Video – Sandra Harding: The tropical agenda

1 April 2014
Sandra Harding
ABARES Outlook 2014

And if I can say, the North Queensland Cowboy is my favourite non-education geek. Let me tell you. They’re very nice boys.
Now I was asked to come along today and speak about the tropical agenda. And I’m always very pleased to do that. The current debate does go to Northern Australia and what the potential is for Northern Australia. And I think Peter’s just done a fine job, and I know Keith will too, to speak about some particular aspects of Northern Australia. I’m based in Northern Australia, as is Keith. I’m not quite sure about Peter.
But for us, this is personal. And is an angle to Northern Australian which does go to the world of the topics, the issues of the topics that I want to draw to your attention today.
If you have a look at the Coalition’s discussion paper, and certainly in discussions with the previous government too, there was a strong understanding that in order to make the most of what we had, this is the potential in Northern Australian, it’s really wise for us to think about, not just the north in and of itself, and I don’t suppose we’d ever do that, but it’s also very important for us to think about the north in context. And that does go to the tropics.
2000 years ago, more than 2000 years ago, Aristotle wrote that there are three zones of the world– the frigid zone, the temperate zone, and the torrid zone. He said that the only place, however, where civilised human beings could live was in the temperate zone, but I live in the torrid zone, along with, I would say right now in the world, more than 40% of the world’s population, 55% of the world’s children, a place that generates about 20% of gross world product, about 80% of the world’s biodiversity. And some of the most critical issues of our time, whether their issues associated with health and disease, the development of governance structures, judicial structures, environmental management, all of this is playing out in the tropical world.
Australia, and my definition of Northern Australia is a little bit more expansive than Peter’s– when I talk about the Tropic of Capricorn and indeed that’s I guess what a lot of people would position as Northern Australia. We’re the developed country with the largest tropical land mass. We had scientific assets including CSIRO, AIMS, my own university, Charles Darwin University, the assets of other universities as well as a very vibrant business community. Particularly, the one that I know best in Northern Queensland that is positioned to take advantage of the growth and development in the tropical world because there is growth and development.
I said more than 40% of the world’s population. By 2050, the estimate is it’ll be more than 50% of the world’s population. And as I mentioned, the youth of the world is based in the tropics. There is a tremendous opportunity for us as a nation, but I also think a tremendous obligation for us to think about the issues of the tropical world.
Now why do I get excited about this? I get excited about it because I believe it’s objectively true that there is a fantastic opportunity and a way of re-conceptualizing, if you like, the role that Northern Australian and the rest of Australia, for that matter, might play. I also have a reason for concern about this that’s closer to home that goes to my own university. And just to let you know, my own university, James Cook University, based in Cairns, Townsville, and Singapore, is more than 50 years old now as an institution. It was the second oldest university in Queensland. We where the University of Queensland for 1960 to 1970 when we were fledged and let go on our own way as an independent university.
And the crucial thing is that if you look at some of the founding documents of that university, and indeed, the state act of parliament that brought the university into being, that university was charged, not only with providing educational opportunity and research of interest to people in Northern Queensland, it was charged with another key objective and it is evidenced in our Act. And we are to focus on education research on issues of importance to the peoples of the tropics– the peoples of the tropics. So we look north, east, and west. And everything we do in our university focuses on the tropical world.
And as people come to grips with a great opportunity I believe that Northern Australia represents, I think that that is integrally aligned with, it is connected to the future of the tropical world. And realising the potential of assets in Northern Australia and what that might mean, not just for Australia overall, but indeed for the tropical world and beyond.
The challenge for us is that we haven’t viewed the world in this way, have we? We tend to think of the world as north, south, east, west, developed, developing. We haven’t thought about that fundamental Aristotelian idea of the world, that concept of the world, that lateral idea.
But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to imagine that the geographic similarities, the climatic similarities around the world does provide a tremendous challenge but opportunity as well for Australia, but for the remainder of the world. And so part of my ambition and part of the reason why I was very happy to come along today and speak about the Northern Australian agenda, part of my ambition is to reprise that fundamental Aristotelian understanding of the world, really probably the oldest written way in which the world conceptualised itself– those three zones.
