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African Breakthroughs To Make Life Better

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

In the last 50 years, the domestication of high technology – bringing cheaper access to everything from personal computers to digital cameras and applications like global positioning systems (GPS) – has transformed millions of lives and the way business is done. In the next 50 years, biotechnology is set to do the same.

One aspect of biotechnology, genetic engineering (GE), has been lambasted by protest groups for being “unnatural” and driven by profit and the privatisation of nature. It has been seen as the domain of the big and powerful and remote from everyday needs. But now Africa is pioneering new approaches that are rooted in the real challenges faced by African people – and proving world-class scientific research can take place in Africa.

One initiative in South Africa aims to help small and medium sized farmers save their maize (corn) crops. The Food and Agriculture Foundation estimates that 854 million people in the world do not have sufficient food for an active and healthy life, and food security is a serious issue in Africa.

Maize streak viruses (MSV) are geminiviruses that destroy maize crops, and are a big problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean islands. It leaves characteristic yellow-white streaks across the plant’s leaves, and produces deformed corn cobs, often severely dwarfed. Over half of the food supply for people in sub-Saharan Africa comes from maize, but MSV can wipe out an entire farmer’s crop.

Scientists at the University of Cape Town (www.uct.ac.za), South Africa, and the South African seed company PANNAR Pty Ltd have developed a resistant variety of maize that they hope will alleviate food shortages as well as promote the reputation of genetically engineered (GE) foods in Africa.

The MSV-resistant maize is the first GE crop developed and tested solely by Africans. Field trials will soon begin to make sure there are no unintended consequences on the environment and animal life dependent on maize.

Maize arrived in Africa in the 1500s from Mexico, and quickly displaced native food crops like sorghum and millet. Maize streak virus is an endemic pathogen of native African grasses, and is passed on to maize plants by leaf hopping insects.

The technology being developed can also be applied to other geminiviruses, like Wheat dwarf virus (WDV), sugarcane streak virus, barley, oats and millet. The scientists hope this development will prove the safety of GE foods, and address the criticism it is only a profit-driven technology by selling the seeds for minimal profit to subsistence farmers.

“If the GE maize turns out to be as hardy in the field as in the greenhouse,” said Dr Dionne Shepherd, who leads the research, “it could have a great impact on small and medium sized farmers. These are the farmers who need it the most, since they can’t afford preventative measures such as insecticides to control the leafhopper which transmits the disease. When small scale farmers lose 100 per cent of their crop (which they often do) due to maize streak disease, they not only lose any income they would have obtained selling their excess maize, but they also lose a massive chunk of their annual food supply.”

Other African institutions are working on GE crops with international partners, but, Shepherd, says, “The reason the MSV-resistant maize could improve the reputation of GE in Africa, is that international biotech partners, especially in the private sector, are generally not interested in solving problems that are unique to Africa, and Africans are therefore suspicious of their motives when they try to sell or even give away GE food.”

“MSV is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, and our MSV-resistant maize was developed by Africans for Africa with no ulterior motives, which will hopefully make Africans accept the technology.”

“I think it should attract more funding, because once international funders see that world-class research can happen in Africa, they may be more willing to commit funds.”

In another development, African science is tackling the scourge of malaria on the continent. Caused by a parasite carried by mosquitoes, it kills more than a million people a year and makes 300 million more seriously ill (World Health Organisation). Ninety per cent of the deaths are in Africa south of the Sahara, and most are children.

While bed nets, insecticides and anti-malarial drugs are effective, the disease has become resistant to some drugs and work on a vaccine is slow.

Research in Kenya has found an effective way to both provide food and destroy mosquito larvae. The Nile tilapia – a highly nutritious fish – has long been known to feed on mosquito larvae. But nobody has made the connection between this fact and the fight against malaria. Francois Omlin, a researcher at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya (www.icipe.org), has conducted the first field tests to prove this approach.

“The tilapia species was never tested in the field for its ability to eat mosquito larvae,” he told Reuters.

Ten days after introducing the tilapia to a pond, they had destroyed most of the larvae and after 41 weeks the number of mosquitoes fell by 94 per cent, according to Omlin.

This means two important goals can be served by harvesting tilapia fish: greater access for Africans to the nutritious fish, and a dramatic reduction in mosquito-borne malaria.

