Underutilized Scientific Equipment in Third World Countries

On the road… again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek

Things Ain’t Always What You Think

What would you think if you walked into a well equipped chemical laboratory during the middle of a work day and didn’t see white smocked chemists and technicians as they went about their business? What would you think if you did not hear the clink of glassware as chemicals are added and mixed into compounds? Or didn’t hear the systematic cadence of auto-analyzers charged with specimens as they advanced along their circular tracks?  Or detect the whirring of a centrifuge?  Or feel the heat of a drying oven, or smell the contents of the samples inside? Or be attracted to the penetrating brilliance of flame from the barrel of a Bunsen burner that was exciting the molecules of a catalyst? Or did not hear the hiss of steam being emitted from the pressurized system that distributes energy to operate any manner of sophisticated instruments? What if you walked in and heard only the sound of silence?  What if you saw only empty beakers on the lab benches? Or saw only dust on the counters?  Or smelled only the odor of cleaning compounds coming from the floors traversed only by the cleaning crew?  You might conclude that nobody worked there…you might conclude that there are no experiments going on. You might think that nothing is happening, that no progress in science is being made, or that nobody has an agenda. And you might be right….but you might be resented if you said so, out  loud.

More than he cares to remember, the Footloose Forester came into empty labs where expensive machines sat silently and untested.  Most times he was escorted by an executive or a functionary who was eager to show off the newest apparatus or newly constructed wing; but usually did not have anything to say about their research program; or even about the unspoken demand for routine procedures.  Most of the time, the chemical bottles were unopened; most of the time the colorimeters and the auto-analyzers and the photometers and the spectrometers were idle. Welcome to the world of International Development, where the planning of the advisors and consultants; where the concepts and the development agendas of the bureaucrats and technocrats met the realities of end-stage inertia. If it takes educated thinkers to advance to the stage where ideas are put into practice; it also takes trained chemists to do the work.

Doubtless many a critic would say that such an attitude is needlessly elitist and exclusionary.  Some would say that such an approach favors only those who have the class advantages of official favor; and that much can be done by people who do not have a college education. Besides, on-the-job training is practiced world-wide and is perhaps the predominant way in which people learn and advance. Yet, without a spark to light the fuse, there is little hope that there will be a legitimate bang-for-the-buck.  Nothing is quite so disheartening in the world of technical assistance as to see a laboratory full of donated modern equipment; and then realize that there is nobody able or willing to use the equipment for its intended purposes.

The Footloose Forester deplored the inactivity he saw in many places in the Third World, but remained optimistic about the possibilities of changing the scenarios.  In his personal view, what is required is a long-term association with experienced professionals who can remain at the site of scientific laboratories long enough for science to really catch on; and to have a say in designing and implementing the research programs. But such a concept actually involves hands-on training to the point where the local people can and do take over. Not just having a plan on paper to train operators at the local level, or to send bright acolytes on for college degrees in the sciences; but also to assure that such programs include employing trained technicians; and by returning the college graduates and trained technicians to daily applications in real-world applications in the very laboratories from which they came.

Bulletized lists don’t tell enough of the story, but the objective here is to demonstrate that inactivity was more often the case, than not.  The reader can judge for himself/herself the apparent reasons for inactivity. 




Malawi—aerial photo laboratory with donor-supplied analytical devices; and nine computers to aid in analysis of data. [No staff personnel at locked lab because none of the 9 computers functioned.  Photographic work was farmed out to private firm in South Africa.]

Haiti—chemical lab with expensive, $50,000 atomic absorption spectrometer sitting idly, no apparent projects underway.  No staff present in lab. [Objective of visit was to inventory lab equipment and analytical devices, pursuant to providing even more donor assistance.]

Cape Verde—Soil chemistry lab devoid of staff, no experiments underway or planned; soil physics/mechanics lab—unstaffed and empty; no projects planned; agronomy lab—no activity in lab built and equipped entirely with donor assistance. Shipment of lab equipment valued at $50,000 went unopened for more than two years. [Donor funding of agricultural research laboratories preceded, by several years, the in-house training and higher education of staff and technicians. Real experiments were initiated and conducted solely by expatriate agricultural scientists, but not without resentment by host country officials.]

Indonesia—Soil lab run by Dutch expatiates who justified their involvement by explaining that local technicians lacked the expertise to run the lab efficiently. [Dutch technicians made expatriate oversight part of the technical assistance agreement.] 

Pakistan—Forestry Post-Graduate training school had closet full of surveying instruments that remained in the closet for several years. No field exercises in leveling or surveying were part of the curriculum. Teaching manuals consisted of best organized and updated notebooks of former students, and based on previous lectures. [Teachers were usually assigned to the school, against their wishes or irrespective of their interest in teaching.]

This expository chronicle is not intended to bring an indictment against wasteful foreign assistance programs; it is merely a personal reminder that just providing scientific equipment to Third World countries is only part of the process in true economic development. For every accolade regarding how much industrialized countries assist the developing countries, there are equal numbers of cautionary tales to remind everybody that merely offloading scientific equipment onto the dock is not the true measure of progress.  Fortunately, all eyes are now looking forward.  But it helps to have a retrospective viewpoint; to know what some of the wrong turns look like.  One philosophical question comes to mind: How do you know where you are going, if you don’t know where you have been?    

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