The great challenge, however, in the context of the Northern Australian interest, the interest right now, which I understand for the development of Northern Australia for some populations and certainly up my way, it’s a long held dream. For others, it’s a hopeless fantasy. The challenge, I believe, for us is to re-conceptualize Northern Australia, not just in and of itself, but rather as part of that tropical world.
But in a world where we do consider the world north, south, east, west, developed, developing, OECD, non-OECD, all of the other dichotomies, first world, third world, all of those are the dichotomies, how do we reprise this fundamentally Aristotelian conception?
And so I want to share some news with you about that. A few years ago, in struggling with that very question, because by then and being in my position, you’d understand that I’m totally convinced about the importance of both Northern Australia and more particularly the opportunities of the tropical world and the needs of the tropical world. I thought about how it is what we might be able to add another world view to the way in which we conceptualise the world. And that is to raise the profile of the tropics. How do we do that?
So the idea developed in discussion at my university about developing a report. And the report is entitled “The State of the Tropics.” And the report has a very simple objective. And it is to answer what I think is a very simple but very profound question. Is life in the tropics getting better? Is life in the tropics getting better?
Now up until the end of 2006, I filled the role as the chairman of the Australian Statistics Advisory Council advising the Australian statistician and Federal Cabinet on national statistical priorities. When we had this idea, I rang the then at my time– he retired by the time I rang him in the middle of 2010– Dennis Trewin, the former Australian statistician. I rang him and I said, Dennis, he’s an idea for you, the idea of this report. Is life in the tropics getting better? Has it been done? And if it hasn’t been done, can we do it? Because if we can’t get valid and reliable data, you all would know, there’s no point thinking much further about it.
He went away. He’d been president of the International Statistics Institute, on a board at the World Bank. I knew he was the man to find the answer to those questions. He came back to me and said good news, Sandra, it hasn’t been done and yes we can do it.
So he and I wrote a concept paper, and I sent it out just before Christmas 2010 to 11 of my equivalents around the world because my thinking is that if what we are doing– and it is a fundamentally geopolitical agenda here– we’re wanting to do nothing less than changing the way the world views itself, to realise those opportunities for Northern Australian and the tropical world. If this is what we’re doing, it was far more important than a James Cook University project or a Queensland project or an Australian project. It seemed to me that I had to test the idea with other colleagues around the world to see whether or not there would be traction and take up on this.
So we wrote this concept paper. I sent it out just before Christmas. And it was like sending my baby out. By then, I was totally convinced that we needed to do this. And fortunately, people were very enthusiastic.
And what we did then with that positive response is Dennis and I wrote a discussion paper. I hosted the inaugural meeting of the International Leadership Group, which all of the presidents or their equivalent vice chancellors were invited to participate in. And we went through that discussion paper, set the parameters for the project. And since then, the report is being prepared.
Now the report is almost finalised. It goes to a number of lead indicators. You can think about what they might be. It certainly goes to education. It goes to environmental management. It goes to issues like corruption in governments, for example. Health and disease, life expectancy. The report is almost complete.
We have released already two early insights– one on life expectancy because the lowest life expectancy in the world, not just in the tropical world, is central and southern Africa. And that was released out of our partner institution in November, 2012. That partner institution is the University of Nairobi.
Then, middle of last year, we released one on primary forest cover, which was released out of Costa Rica, the organisation for tropical studies field station. We’ve got two more coming out. One on economic output and one on wild marine catch. And then at the end of June, early July, we will have to worldwide release of the report on what we believe will be World Tropics Day.
The point of this report is not simply to be a book of numbers. It really is to profile the tropical world, to test and identify where policies that appeared to have improved– whether it’s agricultural production or governance structures or health and disease. To test where policies appear to have worked and those that appear to have failed.
The report also includes a number of essays from experts so that you can see what you might be able to do with these data. The data are going to be available more broadly for people to utilise and to do their own analyses with as well.
So I guess what I should do is let you know that the 12 institutions that are a part of this, just so that you get a bit of an idea of this. And I’ll use my last few minutes to speak about Northern Australia and what I think this means for Northern Australia. But I’m sure you can imagine what it might mean. The institutions are the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which is the oldest school of tropical health medicine in the world, the University of Nairobi, that I’d already mentioned to you. Mahidol University, which is an elite tropical health and medicine university in Thailand. The National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, James Cook University, which has lead and initiated this, the University of Papau New Guinea, the University of the South Pacific, which is based in Fiji, but works across the South Pacific as well.
