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UN-NGLS and ETC Group side event explores “A Critical Link in the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Technology Access and Assessment”

arton4552On 12 September, in the context of the President of the General Assembly’s High-level Stocktaking Event on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, UN-NGLS and the ETC Group co-hosted a side event entitled “A Critical Link in the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Technology Access and Assessment.” The event featured Thomas Gass, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in DESA; Ambassador Guillherme de Aguiar Patriota, Deputy Permanent Representative of Brazil and Co-Moderator of the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) Dialogues; Amit Narang, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations; Amina J. Mohammed, Special Adviser of the UN Secretary-General on Post-2015 Development Planning; Pat Mooney, Executive Director, ETC Group; and Susan Alzner, Officer in Charge - New York Office, UN-NGLS.

This event sought to explore and shed light on technology-related issues that are essential to shaping the post-2015 development agenda, including:

• How do technology and access and assessment apply across the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

• What lessons can be learned from recent history in technology introduction that can help put the SDGs on the right track?

• Does the UN have existing capacity to facilitate technology access globally and evaluate emerging technologies?

In her opening remarks, Ms. Alzner cited a number of recent conferences and reports that have referred to the critical role of technology in sustainable development, including the Rio+20 outcome document (in particular paragraphs 273 and 275); the four UN General Assembly Structured Dialogues on possible arrangements for a technology facilitation mechanism that had concluded at the end of July; two reports by the Secretary-General; and the goals proposed by the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on 19 July 2014. She drew attention to the UN-NGLS background paper produced for the Structured Dialogues, which lists all direct or indirect references to technology in the proposed SDGs and targets. She identified the need for the UN to provide a home for ongoing multi-stakeholder dialogues on technology issues, and emphasized the importance of civil society participation in these discussions. Concluding, she stated, “Civil society is often an early warning system. We would like governments to serve as early listening systems – particularly on technology needs and assessment.”

In his remarks, Assistant Secretary-General Thomas Gass noted that a rich tapestry had emerged in the Structured Dialogues so complex that Member States had requested a mapping exercise to better understand facilitation efforts. This, he said, became a recommendation of the President of the General Assembly (PGA). In relation to this complexity, Dr. Gass underlined that there isn’t a single repository of knowledge on technology (both in terms of accruing and transferring it), nor a platform from which relevant specialized knowledge can be accessed. This then became a second recommendation by the PGA: the UN should consider creating such a platform for the benefit of Member States and individual technology users. The third recommendation that emerged from the Dialogues was the need for the UN system to promote greater information sharing and programme coordination among the various entities working on technology facilitation to avoid fragmentation, overlap and duplication. Referring to efforts to assess technological capabilities of countries, he explained that efforts are being undertaken in both developed and emerging economies through the OECD Policy Innovation Reviews, and in a number of least developed countries (LDCs) and developing countries through UNCTAD Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Reviews. The question, he stated, is whether once the assessment is done, is there capacity to respond to the diagnosis effectively in order to fill gaps. Dr. Gass suggested that the international community might be able to support governments’ efforts in this regard. He emphasized that dialogues should continue and that partnerships should be examined carefully to see how they can deliver technology access and help in the implementation of the SDGs. He added, “It’s not just providing access to technology in absolute terms, but making sure a real partnership exists, that actually supports transfer and acquisition - the capacity to make use of technology.”

Ambassador Patriota, referring to his role as Co-Moderator of the Structured Dialogues along with Ambassador Peter Seger of Switzerland, acknowledged that progress had been made, as a resolution is on the way for consideration by the General Assembly that will clearly state the need to continue consultations on a technology facilitation mechanism in the context of the post-2015 development agenda. He stated that developing countries are seeking a more meaningful treatment of technology transfer within the UN system. Ambassador Patriota referred to a huge asymmetry that exists, as technology is the domain and property of a few; yet technology is at the heart of many things that need to be accomplished, including the SDGs. He drew a connection to the rights of persons with disabilities, identifying the importance of technological support, which is often very expensive and protected by intellectual property rights (IPRs) – making the negotiations on the use of this technology likewise very asymmetrical and difficult. He cited reluctance from countries with a concentration of IP holders to consider technology in a useful way at the UN, adding that many of these countries feel that technology transfer should be driven by the market. But the market does not always prioritize technology that is relevant to people’s most critical needs, he commented. Echoing the previous speakers, he referred to the need for a UN system structure to discuss science and technology system-wide, and to assess gaps that exist between those that have technology and those that don’t, both amongst and within countries. Such a platform would help identify the needs of societies, as well as key technologies that could help in achieving goals more quickly. Noting the ambition and scope of the SDGs, the importance that had been given to the social component of development, and the key role technology will play in their achievement, he stated “I think we have to keep on pushing forward because there are huge obstacles towards achieving the very rapid, meaningful progress in this discussion.” He concluded by highlighting the need to directly link the discussions to the post-2015 development agenda.

