By Alex Davis – A few decades ago, space technologies were the exclusive domain of a select few countries in the world. Today, however, the entry barrier is much lower and more countries than ever have access to the benefits of space-based technology. Space applications and derived services are no longer restricted to wealthy and technologically advanced nations. Therefore, there is unprecedented opportunity to utilize space technologies to further development goals and address global problems with global tools. The challenge today is to identify areas for productive partnerships between developed and developing countries that align space capabilities with country-specific needs.
Two areas stand out in particular where space technologies often have a comparative advantage for advancing development. First, remote sensing satellites are unmatched in their ability to observe large swaths of land over time. In many developing nations, this may be the only cost-effective way to provide timely information about sparsely populated areas. This information can be used for many different applications, ranging from natural resource management and urban planning to environmental monitoring and disease tracking. The greatest overall benefit of the technology is that it enables better decision-making and thus facilitates a more efficient utilization of a country’s resources.
Secondly, satellite communication can provide remote areas in developing countries, which are least likely to have access to land-based alternatives, with a link to communication infrastructure and services in other parts of the world. In the event of a disaster, satellites may provide the only remaining communication method for response teams.
A perfect illustration of the potential of space applications for assisting developing countries is Brazil. The Amazonia-1 Earth observation satellite, scheduled for launch in 2014, will provide Brazil with unprecedented capabilities the country can leverage to address a number of national and international challenges. Specifically, the detailed high-resolution images the satellite provides will aid Brazil in identifying and combating deforestation in its traditionally difficult-to-access interior regions, where much of Brazil’s rain forests are located. Moreover, this benefit will not be restricted to Brazil, because the satellite will also map similar data from rainforests around the world. The gathered data will be openly available to all interested parties, who can then use it for their own national environmental preservation efforts.
The project was realized as a collaboration of the British Department for International Development (DFID) and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). DFID provided a high-resolution camera, while Brazil provided the rest of the platform. This collaboration demonstrates how space technology can be used effectively to address a major global issue by pooling the resources of developed and developing nations.
Unfortunately, not many developing countries have been able to leverage this potential and many hindrances remain before these kinds of partnerships become mainstream. For one, developing nations are often simply unaware of the potential benefits of space systems and also lack the highly skilled workforces, including engineers who would be needed to interpret the data that
Earth observation systems produce. Additionally, relevant legislation in developing countries, if it exits at all, often does not adhere to international regulatory frameworks and standards and presents a barrier for cooperation. At the same time, enhanced regional cooperation, especially between smaller developing countries that share similar needs, is key to creating markets of sufficient size and distributing costs.
While the use of space holds enormous untapped potential for partnerships between developing and developed countries, much remains to be done in order to fully realize this potential. Developing countries should invest in the space sector incrementally with a focus on the programs most beneficial to their societies. A starting point, even for countries with no prior investment, would be to develop their own space policy experts who understand the benefits of space systems and how these systems can help address national goals. For governments in developed countries, investing in space applications can be an efficient and sustainable form of development aid if they achieve buy-in from the target country and stress the development of in-country capabilities. Such an approach would also go a long way in strengthening developing countries’ scientific base and ability to innovate. Capacity building in the space sector has the added benefit of delivering the kind of workforce that developing countries need to thrive in today’s global economy. As these economies emerge, moreover, they are likely to be able to invest in their own solutions.
If done correctly, the use of space can enable all parties involved to gain from cooperation. Developing nations can effectively address their social, economic and security challenges through the use of space assets and applications, and developed nations can increase the effectiveness of their aid while simultaneously addressing global challenges. The time is ripe for space-driven development to achieve escape velocity and take off.
Alex Davis was an intern with the Managing Across Boundaries program.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons