Academia’s growing role in development

Economist Jeffrey Sachs will lead the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced Aug. 9 he will launch the Sustainable Development Solutions Network to help research the world’s most pressing environmental, social and economic problems. Led by economist Jeffrey Sachs, the network will comprise research centers, universities and technical institutions around the world that will collaborate in pursuit of sustainable development.

The creation of the network is one of the outcomes of the Rio+20 Conference on sustainable development, which wrapped up with little fanfare at the end of June. It fits in with the collective goal of looking beyond the Millennium Development Goals — a development framework that does not include the environment and has left more than a billion people in extreme poverty despite global efforts to achieve set targets by 2015.

Sachs told Devex at the conference that the world community seemed to be coalescing around the idea of sustainable development goals. His other roles include directing the Earth Institute at Columbia University, serving as special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on the MDGs and directing the Millennium Villages Project, programs in 10 African countries designed to demonstrate how the MDGs can be met through low-cost community-led development.

Devex covered sustainable development solutions and ideas by other high-level thinkers and practitioners as part of our global conversation called Rio+Solutions.

The initiative also fits in with the greater trend of involving the research and university communities in development.

Research is increasingly recognized as important in the “knowledge ecology” of development, according to a 2011 report resulting from an Australian Agency for International DevelopmentU.K. Department for International Development and U.K. Collaborative on Development Sciences workshop.

DfID published July 26 its own Open and Enhanced Access Policy for studies it funds, making its own research findings freely available.

“It sends an important signal that space needs to be made for research, where it is readily accessible to an international audience and by mainstream development practitioners and policy makers,” said Nick Ishmael Perkins, director of SciDev.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is on board as well. A partnership between the agency and the GSM Association commissioned multicountry research and fieldwork with more than 2,500 women in Egypt, India, Papua New Guinea and Uganda to learn about mobile technology’s impact on the poorest. In June, the agency selected 22 Pakistanis to research the best policy framework for encouraging agricultural productivity and sustainability in that country.

Development agencies are also acknowledging that research is not something generated internally and then shared with the outside world: Important and relevant research needs to also come from local institutes and civil society groups, something this new network should deliver.

It seems the interest in being involved is mutual: There were 243 pledges made at Rio from schools and universities, many of which promised “in-kind” commitments such as the creation of degree programs or ecorepresentatives. By comparison, governments only made 50 pledges at the conference — 7 percent of the total.

The new network will allow for innovation and can draw on global scientific expertise that is not always available, Ban said. It can also be more inclusive, and focus on sharing knowledge across countries. It will use a systems approach to address these complex issues without compartmentalizing them, according to the press release.

The network is not part of the U.N. system, but will also work with the global body’s agencies, as well as civil society, businesses and other international organizations. It will also coordinate closely with the high-level panel that will advise Ban on a global agenda to replace the MDGs.

Business leader Ted Turner will help to advise the network, but it’s not yet clear if he’ll contribute funding as well. Backers currently include the World Bank and unnamed regional development banks. Sachs will outline more details of the initiative in a press briefing scheduled for September. Meanwhile, the new project will begin “immediately,” according to the press release.

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About the author

  • Jennifer Brookland

    Jennifer Brookland is a former Devex global development reporter based in Washington, D.C. She has worked as a humanitarian reporter for the United Nations and as an investigative journalist for News21. Jennifer holds a bachelor's in foreign service from Georgetown University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University and in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School. She also served for four years as an Air Force officer.