Thursday, 22 October 2009


We've just published two new Working Papers: one on Water reform in South Africa, the other on polio vaccine development. Photo: Growing vegetables near the Driekoppies dam, Lomati river by Synne Movik

In policy discussions in post-apartheid South Africa, existing users were strongly protected, and redistribution to ‘historically disadvantaged individuals’ was seen as risky. The Water Reform paper looks at how that affected the redistribution of water use rights.

The other new Working Paper, on Vaccines, looks at what it takes to allow reliable knowledge to build up in developing a vaccine - and what's missing from current policy debates.

As always, you can download both papers and the summary briefing from our Publications page.

The Dynamics and Discourses of Water Allocation Reform in South Africa

Reforming Water Rights: Dynamics, Discourses and Risks (Summary Briefing)
Knowledge Accumulation and the Development of Poliomyelitis Vaccines

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Thursday, 15 October 2009


By Lyla Mehta and Melissa Leach

After a surprising Nobel Prize week, Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize award in Economic Sciences, shared with Oliver Williamson, is to be welcomed and celebrated. Photo: Elinor Ostrom courtesy of McGill University

The Prize has been awarded for her analysis of economic governance, especially of resources held as commons, and we are pleased to see public recognition for these 'non-mainstream' economics perspectives.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the economics prize not only to the first woman, but also flagged the importance of cooperation and collective action to safeguard the local and global commons, something urgently required by our planet currently in peril.

Elinor Ostrom has provided transdisciplinary perspectives in the study of institutions and co-operative resource management. Her groundbreaking work on Common Property Resource (CPR) theory has been built up from field studies with communities in Africa and Asia. It takes its theoretical grounding from game theory – looking at collective action dilemmas and focusing on the ways in which institutions or rules can be purposively crafted to produce collective action. It has been central in establishing the significance of local institutions in resource management.

The importance of Elinor Ostrom’s work

Refuting Hardin’s (1968) pessimistic 'tragedy of the commons', her publications have highlighted a variety of conditions under which collective action in resource management operates effectively, such as clear resource boundaries and relative socio-economic homogeneity among users – sometimes presented as 'design principles'. Through the meticulous study of local institutional arrangements in irrigation management, rangelands, fisheries, forests and other CPR regimes around the world, Ostrom and her collaborators at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University have shown us that CPR management neither has to be private nor state driven to be successful. The importance of this analysis in refuting Malthusian and neo-Malthusian thinking about overpopulation, Hobbesian anarchy and resource scarcity has been tremendous, and the credit for this must largely go to Elinor Ostrom. Her work has inspired generations of researchers and students to value and explore local institutional responses to environmental challenges, while giving theoretical underpinning to policy approaches in community-based sustainable development.

The challenges from Elinor Ostrom’s work

Despite her training as a political scientist, Elinor Ostrom draws on the tenets of new institutional economics. Her work is underpinned by economistic perspectives on human behaviour and the notion of a universally rational, self-interested actor. Her approach and messages about the advantages of community control – together with the broader CPR work she has pioneered – have inspired key strands of work within the Knowledge, Technology and Society team (KNOTS) at IDS, but her perspectives also raise challenges which we have sought to address.

The KNOTS Team is working to understand and influence the institutions and power-knowledge relationships that link technology, ecology and society – connecting global debates with local realities through interdisciplinary research, networks and partnerships. Institutional arrangements for natural resource management have been a key concern, drawing on field research on water, rangelands, forests, biodiversity and agricultural livelihoods. Our approaches, bringing together disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, ecology and science and technology studies, complement the CPR literature in exploring how questions of knowledge, power, culture and history shape resource governance. We have also been particularly interested in the implications of dynamic and uncertain contexts for natural resource management.

By not paying enough attention to the nuances of community dynamics, CPR work has often underplayed questions of social difference and the diverse – and sometimes conflicting – interests of resource users. In addition the focus on collective action has tended to direct attention away from the fact that, while institutions can enhance co-operation, they can also be beset with conflict, factional divisions and power politics. The design principles, while very useful, can also appear to be a 'blueprint' for collective action, something that risks ignoring uncertainty and unpredictability, both in terms of human action and in the ecological world.

Elinor Ostrom’s recent work has attempted to engage more fully with some of these issues, moving away from the early rigid approach to design principles and embracing questions about the learning and resilience needed for successful collective action in today’s rapidly changing societies and environments. We look forward to continued fruitful and challenging debate with her and her colleagues, looking across disciplines and perspectives. Notwithstanding these issues, there is much reason to be pleased with the Nobel committee’s decision. The planet urgently needs cooperation, not conflict, in resolving compelling issues such as water shortages and climate change, and in safeguarding our common heritage. Elinor Ostom’s work provides us with the optimism and assurance that this is possible.

Nobel Prize for Economics 2009
The International Association for the Study of the Commons

KNOTS team publications

Mehta, L et al, 1999 'Exploring Understandings of Institutions and Uncertainty New Directions in Natural Resources Management', IDS Discussion Paper 372, Brighton: IDS

Mehta, L, Leach, M. and Scoones, I. , ‘Editorial. Environmental Governance in an Uncertain World’, IDS Bulletin 32: 4, Brighton: IDS

Leach, M., I. Scoones and A. Stirling, forthcoming 2010, Dynamic Sustainabilities: technology, environment, social justice. London: Earthscan

Fairhead, J. and M. Leach, 2003, Science, society and power: environmental knowledge and policy in West Africa and the Caribbean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lyla Mehta is a Research Fellow at IDS with the KNOTS team and Professor II at Noragric, Department of International Environment and Development Studies, Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

Melissa Leach is a Professorial Fellow at IDS and Team leader of KNOTS; she also directs the ESRC STEPS (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) Centre.

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Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Following Adrian's post on his journey to Argentina, he's added a new presentation from the trip to our Slideshare. If your Spanish isn't up to scratch, it includes some great pictures from the history of the alternative technology movement.

Nichos de tecnología alternativa: una perspectiva Europea

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Thursday, 8 October 2009


By Adrian Smith

It is imperative, in my view, that grassroots innovation does not become ghettoised into ‘technologies for the poor’.

Last week I enjoyed a fascinating trip to Argentina, where I talked about grassroots innovation.

The trip was made possible by the Argentine government’s Institute for Industrial Technology (INTI), whose new Quality of Life Programme is just beginning to develop support for grassroots innovations that address problems of poverty and social inclusion in the country. I learnt that ‘social technology’, as they called it, was also of interest in Brazil, where a much larger programme to support social technologies is helped by finance from Bank of Brasil and PetroBras.

But the invitation also came about because my own research on grassroots innovation today and the history of the alternative technology movement in the 1970s and 1980s intrigued STS researchers at the University of Quilmes in Buenos Aires. The team, led by Hernán Thomas, are involved in an IDRC funded research project on ‘social technologies’ in a variety of South American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Perú, and Chile). The Quilmes team were hosting a conference for regional STS scholars on the topic of Technologies for Integration and Development in Latin America, and at which I spoke.

So in the same week, I found myself talking to grassroots innovation activists from across Argentina, and with South American academics debating whether and how social technology could directly address social inclusion and poverty.

On the academic side, there was a lot of debate about concepts and core fundamentals:

- what we meant by social technologies,
- what political economic contexts were required to make them flourish,
- whether current initiatives were palliatives that failed to address the real problem, which was the capitalist order
- or whether social technology programmes provided the necessary, finer grained details and capabilities for the shifts in economic power underway or aspired for by governments like those in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil.

Much of this felt a long way from the UK context. In the UK, grassroots innovation is also about social transformation, but about transformation away from patterns of over-consumption, to put it crudely, and social inclusion is concerned with making sure this move nevertheless improves the lot of our hardest-pressed communities. The instrumental aims of public programmes of support can be limited to nurturing social legitimacy for larger-scale sustainable technologies and economic change.

Obviously, the starker inequalities in Latin America provide grassroots innovation for social transformation with a totally different meaning and purpose. And the current politics in some of the countries, as well as histories of colonialism and experiences with neo-liberalism, meant some pretty core fundamentals were being aired in ways different to policy circles in a UK context.

But at the same time, there were similarities and familiarity. One similarity was a historical resonance. The debates about whether progressive technologies were possible in non-progressive settings reminded me of the debates around Appropriate and Alternative Technology in the 1970s. Taking care not to be anachronistic in the historians’ sense, it nevertheless seemed to me that revisiting and updating those debates, whilst reflecting on the experience of attempts back then, might inform our thinking about grassroots innovation today. In my view, this would result in a more sober consideration of the real possibilities for grassroots innovation, and how its great potential nevertheless needs to be considered as one strand in a broader political programme for democratising technologies of both grassroots and high science varieties.