Published: September 2007

Resources

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022

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Award-winning research on history of eugenics reaps honours

By David South

Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine Newsletter (Toronto, Canada), Number 19, Fall, 1993

Though many feel a golly-gee-whiz response when medical science leaps another hurdle towards genetic manipulation, research by two recent Royal Society Hannah Medal winners into the history of eugenics sends a chill up the spine.

Both University of Toronto’s professor Pauline Mazumdar, author of Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its Sources and its Critics in Britain (Routledge, 1992), and Angus McLaren, University of Victoria professor of history and author of Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 (McClelland and Stewart, 1990), disclose how mainstream genetic selection once was – and possibly still remains.

“Ever since the test tube baby breakthrough a decade ago, there’s been a new concern for the spin-offs of this research,” says McLaren. “In Canada there’s a woman who was sterilized in Alberta who is now suing the Alberta government, so that is bringing it back into the consciousness that these things actually did happen.”

“Many quite respectable individuals took it as given that there must be something in eugenics. That was the difficulty in writing the book, determining who was a eugenist and who wasn’t. It was so widely believed that it was very hard to make a serious demarcation.”

Professor McLaren found winning the medal helped raise his profile. And the resulting media interest allowed him to put the issue in historical perspective.

“The problem as ever is people looking for some sort of a quick fix to social problems – hoping that some sort of genetic tampering will allow very complex problems to be surgically dealt with.”

Hannah Institute For The History Of Medicine | 1992 – 1994

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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

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Awards 1998-2003 | February 2020

UN/UNDP Mongolia Development Portal (www.un-mongolia.mn) 

I launched this portal in 1997, in the middle of a major economic crisis in Mongolia. This award-winning (winner in 1998 of the People’s Choice WebSite 500 award and the CyberTeddy Top 500 Website award) and pioneering United Nations Mongolia development web portal was singled out by UN headquarters as an example of what a country office website should be like.

At this time, Mongolia was still recovering from the chaotic and turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy begun at the start of the 1990s, called by some “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever” (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994). There was a thirst for information: access to the Internet was still limited and access to mobile phones was just the preserve of the rich. As a legacy of the past, information, especially that about the outside world and the country’s true economic and social conditions, was restricted. During the years of Communism, even simple travel from one place to the next was strictly regulated.

While today we can take it for granted that the Internet, and mobile and smart phones, deliver the world’s information in seconds, this just was not the case in the late 1990s in Mongolia.

“Cyber-Teddy’s Top 500 Web Site” was an online award from the late 1990s.
The UN/UNDP Mongolia development web portal addressed the urgent need to communicate what was happening in the country during a major crisis, and to transparently show what the UN was doing to address the crisis. It made critical data on the country’s development easy to find, and informed the wider world about the country and its people and culture. While the Internet had only just arrived in Mongolia, from the start the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office was experimenting with this powerful new technology to reach a global audience. This included Mongolia’s first web magazine, Ger (launched in 1998). After the http://www.un-mongolia.mn website launched in 1997, a media campaign began to inform readers of its presence. This ad appeared regularly in magazines, newsletters and newspapers.
“A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be.”

I was head of communications for the United Nations mission in Mongolia from 1997 to 1999. The mission had to primarily tackle three major crises: the country’s turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy, the social and economic crash this caused, and the Asian Financial Crisis (Pomfret 2000) (Quah 2003)*.

Richard Pomfret said in 1994 “In 1991 Mongolia suffered one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).”

From Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah: “The combined effect of these three shocks was devastating as ‘Mongolia suffered the most serious peacetime economic collapse any nation has faced during this century’. Indeed, Mongolia’s economic collapse ‘was possibly the greatest of all the (peaceful) formerly’” Communist countries. 