The University of Hawaii, Manoa. There’s an Ecuadorian politics and economics university. The Organisation for Tropical Studies, Secretariat at Duke University in North Carolina, but field stationed in Costa Rica. And also INPA, which is the Brazilian government’s major research institute on the Amazon.
So those are the twelve partners putting this together. It will be a major worldwide release. And we do have someone of winning international stature who is going to do that for us. And I have somebody right now in country working with that person’s people so that we can nail a date. And I hope by next week, I’ll have a specific date for this.
So what does it mean, this tropical agenda for Northern Australia? As I said, I do think part of the challenge for us is to break out of what I think sometimes is a very inward looking idea of Northern Australia, and particularly, perhaps from points south. I’m originally from Melbourne. Spent a number of years here. And I don’t mean any disrespect at all. But I do think sometimes we put the development of Northern Australian in stark relief to where a lot of business is done in the south, for example. And I just don’t think we can afford to run around that paddock again.
The fact of matter is we have to think about Northern Australian in a new way. And I do think bringing to bear the opportunities in the tropical world is one way of us changing our mind about that and thinking perhaps rather more deeply, but also rather more courageously about what Northern Australia might offer.
When I speak to people, to businesses in Northern Australia about the potential of the report and what that might do, not only is it aimed geopolitically to profile the tropics, to reprise that fundamental Aristotelian idea of the world, it will also reveal research gaps. It will reveal questions, it’ll reveal for policy makers. I think a grounded understanding about what policies appear to have worked and what has failed. We can jump up learning curves.
But potently, for business people, I believe it’s going to demonstrate where there are new business opportunities in services delivery, for example, where there’s an enormous appetite. For health services delivery. So I do think that part of our challenge will be, even as we think of commodity production and food production and energy, a number of other very important areas, we should be thinking about services innovation and the way in which some of our know how in operating across– and Peter’s quite right, we do often operate east to west across the Tropic of Capricorn.
Thinking about how we operate and how we deliver services in a range of different environments and circumstances and how that might parlay, if you like, into economic opportunity given the growth of the tropical world. And it is growing. It’s an important part of the world. And it’s one that we need to focus upon.
I’ll finish up by saying that I’ve had the opportunity to brief many people around the world on the report, but on the tropical agenda more broadly. And I’ve published on it as well. And people like one of President Obama’s former advisers, the Gates Foundation, many bureaucrats and ministers and politicians and certainly our own prime minister, minister for trade, minister for foreign affairs, minister for education are all alert to this.
And it might be interesting for you to know that the group has never sought government funding to support this particular report. As I’ve said to many politicians, I don’t want to have to care about what you care about. We want to look at issues that we think are important. And so we’ve done this off our own bat.
From my point of view, the challenge for us is to realise those opportunities. And if I can just share with you one of my favourite conversations was head as I was discussing the report and its potential with a fellow from the Belgian Congo. Now the Belgian Congo has a few challenges at the moment. And we don’t have a francophone institution in our group, our international leadership group. And I feel that keenly. And I think we do need that. So I’ve been keeping in contact with some folk.
Anyway, what he said to me was this. He said, Sandra, the reason why we, and a number of his colleagues are so keen on this redefinition of the world, this new idea, reprising this fundamental Aristotelian idea of the lateral nature of the world, is that in the past when things have gone wrong for them, they’ve looked to New York or Washington, rather, or Brussels to help them get out of the spot.
And whether or not the potential for those economies to assist in future will be attenuated or not, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone really knows. But he said the key point is that oftentimes the solutions are not fit for purpose. He said, I would rather look to Singapore. I’d rather look to Hawaii. I’d rather look to Australia. I’d rather look to construction [INAUDIBLE], services delivery [INAUDIBLE] and from those jurisdictions, rather than from traditional sources where often times all the goodwill in the world simply does not equate to developing a solution to particular issues of the day.
So ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening to me. The tropical agenda as I see it is an essential part of Australia’s development and the Australia to come. Thank you very much.
Courtesy of ABARES Outlook 2014