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Guest article: Global South perspective on SD discourse

In this guest article, Alumnae of Warsaw Science Diplomacy School, Sneha Sinha and Jenice Goveas, share a perspective from the Global South on the popular, largely euro-centric discourse surrounding science diplomacy.

The article is based on a paper that they also presented in an InsSciDE Science Diplomacy Ally Talk, hosted October 2021.

Science Technology and Innovation (STI) Diplomacy: A View from the South

By Sneha Sinha and Jenice Goveas

Science Technology and Innovation (STI) Diplomacy as a new paradigm balances itself carefully between STI on one side and diplomacy on the other, both nourishing and stimulating each other through a synergetic relationship (The Royal Society and AAAS, 2010). Science for diplomacy particularly assumes that STI can be leveraged as an element of soft power, as coined by Joseph Nye (2008), in international relations especially between countries where traditional diplomatic tools like negotiations have come to a standstill.

STI Diplomacy the Dark Knight?
The existing literature and discourse on STI diplomacy, includes examples and case studies where science/scientific cooperation acts as a tool to build ‘bridges’ between countries having tensed diplomatic relations as well as for solving/tackling common issues and challenges, including the global commons (Ruffini, 2017; Berkman, 2019). Unfortunately, several such International agreements fail to take into consideration the issues faced by low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) of Asia, Africa and Latin America that house 80% of the world’s population and constitute the global south.

History reveals the dehumanising hypothesis of the Western colonisers who leveraged their scientific prowess to prove that the coloured races deserved to be colonised as they were intellectually inferior. In addition, the crucial role of science diplomacy in the ‘Scramble for Africa which continues even today through technology colonisation reveals the darker side of STI diplomacy. Science, Technology and Innovation as a means to achieve developmental objectives largely remains outside the purview of the AAAS 2010 framework. The document titled ‘New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy’ was largely a narrative of the Global north and failed to capture/reflect the Southern perspective. It only hints at poverty eradication, capacity building and technological catch-up while disproportionately focussing the STI diplomacy efforts towards advancing scientific goals and “building bridges between countries”. However, in emerging economies of the global south, STI diplomacy discussions have inevitably remained tilted towards achieving developmental and environmental objectives on the lines of the International Solar Alliance, the BRICS STI framework programme, participation in the mega-science projects and engaging with their diaspora, etc. While there are a few efforts towards integrating the diverse needs/requirements of these countries through The World Academy of Sciences, ASEAN Plan of Action on Science, Technology and Innovation, etc, such steps remain limited.

Inclusivity is Key
Though the theoretical understanding and practical application as per the existing literature is negligible, not to say that there are no historical examples of science diplomacy in the Global South. Most of the challenges that we face today like climate change, disease outbreak, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, etc, including achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, are transnational in nature. STI is central to finding solutions to most of these challenges, and International Cooperation in S&T and STI Diplomacy can play a key role. Thus, STI policies of several countries of the Global South increasingly recognize the key role of science and technology in international relations as well as foreign policies and international S&T cooperation. The process becomes cumbersome as countries of the Global South have varied socio-economic-political and cultural contexts, with their specific challenges/problems (UNESCO, 2021).

The present framework of STI diplomacy fails to acknowledge the diversity of the Global South. In contrast with the Global North, there is a greater focus on ‘access’, ‘influence’, ‘S&T competitiveness’ to solve/tackle ‘development issues’ in the countries of the Global South. It is pertinent to note that STI diplomacy cannot be viewed as a single answer to all the problems. In order to be able to deal with current issues, it is important for it to be inclusive. While the diverse needs of different regions vary ​​with population density, healthcare systems, economic output, cultural characteristics and development priorities, it is necessary to have policies that are relevant to the local context. In addition, successful STI policy implementation in these developing countries would require increased public research funding and emphasis on mission-oriented research. Several countries are now undertaking STI diplomacy initiatives.

The current claims that science diplomacy is universal are debatable. Greater engagement/representation of the Global South for drawing a truly global/inclusive outlook on science diplomacy is critical for addressing grand societal challenges and achieving the SDGs. Science Diplomacy needs to be nurtured and institutionalised in countries. Channels for effective engagement and partnerships among scientists, scholars, policy makers, and diplomats should be developed. There is also a need for a ​​non utopian view for building bridges between various stakeholders, countries to draw common interests, share best practices and lessons learnt, etc. More pragmatic approach is necessary to tackle issues of ‘open’ sciences, knowledge sharing and aspects of ‘competition’ and ‘collaboration’. Given the traditional and indigenous knowledge systems of the Global South, channels need to be developed to leverage these knowledge systems as well. STI diplomacy, if effectively used, can play a key role in South-South cooperation, besides facilitating North-South cooperation to ensure what Tom Friedman calls a “flat world,” a world of equal opportunities.

15 December 2021