“The years 1998 and 1999 have been volatile ones for Mongolia, with revolving door governments, the assassination of a minister, emerging corruption, a banking scandal, in-fighting within the ruling Democratic Coalition, frequent paralysis within the Parliament, and disputes over the Constitution. Economically, the period was unstable and rife with controversies.” Mongolia in 1998 and 1999: Past, Present, and Future at the New Millennium by Sheldon R. Severinghaus, Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 1, A Survey of Asia in 1999 (Jan. – Feb., 2000), pp. 130-139 (Publisher: University of California)

Writing in 2018, author John West  found, in a chapter titled Mongolia’s Corruption Curse (Transparency International and the World Bank had found corruption worsened in Mongolia after 2001), “In many ways, Mongolia has everything going for it. After being a satellite state of the former Soviet Union for much of the twentieth century, Mongolia regained its independence with the end of the Cold War. A relatively peaceful political revolution in the early 1990s ushered in a multi-party democracy and open society which have remained in place. … And it is blessed with vast reserves of copper, gold, coal, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin and tungsten deposits. True, Mongolia experienced great upheavals as the breakup of the Soviet Union saw its trade decline by 80%. But Mongolia was also perfectly placed to benefit from the commodity super cycle driven by China, which is now the destination for the vast majority of its exports.

“However, despite much hype about the Mongolian “wolf economy”, this country of so much promise is being dragged down by massive corruption. …

“Mongolia’s corruption is greatly weakening its attractiveness as an investment destination, is fracturing society and weakening its fragile political institutions. Its culture of corruption has also fed its love-hate relationship with foreign investors, which has destabilized the economy.” Asian Century … on a Knife-edge: A 360 Degree Analysis of Asia’s Recent Economic Development by John West, Springer, 24 January 2018.  

In this role, I pioneered innovative use of the Internet and digital resources to communicate the UN’s work and Mongolia’s unfolding crises. The UN called this work a “role model” for the wider UN and country offices. A survey of United Nations country office websites in 2000 ranked the UN Mongolia website I launched in 1997 and oversaw for two years (1997-1999), third best in the world, saying: “A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be.” (http://www.scribd.com/doc/274319690/UNDP-Mongolia-United-Nations-2000-Survey-of-Country-Office-Websites)

As part of a strategic plan to raise awareness of Mongolia’s development challenges and to spur action on meeting them, a Communications Office was established for the UN mission in 1997. Acting as a strategic hub, the Communications Office and its dynamic and talented team, were able to leverage the existing budget to spur action on many fronts.

In 2001, the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world” and its communications innovations, with work such as that in Mongolia being cited as a contributing factor to the awarding of the Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize 2001 joint winners.

GOSH Child Health Portal (www.gosh.nhs.uk)

In 2001 I undertook a two-year contract to modernise the online resources for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust (GOSH)/Institute of Child Health (ICH). My strategy was inspired and informed by initiatives encountered while working as a health and medical journalist in 1990s Canada – a time where government austerity spurred a need to experiment and try new ways of doing things.

Having seen the impact first-hand of pilot experiments in Toronto aimed at widening access to information and resources for patients and their families, I applied this knowledge to the GOSH Child Health Portal Project (2001 to 2003). Drawing on the wider NHS Modernisation Plan, and a multi-year consultation process undertaken by the hospital, the Project was launched in three phases. 

How far the UK had fallen out of step with global developments with the Internet became clear from the start. The distance that had to be traveled in the span of two years was vast. Essentially, to go from being a web laggard to a web leader. 

Award-winning (http://www.scribd.com/doc/35249271/Childnet-Awards-2003-Brochure), the GOSH Child Health Portal was called by The Guardian newspaper one of the “three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors,” and a UK government assessment called the overall GOSH child health web portal a role model for the NHS. At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair (whose wife, Cherie Blair, was an early supporter and champion of the project) had this to say: “Making sure that your child has helpful, easy-to-read information will make a significant difference to their time in hospital. I am sure that this website will prove very useful for children and their families.”

The project was delivered in three phases. At every stage, progress was communicated to the wider public and colleagues in various ways, via in-house media and through constant engagement with British news outlets. Screen grabs and other resources from the project can be found online here: 

Phase 1: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=g826gFjEXWsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=gosh+health+phase+1a&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj5u__dqIHLAhVJOxoKHZ3IDZcQ6AEIJTAA#v=onepage&q=gosh%20health%20phase%201a&f=false 

Phase 2: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=E2ZVlFbrCzsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=gosh+health+phase+2a&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjEodr0qIHLAhWK2BoKHStJB7QQ6AEIJjAA#v=onepage&q=gosh%20health%20phase%202a&f=false

Phase 3: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=KVE6QqDp1HsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=gosh+health+phase+3&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiXwe-FqYHLAhVBvxoKHXhOCooQ6AEIJjAA#v=onepage&q=gosh%20health%20phase%203&f=false

Project documents: https://books.google.ca/books?id=4aeDBgAAQBAJ&dq=gosh+child+health+portal+key+documents&source=gbs_navlinks_s

The Cable and Wireless Childnet Award called Children First “an outstanding example of how a hospital can create quality, authoritative information on issues relating to health in a fun, child-centered and accessible way.”