Amit Narang explained that the world is standing at the cusp of a very transformational phase in multilateralism with the convergence of a number of processes and events, past and future: the SDG process; the third International Conference of the Small Island Developing States; the second UN Conference on Landlocked Developing Countries in November; the third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan in March 2015; and the Habitat III Conference in 2016, the climate change negotiations, and the shaping of the post-2015 development agenda. Technology, he stressed, is the common thread in all of these processes: “Technology is the solution which really binds everything together. And I think if you don’t have forward movement on technology, it will be only fair to say that you will undermine all these processes.” What is new right now, he continued, is the attempted translation of the normative discourse of ideas into actionable commitments. Referring to the growing climate change challenge, he stressed, “Climate change – and the other challenges that are upon us – do not distinguish between those that have the technology to adapt to them, and those that don’t. The way you produce and consume resources in one part of the world affects the others. What this means is that a public goods approach to our global resources has to be matched by a public goods approach to technology.” Continuing, he stressed, “I think the debate on technology has to move beyond the policy orthodoxy of exclusivity of the private sector and the sanctity of the intellectual property rights. [I]t has to be acknowledged that IPRs are a means to an end. Their objective is to promote development and foster innovation. It is not an end in itself.” Concluding, Mr. Narang noted that an ambitious post-2015 development agenda without an ambitious outcome on technology will be incomplete.

Amina Mohammed made reference to her experience with the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA) as her first interaction with the breadth of technology, and its transfer and deployment at the local level. She saw the benefits of it decades later in Nigeria when efforts were undertaken to produce rice that was climate and insect resistant, which translated into an increased production level of rice, prior to which the country had been importing large quantities. Referring to the SDGs and the implications and opportunities for technology, as well as the emphasis on the importance of the role of technology in the means of implementation, she underscored technology as a very important tool in serving people and improving livelihoods. She conveyed that along with any transfer of technology transfer, knowledge about the use of it must be shared. Echoing Dr. Gass, she drew attention to the key role partnerships could play, particularly when carefully elaborated, both in science and in technology and innovation.

Ms. Mohammed emphasized the urgent need to bring the voices of young people into discussions on technology, as they are drivers of innovation. She quoted a young civil society speaker from the PGA’s High-level Stocktaking Event - Debora Lucia Souza Batista of Brazil - who, in her statement, said, “We ask you to step away from a technology that will fix everything mentality and actualize a multilateral mechanism to develop the capacity of countries to evaluate technologies to avoid potential adverse consequences to the environment, economy and society.” Concluding, Ms. Mohammed hoped there would be “a will and a way” to make sure that technology facilitation becomes a reality.

The next speaker, Pat Mooney of ETC Group, reflected on the broad and cross-cutting nature of technology and how it will have impacts on health, education, energy, food, water and many other areas. He therefore called not only for a Technology Facilitation Mechanism, but also a technology facilitation forum that would provide an opportunity for dialogue between UN agencies, and bring together the early warning and early listening systems of civil society and governments to share information on what is actually happening and how these cross-cutting issues impact one another. He recommended the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome as a model for such a technology forum. The CFS, established in 2009, brings together governments, the UN system, civil society and other relevant actors.

Referring back to the side event that ETC Group co-hosted with UN-NGLS in June, Mr. Mooney indicated that the cost of research and development (R&D) worldwide in the public and the private sector has now grown to US$1.6 trillion. He drew attention to site-specific mutagenesis used in public sector initiatives in Peru for developing drought-resistant quinoa, and in Uganda and Kenya to develop rust-tolerant wheat – both of which were high-technology strategies at low cost – a few thousand dollars. He contrasted this to the high-tech approach of the world’s largest seed companies spending US$136 million per variety. Mr. Mooney warned of the huge amounts of investment wasted in industrialized countries in research and development on technologies that are not useful to society and the fact that there is no capacity to learn from those experiences.

Mr. Mooney presented a key rationale for the UN to establish a Technology Facilitation Mechanism: the impact of technology on employment and economies. “Much of the loss of employment has been because of technologies. People don’t come back to jobs because technology has changed and moved on…. There needs to be an understanding of what the impacts are going to be, where those changes are going to take place,” he stressed. In addition, he warned, according to studies, about 47% of all jobs in OECD States are in doubt over the next 20 years because of major changes in technologies. Mr. Mooney also referred to a distortion in the patent system: in many cases when a patent on a major drug had expired, some pharmaceutical companies have made deals with generic drug companies to not compete with them to maintain the high price of the original drugs after the patent monopoly was over. Mr. Mooney explained that this damages transfer of technology.

Accordingly, he concluded by advocating, “We believe that a technology facilitation forum is the core to moving ahead in the Technology Facilitation Mechanism.”

Access the webcast here.

Access the UN-NGLS background paper here.

For more information on ETC’s work on technology assessment, click here.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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