Democracy. Russia. CIS.

Autocracy and Innovation: Lessons from Egypt.

Posted by democratist on February 11, 2011

11th February 2011,

Regular readers of Democratist will be aware of our interest in the interrelationship between democracy and innovation, and our belief that autocratic rule in Russia (and its attendant corruption) have had a devastating (and continuing) impact on Russian science and technology (S&T), despite President Medvedev’s so-called “modernization” programme.

This weakness has in turn seriously damaged Russia’s status as an international economic and military player. However, rather than implementing the political reform required for the development of an innovative scientific community, the response of the Putin regime has been to place a renewed emphasis on espionage (for a concrete indication of the SVR’s interest in US tech, check out who Anna Chapman was following on Twitter before she abandoned her page last July; almost all of these are S&T-related journalists or magazines).

But regardless of the efforts of the SVR and FAPSI (Russia’s well-staffed SIGINT outfit) and the very real danger they present to Western firms, an indication of the continuing fate of the wider Russian scientific community under the nomenklatura might be gauged to a considerable extent by comparison with a similar example which has been brought to our attention thanks to BBC Radio Four’s excellent Material World science series; that of Egypt.

In this week’s programme, Material World interviews Hassan Azzazy (a Professor of chemistry at the American University in Cairo) about the way the Mubarak regime has effected Egyptian scientific research over the last 30 years. 

Azzazy’s main points were that while officially the Egyptian government was a keen promoter of S&T, in reality they had a limited understanding of the importance of research, which eventually had the effect of leaving the country lagging several decades behind other developing nations: Government interference and corruption were the key problem, with the ruling NDP party appointing university staff on the basis of loyalty rather than ability, and any kind of anti-government political activity resulting in banishment from almost any position in academia, research or government. This meant that many of Egypt’s best and brightest were forced to work abroad. 

The implications of what Azzazy says are that almost all of Egypt’s problems in relation to innovation have stemmed from a lack of democracy, openness, and accountability under Mubarak, which has in turn led to a significant inability to appoint the best staff, a huge misallocation of resources, and a lack of effective planning. Democratic openness, as well as resources, are required to cultivate research, and restore competitiveness.

And, as Azzazy says, “In the 21st Century, if you do not use science and technology, and innovation to build a strong economy, and address national needs, you are essentially outdated, and this is exactly the correct term for the current regime.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

3 Responses to “Autocracy and Innovation: Lessons from Egypt.”

  1. Kozakov said

    Apparently, Putin and his cronies feel that as long as the oil and natural gas spigots are flowing, there’s no need to invest in either the domestic infrastructure or the economy. All manner of goods are flooding the world market at unbelievably low prices. To be honest, it probably is too late for Russia to become a worthy competitor in these goods and services in the modern world.

  2. […] technology in an attempt to catch up. Democratist believes that, even with plenty of resources, a lack of democracy, openness, and accountability will make innovation difficult, even for the […]

  3. […] reform needed to allow Russia to benefit from the opportunities presented by globalization and develop its S&T base on the one hand, and elite rent-seeking on the other, is becoming ever more apparent and […]

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