Latin America: Research Can Drive Inclusion

By Judith Sutz and Rodrigo Arocena*

A woman points to a microscope while a man looks on.

Researchers from Uruguay’s Universidad de la República worked with partners from the World Health Organization on a project to prevent dengue fever in Salto, Uruguay. / PAHO / Flickr / Creative Commons

Research programs that address “invisible problems” in society – challenges that are generally overlooked – increase marginalized people’s inclusion far beyond solution of their immediate problems.  Problems lacking “agency” get little or no attention as competing demands for public funding crowd out resources for studying problems suffered by marginalized groups.  The solutions that arise from most research, moreover, are often too expensive and too elaborate for the less fortunate.

  • Many health problems denominated “neglected diseases” fall within what the World Health Organization calls “the 90/10 gap.” Some 90 percent of all the health research done around the world is devoted to the kind of health issues suffered by 10 percent of the world population, while the 90 percent get scant attention.

Money and political will are only part of the problem.  Research to identify a problem is in itself a challenge.  Our research indicates that some initial research is often all that is necessary to make an “invisible problem” explicit enough for policymakers to be forced to pay attention.

  • In Uruguay, a university research program in 2010 uncovered the link between rice workers’ health problems, including early death, and agrochemicals seeping into the water spread at plantations. The link was difficult to detect because their symptoms were all “normal” and had other common explanations, but an interdisciplinary team analyzed epidemiological data to confirm it, which prompted the Ministry of Public Health to take action.

A second challenge is developing new approaches to adapt existing solutions that work for the well off to sectors without resources.  Many times in the past, research stopped when a solution, albeit a costly one, was found – which has the consequence of excluding sectors of modest means.  But we know that new intellectual directions can break through even those technological barriers.

  • Once a vaccine was found for the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), a dangerous pathogen that causes meningitis and other life-threatening diseases in children under five, the threat disappeared from developed countries. But it remained dangerous elsewhere in the world due to the high cost of the vaccine.  Researchers at the University of Havana explored a new approach and designed a synthetic vaccine with a very low cost of production – which many scientists have hailed as an important success.  Argentinean scientists’ development of a probiotic yogurt – called Yogurito – has provided an affordable solution to provide lactobacilli that children need for digestive health.  These “frugal innovations” yield huge benefits.

An inclusive research agenda – promoted by universities and other thought leaders throughout Latin America – can transform knowledge into a tool for social inclusion if the knowledge produced and diffused in the innovation system is focused on the broadest possible segment of society.  A Copernican shift of research agendas worldwide is unlikely in the short term, but a commitment to human sustainable development will necessarily open spaces for broader agendas over time.  Democratization of access to higher education is one important driver in building “inclusive innovation systems.”  In both developed and underdeveloped societies, “developmental universities” can play a big role in solving problems and, importantly, enfranchising broader segments of the population.  Inequality in knowledge – forgetting people with forgotten problems – is a source of broader inequality the reversal of which will be of benefit to all.  Seeing victims of illness who lack the cures that wealthier citizens have as agents, rather than just as patients, is an important first step.

September 20, 2018

* Judith Sutz is Professor and Academic Coordinator of the University Research Council of the Universidad de la República, Uruguay, and Rodrigo Arocena was the University’s rector.  Their recent book is Developmental Universities in Inclusive Innovation Systems: Alternatives for Knowledge Democratization in the Global South (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).