UNCTAD Report Sees Sustainable African Growth In IP Flexibilities

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The United Nations trade and development agency this week published its Economic Development in Africa 2012 report, which argued, among other things, that the region’s sustainable future depends on using flexibilities in intellectual property rights as appropriate.

The Geneva-based UN Conference on Trade and Sustainable Development (UNCTAD) report, which this year focusses on structural transformation and sustainable development in Africa, is available here.

The report provides a range of suggestions for achieving what it calls a “sustainable structural transformation.” In outlining the role of the international community, UNCTAD said African governments must play the leading role in formulating and implementing strategies, but an international enabling environment must be established.

For instance, the international context should uphold previously agreed responsibilities such as one in which African countries are “not … hindered in their pursuit of accelerated economic growth and structural transformation and should seek to enhance environmental sustainability by means of relative, rather than absolute, decoupling, the latter being much more relevant for developed countries that have already achieved high living standards.”

In addition, developed countries should “provide financial support and facilitate technology transfer to support [sustainable structural transformation] and design the international trade regime and intellectual property rights regime in a way that facilitates the sustainable development process.”

In terms of technology transfer, UNCTAD said, most African countries will be “technology followers rather than technology leaders.” This makes it necessary to create “global institutional arrangements that increase international cooperation and collaboration in all areas relevant to [sustainable structural transformation] and to accelerate the transfer, adoption and adaptation of relevant technologies in African countries.”

“This,” it said, “is how leapfrogging can become possible.”

The report highlighted several ways such international cooperation can happen. For instance, a large body of technological knowledge lies in the public domain.

“Many of the environmental technologies that developing countries are seeking to access are off patent,” it said. In that case, better access to such technologies is needed as well as the “know-how” needed to use them. UNCTAD suggested a technology bank to facilitate search and access.

For obtaining licensed technology, lack of financial resources could be a “key barrier,” UNCTAD said, so there may be a case for establishing international funds to help developing countries to purchase and manufacture some technologies.

In addition, “major efforts” should be made to increase the possibility for technologies to enter the public domain as well as to stimulate the transfer of publicly funded technologies to developing countries, especially those in Africa.

And the report called for attention to be paid to ways in which the IP system impacts technology transfer that support “environmental sustainability objectives.”

“It is important in particular that IPR facilitate technological development and do not act as a barrier preventing African countries from accessing and using the technologies necessary for leapfrogging,” it said. “This is a complex issue.”

The report supports the notion that a “delicate balance” needs to be found between the advantages and costs of IP rights for countries that must obtain technology. It therefore suggests several reforms to the global IP regime that could be supportive. These include:

– “broader room” for compulsory licensing. In the area of environmental sustainability this would replicate the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and public health amendment, which reinforced countries’ ability to use such flexibilities.

– strengthened standards for patenting, particularly standards of breadth and novelty

– limiting the length of patent protection

– allowing innovators to use existing patented knowledge in order to generate new innovations

Separately, the report also called for more development assistance for agricultural research and development and the extension of sustainable agriculture in Africa.

Among considerations for international trade, the report looks favourably upon South-South cooperation and triangular cooperation in order to accelerate the “transfer, assimilation and deployment of environmentally sound technologies (EST) in Africa.”

This could involve technical assistance for African countries “on the use and deployment of EST, grants for the purchase of patented EST, training of African nationals abroad in the area of green technology use and adaptation, and support to African technological research institutions and universities.”

It said research shows growth in environmentally sound technologies, and transfer occurring to larger developing countries such as Brazil, China and India. Research from the World Intellectual Property Organization, it said, argued that transfer of such technologies is not always “unidirectional” from developed to developing countries. This suggests that triangular cooperation mechanisms should be fostered, it said.

The WIPO research UNCTAD cites is a 2011 “Global Challenges Brief” entitled, “When policy meets evidence: What’s next in the discussion on intellectual property, technology transfer and the environment?”

William New may be reached at wnew@ip-watch.ch.

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  1. […] [by William New] The United Nations trade and development agency this week published its Economic Development in Africa 2012 report, which argued, among other things, that the region’s sustainable future depends on using flexibilities in intellectual property rights as appropriate. Click here for the full story on IP Watch. […]

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