Another resonance with my experience in the UK was that, whilst some people (mostly academics) were debating all this at the high conceptual level in the conference in Buenos Aires, there was a growing network of people in Argentina just getting on with it, and trying as best they could to grasp some control over the development of technologies and (more accurately) socio-technical practices that they thought might help them improve their immediate situations.

It was great talking with activists at the workshop organised by INTI. These smart people were aware of their limitations, but had an impatient hopefulness and irrepressible urge just to get on with developing socio-technical practices that would address their currently unmet needs. They were busy setting up low-cost housing, local organic food networks for supplying Buenos Aires, co-operatives for developing agricultural technologies for family farms, improving worker safety at wood mills, experimenting with low cost techniques for stripping arsenic from naturally contaminated water supplies, mobilising for better cycling infrastructures, and so on.

There was lots of sharing of ideas at this event. The recurring message was that everybody needed more resources (tinged in some cases with unease about some forms of market-based resource provision). But discussion of broader innovation processes that might help develop these ideas, and the institutional designs that might redistribute resources to those processes, and which could help diffuse, scale-up and translate activity into mass forms, was much less developed. Databases describing the specific ideas, activities, socio-technical practices will not help here (though they are useful).

Databases, case studies, exemplars etc do not indicate what the grassroots and community-based analogues should be to all the institutions that facilitate more conventional, firm-based technological innovation. What programmes are needed to provide the grassroots with the Innovation Centres, Technology Parks, Technical Assistance Services, Innovator Clubs, Scientific Support Services, Education Programmes, and National Innovation Systems? Here I think analysis and some of the reflection coming from the academic conference could help. But those fundamental academic debates need to be mediated and made practical at an intermediate, programmatic and political level.

Programmatically, the challenge is to learn how to support, diffuse, scale up and translate grassroots activities and the inspiring ideas they have. Personally, I think niche theory from the socio-technical transitions literature (combined with social movement theory) is promising; which is why I continue working in that area (when funding permits!). I think it might be able to mediate between the activists and the political economists. The challenge is to flesh out the political processes that will give programmes for grassroots innovation greater legitimacy, resources, and weight in economic development than currently is the case.

I talked about this in my presentation at the STEPS symposium last month.

Some people are way of ahead of me in this kind of thinking. My trip to Argentina, engaged me with people who have some fascinatingly potent ideas. But I do think it is at the intermediate programmatic level - between enthusiastic projects and favourable high-level changes in political economy - that we need to be working.

It is imperative, in my view, that grassroots innovation does not become ghettoised into ‘technologies for the poor’. Grassroots innovation is one strategy in a portfolio of programmes aimed at democratizing technology and directing innovation for greater social equality. In my view, this means that intermediate programmes for grassroots innovations cannot be limited to supporting specific projects and networks. It needs also to articulate the grassroots innovation experience into more dominant and conventional innovation policy programmes. What I call translation processes are important here: Grassroots innovations might provide ideas for how to democratise high-science innovation, e.g. articulating demand for different end-uses, alternative kinds of expert-practitioner-citizen-politician relationship. So, our analysis cannot restrict its focus on a single (grassroots) pathway for STI, but rather seek to understand how empowered grassroots pathways might enable their more symmetrical role in national and international innovation agendas.

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Wednesday, 7 October 2009


By Julian Pineres Ramirez, PhD student, CENTRIM, Brighton University

"What opportunities are presented by the global redistribution of innovative activity?" was the title of Session 3. The questions of how knowledge can be spread around the world, and how less advantaged regions could capture part of its economic and social benefits, remain a concern for policy makers, academics and companies. Photo: Anabel Marin by Lance Bellers

There is still an assumption that regions or nations which produce knowledge systematically, and who therefore are able to create value through innovations, are wealthier than the ones which do not.

These days, it seems that most innovation, as well as the resultant benefits, is highly concentrated in MNCs (Multinational Corporations) and developed regions (the US, Japan and some European countries). This is perhaps explained by the fact that there is more competence in those markets, making the speed of technological change faster day by day. And organisations, MNCs or regions which have developed capabilities (eg infrastructure and skilled human resources) are more capable of responding to market opportunities. This creates a larger gap with those that stay behind.

