Introductory Remarks by Session Chair
Université Cheihk Anta Diop, Senegal
In developing countries it seems appropriate to use the public health sector as a yardstick for assessing both the opportunities and challenges of open-access and public-domain scientific information. In terms of public health policy making, in a context of limited resources, the ongoing information and communication technology revolution offers many opportunities, such as the easy management of epidemiological data and biomedical statistics and distance learning and training of professionals. These opportunities have been reviewed extensively.
The challenges faced by developing countries, mainly in Africa, should be stressed. First, third-world researchers have encountered many problems producing and validating original data before processing them to generate information, which in turn must be organized and analyzed, to yield knowledge. Second, these researchers also must cope with technical constraints, such as poor energy or telephone infrastructure, along with financial restrictions of computer equipment or software availability. Once these obstacles are overcome, they still face market constraints for publishing and disseminating their own products. The public health sector also faces the current fierce debate about the patenting of living organisms’ sequence data (e.g., human genomics), in which the major objective remains private profit.
That is to say, public health professionals in developing countries suffer diverse handicaps for both accessing and producing useful biomedical knowledge, whether electronic or printed. This lack of access poses an enormous threat in a knowledge-based global society, especially in this vital domain where curative and preventive medicine tends to become more and more predictive. In terms of patrimony, this trend accounts for a great loss to the universality of medical knowledge creation. In that respect, the relevance of traditional therapy and indigenous knowledge is conspicuous.
During Session 2 the presentations will address health-related success stories of attempts to narrow the North-South digital divide in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The main lesson to be learned from these examples is the tremendous local impact of initiatives requiring only minimal technical and financial input.
In the information age it is commonplace to say that knowledge means power. Since globalization is unequal and asymmetric, there are legitimate concerns about the concentration of the means of domination (both material and immaterial) at the center of the “global village” and the complete marginalization of its periphery. This perspective is unacceptable as far as public health is concerned, not only because among all basic human rights good health is a prerequisite to the effective implementation of any other right (e.g., freedom, education, information) but also because health and knowledge as public goods are incremental processes—assets that increase rather than decrease upon sharing, individually and collectively.
In other words, since exemptions to the intellectual property rights regime are already conceded for education and research purposes, they should be extended to the public health and environment domains as well. Unrestricted availability to public information should be allowed because upstream information and scientific knowledge is mainly publicly funded.
If the global North-South divide is to be overcome in any field of human society, the unrestricted and free access to public information and the primacy of sustainable human development benefit over short-term individual profits are required. This appears to be the only way to convert threats into opportunities and switch from a zero-sum game to one that is positive. This requires developing countries to join together to protect and enlarge the public domain and promote open access. The crucial obstacle in this respect remains the lack of political will of the global leadership.