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Timeline Events / UN Conference on S&T for the Benefit of the Less Developed Countries

The 1963 United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for the Benefit of Less Developed Countries, held in Geneva, involved some 1,665 delegates from 96 countries and 108 specialized agencies, with sessions devoted to science policy, education, and natural resources, among others.  The conference was meant to address “the observed trend toward greater economic disparity between the developed and developing countries”. (Jolly, 2004: 95)

This economic gap was explained by a disparity in science and technology, following the argument that some countries had progressed rapidly from the application of science and technology toward economic growth, leaving other countries behind.  Although there was an emphasis on the need for developing countries to build their own science and technology capabilities, the major focus of the conference was the transfer of technology from industrialised countries (seen as possessing the knowledge and technology) to ‘developing’ countries (seen as there to learn, ‘shop’ and receive).  It was after this conference that the UN Advisory Committee on the Application of Science and Technology for Development (ACAST) was agreed to be established.   (Oldham, forthcoming.) 

The 1963 Conference was initially conceived as a means of exploring the application of recent advances in science and technology to solve economic and social problems, “marked by a strong emphasis on the idea that a proper application of knowledge represented by modern technology could largely transform the world and play a major role in realising objectives of Development Decade.” (Jolly, 2004: 96) “Attention of the scientists of the world was drawn to the immense problem of science and development. It was submitted that scientists had been burying themselves with narrow specialities and neglecting the wider implications of their work. Abba Eban of Israel called this a ‘galvanizing of the scientific conscience’.” (Katz, 1968: 395) However, the conference was confronted by the reality that there was a gap in ensuring that science and technology actually make a contribution to development.

The major focus of the 1963 Conference was the transfer of technology from industrialised countries to ‘developing’ countries. It was assumed that developing country delegates would be able to choose the ‘right’ technology relevant to their needs and what they might afford, and assuming that, once acquired, it would be straightforward to put that technology to use. Sessions were organised such that developing country delegates could pose questions related to problems in their countries, which developed country delegates were expected to respond to by suggesting solutions to problems raised.

Geoffrey Oldham was a delegate to the conference from Hong Kong. He described the conference as “based on the preposition that the developed country delegates were knowledgeable about the science and technology which was relevant for development, and that the developing country delegates would pose their problems and questions, and receive answers. The meeting acted as a knowledge broker. […] The Nobel Prize winning physicist Patrick Blackett, one of the British delegates, likened the conference to a supermarket stocked with knowledge and technologies. He encouraged the developing countries to view what was on display and then shop and choose wisely what they could afford that was most relevant to their problems. It was assumed that once a choice had been made it would be straight forward to acquire and use the technology to solve the problem.” (Oldham, forthcoming)

“The conference covered 12 principal subjects: natural resources, human resources, agriculture, industrial development, transport, health and nutrition, social problems of development and urbanization, organization, planning, and programming for economic development, organization and planning of scientific and technological policies, international cooperation and problems of transfer and adaptation, training of scientific and technical personnel, and communications. A total of 1,910 papers on these topics were submitted to the conference with subjects ranging from ‘the improvement of tropical beef cattle’ to ‘the progressive development of a national telecommunications network and its integration into a global system’.” (Katz, 1968: 394) Some conference sessions “stressed the need for the developing world to begin to build their own science and technology capabilities. But these were secondary issues compared with the belief that most technologies were already available and the problem was one of affording and choosing the right one.” (Oldham, forthcoming)

“There was a strong view at the conference that there was a need for a new UN agency especially devoted to the application of science and technology for development,” a proposal conveyed to Secretary-General U Thant by M.S. Thacker of India, President of the Conference. However, this proposal “was not supported by governments of the developed countries.” (Oldham, forthcoming) Instead of creating a new agency, the Secretary-General and the directors-general of all agencies who took responsibility for follow-through from the conference decided to emphasise strengthening of existing resources on S&T among UN agencies and inter-agency collaboration, establishing a high level Advisory Committee on Science and Technology for Development (ACAST). (Economic and Social Council Resolution 980A of August 1, 1963, referenced in UNCTAD, 1997: 5-6) This Committee composed of expert scientists, economists and administrators selected in their personal capacity had no executive power of its own, but was meant to provide advice to the Economic and Social Council. Its functions were to review and “identify new and emerging issues in science and technology which might be particularly relevant for developing countries”, and to “propose new initiatives for the science and technology programmes of the UN”. (Oldham, forthcoming)

“Like scientific congresses, the conference had no authority to take any binding decisions. Its outcome was the conviction that a new and sustained effort was needed to facilitate the transfer of science and technology to developing countries and to help them overcome obstacles to access to knowledge and its application. However, no specific action was taken in this regard. “Geneva” was mainly a technical conference and some critics later compared it to a “science fair”. It largely reflected the undiminished techno-optimism of its time. The underlying concept of “Geneva” was that technological progress equalled development.” (UNCTAD, 1997:5-6)

 

Sources:

Jolly et al (eds) (2004) UN Contributions to Development Thinking and Practice. Bloomington: Indiana Press, pp 85-7.  Part of the UN Intellectual History Project.  See http://www.unhistory.org/CD/index.html

Katz, S. E. (1968) ‘The Application of Science and Technology to Development’, International Organisation,  ‘The Global Partnership: International Agencies and Economic Development’, Vol. 22, No. 1: 392-416.

Oldham, G.  Personal communication (Recorded interview March 2009)

Oldham, G., forthcoming. ‘45 Years On’ in Carr, M. and T. Marjoram (eds) Minding the Gap: Technology, Policy and Poverty Reduction, UNESCO.

UNCTAD (1997)  ‘Note by the UNCTAD Secretariat for Consideration of Ways and Means of Commemorating in 1999 of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Vienna Conference on Science and Technology for Development’.  Economic and Social Council. Commission on Science and Technology for Development.  Third Session. Geneva, 12 May 1997.  E/CN.16/1997/7.  Accessed online at: http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/ecn16_97d7.en.pdf

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