Who is responsible, then, for creating the circumstances in which the opportunities arising from innovation can be appropriated, not just for the most competent bodies, but also for the ones who are left behind? On the one hand, MNCs prioritise their own economic interest over all else, and governments in developed regions need to keep their own development on track; on the other hand, governments in less developed regions have urgent priorities, fewer resources and institutional problems, and companies within those regions have to concentrate on surviving in the market. Under these conditions, promoting sustainable development and long term technological strategies seem to be low on the list of concerns of less developed regions.

This makes for a complex situation. What’s needed is an alignment and convergence of purposes, which doesn’t seem to have happened yet. We still need suitable mechanisms which would allow a balance between the economic and social interest produced by innovation activities.

But, more than the social situation described above, an understanding is needed of what “innovation” means within different contexts. Can innovative activities only be high-knowledge and scientific ones, or can they also be those that respond to local needs? In other words, there should be a recognition of indigenous knowledge, giving it the true value it deserves, especially in less developed regions.

So the distribution of innovation should not be understood just as a transfer process from highly developed regions to less developed ones; but as a process of mutual understanding and acknowledgment of difference and cultural constructions. Otherwise, the commercial model of distributing innovation will prevail: one where those with fewer resources are paying for innovation without receiving or producing any value themselves. This increases even more the levels of inequality, poverty and so on.

There are however some examples of where this situation has changed and some opportunities have been created for those countries who have taken the risk of making more systematic and sustainable political decisions. This is perhaps the case in China, India, and to some extent a few Latin American countries (Brazil, Argentina and Chile), where the government encourages and supports indigenous innovation, and companies understand the opportunities available through networks and capacity building.

It follows that the Manifesto should include an accurate conception of what is meant by the distribution of innovation. Some ideas raised from the Symposium could be: first, that there should be a recognition and mutual understanding of indigenous knowledge within a globalised context; second, that responsibilities should be shared but come mostly from each country; and third, that in the long term, a sustainable development is only possible if innovative activities come from a systematic construction, over time, of local capabilities, where local actors are involved – rather than just the transfer of technology through conventional commercial activities or the allocation of multinational subsidiaries.
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Monday, 5 October 2009


By Katharina Welle, STEPS Centre PhD student

The New Manifesto, presented by Adrian Ely on day one of the STEPS Centre Symposium, argues for three crucial shifts in thinking about innovation for development and sustainability: directions, diversity and distribution. But, how can these conceptual arguments be applied to address the realities faced by poor people today? Photo: Banji Oyelaran-Oyeyinka by Lance Bellers

In a nutshell, the 3-D agenda argues for:

Directionality – moving away from a linear, uni-directional and dominant model of progress towards recognising that alternative directions may be relevant depending on the context.

Distribution – shifting focus towards innovations that address the concerns of the poor rather than those of the rich.

Diversity – upholding a diversity of knowledges from which to innovate.

In his response to this agenda, Oyebanji Oyeyinka, UN-Habitat, argued that there is a disconnect between current innovation debates and the big UN agendas of alleviating poverty i.e. the Millennium Development Goals. Innovation, according to him, is largely glossed over in the MDGs although science and technology advances bear important challenges and opportunities towards achieving poverty reduction that need to be reflected upon.

This is clear in Tanzania, where the Ministry of Water and Irrigation is currently holding its yearly sector review. The new and exciting innovation in the sector is the use of mobile phone technology to report non-functional water points. In many countries of Sub-saharan Africa, the average non-functionality rate of water points is around 30% thus substantially reducing access to water to prospective users.

However, follow-up has been very poor in many countries, not last (but not only) because of a communication breakdown between water point committees and district water officers and failures in reporting non-functionality upwards in the sector. Now, the ministry intends to remedy this by equipping district water officers with mobile phones that allow them to directly report the status of water points to a centralised government database. At the same time, citizens will be able to text (hopefully toll-free) reports of non-functional water points to a publicly available and independent website.

While the technical side of this innovation is very exciting, there are many open questions with regard to directionality and distribution – who will benefit and how is not clear. For example, what implications arise for local level governance when water officers and citizens alike text failure reports to a website and a central data base? Will this have positive or negative implications for the downward accountability of district water officers and the district government? Who will respond to a text coming from a rural area somewhere in Tanzania? Will there be a polite customer reply like “Thank you, we have received your report and will deal with it in due course”? In a nutshell - is this innovation debilitating or strengthening government accountability for service provision in Tanzania?

It is these kinds of issues that the New Manifesto ought to be able to address. Its success depends on whether it is able to engage with debates surrounding the new, exciting innovations occurring in countries like Tanzania today.

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