathering and processing of information beyond what is needed to answer the development question simply because the technology makes gathering and analyzing the information possible. Another is that the technology itself is displaced by the next generation before the development problem is addressed. Also to be avoided is reporting on the project and emphasizing quantifiable outcomes which become substitutes for internalizing the structure and function of the science or technology where successes are sometimes hard to determine in the short term, even if successful.