From Knowledge to Development
We Need a Code of Honour
Interview with Bassey Antia and Michael Kirk
Nigerian linguist, Bassey Antia, and German economist, Michael Kirk, talk about learning from one another, northsouth scientific fair play, and projects that really keep their promise of sustainability.
Kosmos: Professor Antia, you are comparing health campaigns in Germany and Nigeria, and your findings are supposed to contribute to improving the fight against diseases like AIDS. What are the differences between the two countries?
Antia: In Nigeria, AIDS messaging largely emphasises the threat of the disease. The Germans tend to focus on the preventive resources. Regrettably, from the standpoint of the health psychology and communication theory being used, neither approach can guarantee much success. A synthesis of the two strategies would be more effective; we could learn from one another.
Kosmos: From the German standpoint, this is an unusual way of looking at things. After all, African states are not usually portrayed as role models in the battle against AIDS, but rather as the help-seekers who can't cope with the problem on their own ....
Antia: This is precisely why we must find out how governments and societies cope with the burden. This is the only way we can tackle the weak points and develop the strong ones. By the way, the Robert Koch Institute regularly reminds us that the number of HIV infections is growing in Germany, too. At the same time, the healthcare environment is getting ever more multicultural. That's the reason why, for some years, the Bielefeld self-help organisation, AIDS-Hilfe, has been investigating how target groups from various countries react to AIDS campaigns in Germany and their own countries. This is the only way to find an effective communication strategy. It wouldn't be clever to imagine we can't learn anything from another country just because it happens to be in Africa.
Kosmos: Professor Kirk, you are going down the cooperation two-way street in the other direction. You've just returned from an extended research stay in southern Africa. What can you learn as a guest researcher in a developing country?
Kirk: Actually, when I'm working in Namibia or Benin, I'm the one who's essentially the learner: in some cases, our partners have been working very successfully on topics that interest us both for years. They have the practical experience of field work with all its vicissitudes and they're familiar with requirements and sensibilities; they're the only ones who know about examining theories in the local context and how to win over the relevant science community or politicians as well as overcoming bureaucratic hurdles. Of course, in Germany they can expect this of us the other way round.
Kosmos: You are looking for ways of utilising agricultural resources efficiently in developing countries. How do your partners react to a European giving them advice? After all, the European model with its agricultural subsidies is the butt of criticism in developing countries, too.
Kirk: Indeed, scientists are not the only ones who immediately think of all the negative examples there have been of the EU's and the USA's subsidies schemes. Because of the EU's export subsidies the producer prices in countries in the south come under enormous pressure. The consequences are poverty in rural areas, accelerated environmental destruction, migration and thus enormous costs for society as a whole. The EU's Agenda 2000 introduced the first steps towards reform, but of course, from the point of view of the south, they're totally inadequate. Not that people there are just waiting around for manna from the north. Local small and medium-sized firms often make enormous efforts of their own which just don't come to our attention here.
Kosmos: Such as?
Kirk: Such as fighting for access to markets and finding niches like bio products or certified raw materials. They try to form farmers' organisations and to hold their own against powerful buyers and supermarket chains. They are very creative when it comes to getting essential information on prices or quality standards and the desires of consumers in the north. In many villages, modern media and the triumph of the mobile phone have played their part in this. And all this takes place under conditions of heightened natural risk of drought or flooding, uncertain delivery terms for fertiliser, seeds and, at times, governmental policy that is difficult to predict. I really take my hat off to them!
Kosmos: What is the relationship between the battle for markets and profits and preserving the natural environment?
Kirk: It has to be good! You can't have sustainable development without intact ecosystems: forested areas with their complicated ecosystems, which we know very little about as yet, guarantee the hydrologic balance, prevent erosion and limit forest fires. Workable grazing land in the Sahel prevents desertification, the destruction of the topsoil, mass environmental migration to the coastal towns or Europe, and preserves the unique cultures of mobile animal husbandry.
Kosmos: He who fails to preserve biological diversity, cuts the ground from under his own feet ...
Kirk: Exactly. We don't even know the properties of many plants. If we destroy them today, we shall never ever be able to tap their advantages. Just think of the genes of the neem tree that isn't only widespread in India, but in Africa, too. Today, they're exploited commercially. The San in southern Africa have used constituent parts of plants to relieve colds and suppress hunger pangs for millennia - a huge market for future medicines
Kosmos: Professor Antia, some critics see the search for biological applications as a new form of research colonialism, exploiting the biological and intellectual wealth of developing countries. Are they right?
Antia: No, at least, not necessarily. There is, naturally, in the developing world a lot of interest in using this wealth, so-called bioprospecting. For instance, at my home university in Maiduguri the neem tree has been the focus of extensive research and development from the standpoint of medicines and pesticides. Across plant chemistry laboratories in Germany, there are Humboldtians from the developing world engaged in this kind of research.
Kosmos: As a researcher, what do you see as the limits of exploiting biological wealth?
Antia: The problem is just the same as it is when resources are discovered, i.e., how we deal with the consequences, with environmental degradation, the loss and non-replacement of traditional means of livelihood, or with forced displacement. Just think of the commercial exploitation of crude oil in the Niger Delta in my own country or logging in Central Africa. Both were preceded by research, just like Brazilian sugar cane or palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia, which have now become popular as biofuel sources. Although at the onset of such prospecting there is usually talk of sustainability in resource exploitation, all too often promises are not kept. In effect, research becomes an ancillary to the unprincipled exploitation of resources, which is anything but sustainable.
Kosmos: If you had to formulate fair terms of trade for knowledge exchange between industrialised and developing countries, what would they be?
Antia: I would start with fair prices for drugs. What should developing countries be made to pay for medicines produced in the industrialised world on the basis of substances taken from local environments, in some cases actually discovered by local scientists? Authorship of research publications is another contentious issue. Should local academics be simply acknowledged as resource persons, or should they be empowered to participate as co-authors of publications arising from studies conducted in their own countries?
Kirk: Precisely, although things are beginning to happen. Nevertheless, we need something along the lines of a code of honour for scientific fair play between north and south. But, most of all, we have to boost the opportunities for younger, networked colleagues from the south, by equal research conditions, like laboratory equipment and computers; by equal publication conditions and opportunities to participate in conferences; and, finally, by systematically developing long-term collaborations based on trust with strong incentives in both directions, like the Georg Forster Programme and South-South Cooperation. This is where the potential lies for sustainably influencing the terms of trade.
Interview: Georg Scholl
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