A Case for New Institutions

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Science  11 Jan 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5860, pp. 136
DOI: 10.1126/science.1151835

The environment in most countries is being degraded, poverty worldwide is increasing, and the gaps between rich and poor individuals and nations are widening. One half of the world's human population still survives on less than $2 per day. These people face the prospect of environmental degradation of their ecosystems that is likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Yet these local ecosystems contain much of our planet's biodiversity and are also the sources of livelihoods and ecosystem services for the rural poor and indirectly for the global community. A key to halt, and then reverse, these environmental and economic trends may lie in new and imaginatively conceived institutions of knowledge in developing countries.

Increased knowledge has always provided the basis for human advance. In recent times, wealth has been generated mainly by technical innovation and entrepreneurship, whereas gains on social and environmental fronts have been driven by a broader intellectual tradition. In developed countries, these traditions have been organized into knowledge institutions such as universities. In developing countries, modern universities have, unfortunately, lacked the historical, social, economic, and political contexts that shaped those in the developed world. As a result, these institutions have largely failed to address contemporary economic and environmental problems.


Moreover, knowledge institutions in the developing world face unique challenges. Current problems associated with hunger, inequities, and environmental degradation are complex and require considerable human resources and new knowledge. And institutions that can translate knowledge into action, such as nongovernmental organizations, extension arms of universities, and community user groups, are very few and have a weak capacity to meet contemporary needs. Universities in the developing world, generating knowledge for knowledge's sake or, more often, duplicating knowledge, are not moving fast enough to develop programs to meet new challenges.

Innovative knowledge institutions and partnerships are needed, and they must be guided by certain principles. Highly varied local situations and the uncertainty of complex social and ecological systems call for flexible, experimental, and adaptive learning-based approaches. The new institutions must also be problem-driven. The alleviation of poverty and environmental sustainability should be explicit goals for which knowledge must be generated. Institutions must transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries to generate new ideas and technologies and link science with policy and governance to frame questions and foster social change. Two examples of such new institutions in the developing world meet only some of these criteria: the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in India and the EARTH University in Costa Rica. Considering the magnitude of the problems, many more are required.

Our experience with ATREE suggests that new knowledge institutions function best by having partnerships with nongovernment and government agencies, as well as with community organizations. Flexible mandates, freedom from bureaucratic control, and a focus on specific problems, such as the harmonization of rural livelihoods and conservation at specific sites (for example, in the Western Ghats and Eastern Himalaya biodiversity hot spots), have been critical for forging frameworks to implement work that is relevant to the identified societal needs. Collaboration with appropriate institutions in the developed world that entails integration of different knowledge systems, mutual respect, and symmetrical partnerships adds a global perspective that is important for sharing knowledge and resolving global problems.

Several supportive actions are necessary for new institutions to emerge and flourish. China, India, and other countries are making huge investments in knowledge institutions and could easily channel resources into new institutions or into existing institutions that adopt broad public mandates. The new class of wealthy social entrepreneurs emerging in the fast-growing economies of Asia and Latin America, committed to philanthropy, could be convinced that support for these new institutions will provide stable long-term solutions, even when immediate results from social welfare programs may seem more attractive. Finally, the reallocation of resources by bilateral donor agencies and foundations from short-term projects to new institutions that genuinely address long-term capacity-building could also reverse the present economic and environmental trends.

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