Tech strategies not being matched by investments, UN report finds

By on 18/06/2021 | Updated on 21/06/2021
Investment in advanced technologies is faltering in low- and middle-income countries, says the UN, with most concentrated in China, the US and the EU. Pic by Jerome Bossuet/CIMMYT

While governments around the world are recognising the importance of technology in building a green, sustainable future, too many are spending only small sums on research, a UN report has found.

The UNESCO report, The Race Against Time for Smarter Development, warns that “many countries remain dependent on foreign technologies and expertise” when taking advantage of new technology trends such as AI.

“All governments need to ensure that policies and resources… point in the same direction across different economic sectors, towards the same strategic goal of sustainable development,” the report said.

Green and digital

Most countries, the report says, are committed to unleashing the potential of emerging “industry 4.0” digital technologies, and understand that this effort must go hand in hand with a transition to a green economy.

Between 2016 and 2020, it finds, over 30 countries adopted AI strategies. Many others adopted cross-cutting digital industrial strategies — with low- and middle-income countries such as Uganda and Indonesia among them.

Among high-income countries particularly, the report notes a drive by governments to revitalize their manufacturing sectors through investment in advanced manufacturing. The US and EU have focused on fields including robotics, quantum computing, and cybersecurity.

Overall, the report says, “most countries are convinced that their future economic competitiveness will depend upon how well they succeed in transitioning to digital societies.”

“Countries are keenly aware that their future economic competitiveness will depend upon how quickly they manage to transition to a green and digital economy, in parallel.”

The report points to parallel strategies for green and digital transitions adopted by the Caribbean Community and the EU as examples of this.

Uneven research

But while the appetite for sustainable digital transformation is growing across the world, expenditure on new research to support it is heavily skewed towards a few countries.

Across the globe, research spending grew by 19.2% between 2014 and 2018, the report says.

But 44% of this rise was driven by China alone. Without China’s contribution, research spending would have grown by just 13.6%, barely outpacing global economic growth of 12% during the period.

By 2018, 87% of this spending was grouped in three comparatively wealthy regions: North America, the EU, and East and Southeast Asia (where the “heavyweights” were China, Japan and the Republic of Korea).

Research spending did advance in all regions except for Central Asia and Latin America, but gains were more “modest”. “Lower middle-income countries have raised their global share by just 0.13% to 4.3% and that of low-income countries has stagnated at 0.1%,” the report says.

And when these gains come, they can be “fragile”: the report gives the example of Burkina Faso, which in 2017 had one of Africa’s highest research intensities, before government had to divert funds away after terror attacks in 2019.

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