Dodwell in SOM1 Moscow - Post 10

February 18, 2012

Friday, the final day before Senior Officials meet in earnest, was devoted to two “Friends of the Chair” discussions – on Food Security, and on Innovation – two of Russia’s four priorities for 2012.

The Food Security issue has now been very well “cooked” – first with the PPFS Management Council almost two weeks ago, and then with an extended discussion at Thursday’s “SEC-COW” meeting on the logistics of getting members appointed and in harness. The Friends of the Chair discussion involved our Russian colleagues tabling a total of 20 specific proposals to be driven forward in the coming months – and in particular up to the Food Security Ministerial planned for the end of May in the Tatar capital of Kazan. With the exception of “post harvest loss”, or food waste, where there seems to be fairly universal agreement that progress should be made, my own sense was that there is an understandable but inappropriate sense of haste.

As was argued strongly at the PPFS Council meeting, it is wrong to start discussing and prioritizing substantive issues until our PPFS members have been appointed, and have been given an opportunity to take ownership of their own agenda. So from my point of view, lots of valuable ideas were tabled, but it is premature for us to dictate to our PPFS members the priorities they intend to set.

I think there will be a good opportunity to discuss this in next week’s ABAC meetings, in particular the Sustainable Development Working Group on Wednesday, where I think our first priority will be to try to make sure as many business representatives as possible get identified and approved, so that they can be ready and briefed to contribute strongly in Kazan.

If I was feeling uncomfortable with APEC’s haste to identify Food Security initiatives, then the second Friends of the Chair discussion on Innovation was a bed of nails. A number of proposals were made for greater government involvement in the identification of, and support for, innovation priorities – including the development of APEC “Innovation Technology Platforms” – essentially a ranking of the state of individual economies' innovativeness  (pardon me if there is no such word). This was followed by a presentation on the need for stronger regional collaboration on universities’ research, and the creation of a “Higher Education Common Space”.

These presentations had me prickling uncomfortably. I recall so many ABAC discussions about how many “innovations” fail, how many patent applications actually duplicate inventions already invented, and how much Government money can be wasted in supporting bright ideas that never make it to market. My sense is that Governments can and should be in the business of helping to create a business and educational environment that is conducive to creativity and innovation, but that it should leave the private sector to the risky business of taking innovative ideas to market. Maybe I am too much a product of Hong Kong’s laissez-faire views of the world, but I was definitely uncomfortable with where this conversation was taking us.

I have also heard many presentations in the past from academics pressing for more government support for the tertiary sector, but here again I have reservations. My sense is that for business, and for people who want interesting and well-paid jobs in the future, the priority must be to build life-time learning, and to enable working people to take time out during their working lives to add new skills as technologies shift. Since so few companies nowadays offer lifetime careers, nor can – or can afford – to train their staff, I see a need for individuals to “take ownership” of their own skills development needs. It is for Governments and businesses to give working people the right signals on where they ought to focus their skills-development efforts, and to ensure vocational and other institutions are developing the right opportunities for them to develop these skills – but a fresh call for additional funding into the tertiary sector?? I have my reservations.

Maybe our Russian colleagues need to come to us in ABAC and argue directly the case for a “Higher Education Common Space”. It is not for me – or my prejudices – to say they are wrong!


APEC Senior Officials taking refuge in the warm of the GOM department store while touring Red Square

 If the cold was not incentive enough to stay huddled inside, then the horrendous Moscow traffic clinched it – only the most intrepid ventured out

* Read Dodwell's latest post from SOM1 Moscow
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