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The Question of Intellectual Property Rights: Are Africans Even Aware?

I have wanted to do this post ever since I took an international trade seminar in my final year in college. It was a pretty eye-opening experience, but like just about everything on the international front, there were no clear cut solutions or resolutions. This past Wednesday, July 17 2009 I participated in a bloggers-only roundtable teleconference on "Obama, Technology and Rural Development" - an initiative that was sponsored by Africa Rural Connect and the National Peace Corps Association. We got a chance to interact with Arlene Mitchell, a Senior Program Officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for an hour, and I personally found it to be a pretty eye-opening and interesting experience. [You can listen to a podcast of the roundtable discussion here. To skip to my comments + question, go towards the end (the last 10 minutes or so).]

Many participants highlighted the fact that technology can in fact help Africans transform their lives, and is already doing so. I definitely agree with that, and so do many development economists like Ha-Joon Chang and Robert Wade who consider technology the bedrock for transforming capabilities and stimulating development. My Economic Development Seminar mates and myself got the opportunity to interact with these two leading development economists as well as many others during Mount Holyoke's first-ever Development Economics conference. One of the key things that came out of the conference was the importance of adapting knowledge, research, policy and technology to suit a country's profile. In this light, I decided to ask Ms. Mitchell a question on the potential for Africans to adapt the technology they receive from developed countries. Specifically, I asked her how the notion
of intellectual property rights would play into the ability of Africans to not only implement, but adapt and hopefully invent technology. Although Ms. Mitchell did give me an answer by saying that governments are more open and willing to work together to ensure transfer of technology, she admitted that it was a tough question. From what I learned in my International Trade seminar, its not only a tough question, but a virtually non-existant one on the African continent.

First of, let's get into the question of what intellectual property rights are. Generally-speaking, they are regulations that govern the ownership and use of ideas and creations. Wikipedi includes the fact that these creations can be both artistic and commercial. In the seminar we debated whether information should fall under the realm of intellectual property rights or not. If so, under whose jurisdiction should it fall? We all agreed that information should be free and accessible to all; except in the case where it is a particularly "new" piece of information or highly
confidential for "security" reasons. The question here is, how do you determine what "new information" is? Was it always existent but never discovered? Did someone literally make it up? If there is a higher being (and most of us agreed there was) wouldn't that mean that all the information is already there and just waiting to be discovered? What about if it was discovered at one point, then "lost" and rediscovered? Definitely an endless stream of questions. But at least, they are questions that are being asked...and as it is, these regulations are already being debated upon within the World Trade Organization (WTO).

I personally believe it's important that African nations start joining that debate. We discussed a case in the seminar where an American, Ryan Black, claimed he had "discovered" acai berry in 1999 - a fruit from the Amazon rainforest region which is purported to have many benefits and is currently in the limelight because of its ability to induce weight lose (there is some controversy surrounding this). Mr. Black currently has the rights to this fruit, but the Brazilian natives refuted his claims saying that they had been aware of the fruit for centuries and it was part of their lives way before Mr. Black came across it. At the end of the day however, Mr. Black still has the rights to the fruit and is making money out of it, while the very people who nurtured and used the fruit stand the possibility of being sued or fined should they not go through the appropriate measures when using the fruit. This is just one of numerous cases where individuals, societies and nations, particularly in the Global South, lose the rights to their own ideas, customs, food etc.

Although the WTO allows African nations to participate in discussing issues, there is the problem of limited staff . Since most of these nations are poor, they don't have large delegates. One individual might be scheduled to attend 5 sessions which might run concurrently. And as far as we know, they haven't yet developed the technology that allows you to be in more than one place at a time. The obvious thing to do then, would be to concentrate on those sessions that deal directly with issues currently affecting their nation. Hence, most African delegations spend time on the WTO Agricultural Agreement Committee and the Non-Agricultural Market Access Committee (NAMA). Even if they do participate in the Committee on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), they don't have all the legal acumen and research base to adequately represent the interests of their nations. This not only points to the need for more focus on research in African nations, but also indicates the need for relatively unbiased legal presentation. As the current situation is, many of the lawyers who represent African nations in the WTO Tribunal are either not African, have been educated in the West, or generally do not have a realistic understanding of on-the-ground African issues.

As someone who believes that criticisms should come with constructive suggestions, I am confident that Africans can make headway by not only concentrating on their current issues, but by anticipating what might come about in the future. While the West is busy trying to determine who has control over what idea, piece of information or creation, we are solely focused on developing our agriculture base. While this is ok, we need to start putting the necessary frameworks in place to be able to handle the next generation of struggles. And yes, they will come. If we don't start doing something now, we will find ourselves in a similar position as we currently are (relying on the West for agricultural and manufactured produce, investment & services etc). The only difference is it will be on a more advanced level. Just as the flying geese model suggests, we do have the advantage of numerous country cases to learn from. We need to start tying research and education together even more. Our educational institutions should be our research centers. I think the US model where educational institutions finance and encourage research is one that we should emulate even further. Until we begin to know the pieces of the story, we won't know which pages are missing.

As the technological era continues to advance, many Africans see hope in the future and look forward to a time when they can actually invent something that will be internationally acclaimed. This is where our knowledge of intellectual property rights plays in. We need to know in order to ensure that a) we will be able to adapt the technology we receive to suit our needs and unique country situations, and b) we can eventually invent our own technology without having to deal with numerous claims and suits that we copied a pre-existing model, or used a patented product without seeking permission. Without adapted technology, all we are doing is increasing the phenomenon of e-waste that is gradually taking over the African continent.

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