By LYLA MEHTA, STEPS Centre member

The conference laid bare the ideological and socio-political differences between the promotion of elite institutions and supervised learning as opposed to unsupervised and more organic forms of experimentation and learning in technological innovation. We had an overdose of the former with the presentations on the Millennium Project and the Chief Scientist’s call for African institutes of excellence.

While we as a development studies community need to engage with mainstream processes and solutions promoted by the Commission on Africa and the Millennium Project, are we giving too much importance to these dominant perspectives, instead of engaging with and promoting the alternative perspectives of Paul Richards and Robert Chambers?

I was very disappointed with the speech by David King. It had a very top down view of science and technology. It also had some factual flaws: For example, The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) did not promote the Green Revolution in India. It was encouraging and important that Professor Shiv Visvanathan from India forcefully challenged the Chief Scientist on this issue.

It was problematic that David King was extolling Indian IIT type institutions and their potential to address the problems in Africa. Unlike what he implied, the IITs in India haven’t really addressed the country’s basic problems regarding food, water, sewage and sanitation.

Many IIT graduates go onto study in management institutes and then land up in national and global corportations. While such centres of excellence certainly play an important role, it would be wrong to assume that that elite institutions are the best placed to create skills that would address the MDGs. Instead, elite institutions and their solutions can be very ignorant of and insensitive to local conditions and needs and may also be a part of the problem.