More here from The Guardian and CBS: Hospital unveils international website for children and Web Projects For Kids Get Their Due 

The Childnet Awards in 2003 were awarded by Trond Waage, the Norwegian Ombudsman for Children, at the Science Museum in London.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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African Health Data Revolution

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

A pioneering tool for gathering health data now being used in Kenya could herald a revolution in the way diseases are tracked and defeated around the world. It uses mobile phones to better connect patients with medical and health personnel, and allows data to be gathered in real-time and used to track health and improve the delivery of services, especially to remote and under-serviced areas.

In the past couple of years, Kenya has become a hotbed of mobile phone and information technology innovation. The now-famous Ushahidi crisis-mapping platform (www.ushahidi.com) is just one example. Social enterprise Data Dyne (www.datadyne.org) – with offices in Washington DC and Nairobi, Kenya – is offering its EpiSurveyor application (www.episurveyor.org) free to all to aid health data collection. It bills itself as “the first cloud-computing application for international development and global health … Think of it as like Gmail, but for data collection!”

EpiSurveyor claims to have more than 2,600 users around the world and is currently being upgraded to a second version.

“With the touch of a button I can see what’s going on across the country in real time,” Kenyan civil servant Yusuf Ibrahim told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. “It is amazing.”

Ibrahim works in Nairobi as the Kenyan Ministry of Health liaison to Data Dyne.

He uses maps and charts on mobile phones to track deadly disease outbreaks and vulnerable pregnancies.

The EpiSurveyor application works simply: A user logs into the website and builds and creates the sort of form they want. They then download it to a phone and start collecting data straight away.

Ibrahim gathers this data from mobile phones used by health care workers across the country.

“It used to take days, weeks or even a couple of months to find out about an outbreak of polio on the other side of the country,” he said. “Now we know almost instantly. The speed with which we can now collect information has catapulted healthcare and prevention to another level. It has completely changed healthcare and saved countless lives.”

He proudly points out Kenya’s mobile phone data collection system is “probably better than what they’ve got in the West.”

“Although we are a third world country, I’m pretty sure we’ve done this before

Western countries. While they are still collecting information in hard copy on clipboards, we are getting it instantly.”

Packed with data processing power, mobile phones are capable of an immense range of tasks and applications. Some see phones as key to a revolution in how healthcare is provided: the mobile phone becomes one-part clinic, another part mobile hospital dispensing advice and transmitting vital information back to healthcare professionals and scientists in hospitals and labs.

Despite dramatic improvements to the quality of hospitals in Africa and the number of qualified doctors, the continent’s healthcare services are still a patchwork, with rural and slum dwellers poorly served and the stresses of treating patients with contagious diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria pushing resources to the limit.

The United Nations has a number of initiatives partnering with mobile phone manufacturers, networks and software developers as part of a global campaign to reduce HIV/AIDS, malaria and deaths in childbirth.

EpiSurveyor is being used by more than 15 countries’ ministries of health and is the adopted standard for the World Health Organization (www.who.int) (WHO) for electronic health data collection.

It began as a partnership with the United Nations Foundation, The Vodafone Group Foundation, WHO and the ministries of health of Kenya and Zambia in 2006 to pilot test the software for EpiSurveyor.

At the United Nations Foundation (www.unfoundation.org), chief executive Kathy Calvin equates the impact of mobile phones on global healthcare to the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin.

“Instead of building clinics and roads to remote towns and villages so that people can access healthcare, we are bringing healthcare directly to the people via mobile phones. You get a lot more healthcare for your money,” Calvin told the Telegraph.

Published: November 2010

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Slideshare: http://www.slideshare.net/DavidSouth1/development-challengessouthsouthsolutionsnovember2010issue

Southern Innovator Issue 1: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q1O54YSE2BgC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 2: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ty0N969dcssC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 3: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=AQNt4YmhZagC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 4: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9T_n2tA7l4EC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 5: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6ILdAgAAQBAJ&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022