Third World Needs

There are far-reaching implications to President Reagan's recent pledge to devote greater amounts of U.S. scientific and technical know-how to Third World problems, as well as his offer to send agricultural teams to Third World countries.

A story of East Africa illustrates the complexity of the problems in the Third World and the need for the kind of commitment the president suggested: Many hotels and restaurants in the region traditionally fired their stoves with kerosene or electricity. But skyrocketing prices forced the owners to convert their stoves to charcoal, which they purchased from local vendors. Soon, eager charcoal entrepreneurs were raiding local wood supplies in the nearby countryside, forcing the local inhabitants to spend whole days searching for wood and even taking young trees, leaving whole areas bare. Without cover, topsoil washed away and crops failed. Drinking water supplies almost disappeared, too, and many became sick from drinking bad water.

There, in a nutshell, are the major problems of the developing world--energy for cooking and industry, unemployment and underemployment, water for drinking and agriculture, food production, and public health.

Within the past 20 years, science and technology have made important contributions to Third World development: the development of high-yielding rice strains, the eradication of smallpox and the application of satellite technology for the discovery and management of natural resources on a massive scale. But future successes are likely to be more difficult to achieve.

Food production, for example, doubled over the last 25 years, primarily through increased acreage. A further doubling is needed to meet requirements in the next 25 years, but expanding acreage at the same rate is not possible. The starving and under-nourished can only be fed by intensifying present agricultural production, and science will play a key role in achieving this goal.

The problem is even thornier: tighter economic conditions and our better understanding of the role of chemicals in the environment now make energy- expensive fertilizers and pesticides at best less economic and, at worst, impossible in tropical agriculture. At the same time, massive deforestation to provide crucial fuel wood is causing erosion and flooding, decreasing the moisture needed for food and feed crops and threatening the ecological basis for sustained agricultural production. New systems must be developed to counter these immediate and potential disasters.

Technological solutions must be designed to fit the economic and social conditions of developing countries. East Africa's charcoal makers, for example, use an ancient but grossly inefficient method. A simple answer is to increase efficiency by using charcoal kilns. These exist, but are expensive and stationary while most charcoal makers are poor and itinerant.

Another example is infant diarrhea, a major killer of babies in developing countries. We know how to treat infant diarrhea cheaply and effectively, but the countries in which it is prevalent have inadequate public-health systems to deliver the necessary care. Again, the technical solution is not enough. Developing countries must allocate their financial and human resources and organize themselves to use the innovations science and technology provide.

Developing countries repeatedly express their desire to achieve some level of self-reliance in science and technology and to participate in defining their own development priorities. This is especially important, for in many areas Western science and technology are not paying sufficient attention to unique Third World problems.

Controlling monsoons is a good illustration. Last summer more than 1,200 people died in the Indian monsoon, another 12 million were left homeless or suffered some loss, and crop damage was estimated at $100 million. But researchers in industrialized countries have little incentive to study monsoons. Nor do our pharmaceutical researchers have much incentive to study the parasite diseases of the tropics although these kill or cripple millions annually.

President Reagan correctly identified the training of the Third World scientists as essential. It could have an impact out of all proportion to its costs. But the training must be keyed to the particular problems of the Third World, and employment opportunities must be created for those trained or they will be attracted elsewhere and a critical resource lost.

U.S. science and technology have long been the world hallmark. They are among our country's greatest strengths, ones which properly mobilized and supported toward development could have an impact far beyond anything achieved so far. We in the scientific community are enthusiastic about the president's proposed partnership with developing countries and are committed to assisting with this increased level of scientific and technical cooperation.