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Neglected key to prosperity
Qazi Azad

          BRITAIN will not remain a world power by exporting shoe-lace. That is a slogan which the BBC domestic television and Radio-4, BBC's domestic radio for intellectuals and serious people, used to broadcast at regular intervals daily in 1988-'89. It was the period when prime minister Margaret Thacher's result-oriented government was pushing ahead the privatisation programme after having dealt with the British Trade Union Congress, particularly the hard-nut coal miners with iron hands.
Britain, despite its status as a world power with products ranging from supersonic military aircraft to modern warships to shoes and toothpastes, was worried during that period at its relative disadvantage in the global market and a reduction of its share in world trade. How anxious should Bangladesh be when it is a least developed country and its major export products require support from the importing countries, such as the Generalised System of Preference (GSP) in the form of tariff reduction or outright tariff waiver, for market access?
We manufacture products in such industries, many of which have been declared sun-set industries in most of the developed and advanced developing countries. That means, we have too many competitors in the global market and their number is rising. The export prices of our products are determined not by us but by their foreign buyers. A glut in supply drives the prices down and it appears more often that we are at the mercy of the importing countries. Without the Chinese textiles being subject to quota restriction until the end of 2008 in the United States and the European Union, we cannot say for sure what could have been the export performance of our garment sector now. Nor can we say with certainty what will happen to our pharmaceutical industries after 2016 when they will have to pay royalty for every product manufactured using patented foreign formula.
Article 28 of the Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which will be applicable after 2016 to our pharmaceutical industries, as per the current status of WTO negotiations on this subject, recognises that patent owners shall have the right to assign or transfer by succession, the patent and to conclude liscensing contracts. It also says that "a patent shall confer on its owner the following exclusive rights (a) where the subject matter of a patent is a product, to prevent third parties not having the owner's consent from the acts of making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing for these purposes that product, and (b) where the subject matter of a patent is a process, to prevent third parties not having the owner's consent from the act of using the process, and from the acts of using, offering for sale, selling, or importing for these purposes at least the product obtained directly by that process. Although the implications of these provisions will be largely explained by future WTO negotiations and decided upon by subsequent WTO ministerial conferences, it will be safe to assume that the stipulations of these provisions will not substantially change.
In view of the said provisions, we seem to have a bloated expectation in the pharmaceutical sector as we had about garments in late 1990s, when it was argued that only expansion of backward linkage industries of garment will suffice to overcome the challenges of the post-multi fibre agreement period. Now we are chasing the Americans for the mercy of a new trade and development act for parachuting us to safety.
Article 27 of the TRIPs agreement says," patent shall be available for any inventions, whether products or processes, in all fields of technology, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step and are capable of industrial application". Plainly, the era of reverse engineering, which enabled the Chinese, the Japanese and the Taiwanese to herald their national property through manufacturing, is close to its end.
Unfortunately, neither our ministry of industries -- responsible for patenting -- nor the ministry of commerce -- the focal point for WTO matters, nor the ministry of science and information technology -- responsible for invention and innovation, nor any of our think-tanks has yet initiated an extensive debate on the varied aspects of the TRIPs agreement and their likely implications for various types of local industries. We are enthusiastically walking in the deepening darkness.
The Chinese have understood the implications of invention, innovation and patenting of designs and processes under TRIPs, as have many other nations. A recent UNESCO report on world-wide research and development (R&D) says, emerging Asian countries led by China, have challenged the US, Europe and Japan's supremacy in matter of commitment to scientific and technological research and development. On the other hand, the European countries, led by Sweden, are the smartest in the field. China's spending on R&D in 2002 was 1.23 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) compared with 0.83 per cent in 1999. Having engaged 0.81 million researchers, China spends 75 per cent of that huge money in experimental development, 20 per cent in applied research and the rest in basic research. Japan engaged 0.645 million scientists in R&D in 2002. Of the total spending of $830 billion globally on R&D in 2002, North America accounted for 27 per cent, Europe 27.31 per cent and the rest mostly in Asia.
With its GDP currently estimated at about $ 60 billion, Bangladesh should spend about $0.79 billion annually on scientific research and development taking the Chinese spending of 1.23 per cent of their GDP as the index, for securing a bright future. Unfortunately, the fund committed in the budget was never anywhere near that amount. How will we survive in the global race during these competitive times?
The state-funded Bangladesh Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) under the ministry of science and information technology is no longer any more than a testing laboratory for imported products. Its research fund is scarce. In several fiscal years, the fund allocation was only enough for pay-bills of its scientists and other employees. The scientists of this very important organisation mostly carry coals to New Castle by doing research work on subject matters of processes and formula, already patented by other nations. There is no effective guardian for running this important research body towards its founding objectives. The position of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission is hardly any better. The private sector has not yet formed their own similar-industry consortiums for research and development, which the Japanese did long ago for development and improvement of products. Our poverty may be an excuse, but that should be no justification for writing off our future. Apparently, agricultural research has made some progress. But how good is good needs to be ascertained as the entry of agricultural goods in foreign market requires conformity with the global standard of food safety.
Being a large nation handicapped by land scarcity, we have to agree that technological innovation will remain a critical determinant of continuity and pace of our national progress. A national body comprising some of our leading scientists with some record of success in invention, some expatriate Bangladeshis with similar credentials, local industrialists and the ministers of finance, industries, agriculture, commerce, and science and information technology along with the secretaries of their ministries should oversee and guide research and development for enabling this country to successfully meet the challenges of these competitive times. The committee should review the current status of research, define the areas of new research keeping the national needs in view and periodically, at least once in every six months, assess the progress.
We may consider to introduce a prestigious national award for a break-through research, which may be amply defined and given only on actual attainment as per the set definition. Any scientist who gets it should be given life-long VIP status. The committee may suggest an incentive package for private sector R&D consortiums, which should be subject to periodic inspection by committee members.


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