South-South Champions: Ms. Tengku Sharizad Tengku Dahlan, Director,
International Science Technology Innovation Centre for South-South Cooperation (ISTIC)

“South-South Cooperation is all about the collaboration, cooperation, connection, communication. South-South Cooperation plays the central role in the framework of the 2030 agenda because it is based on the same philosophy of development, the philosophy based on collective action and solidarity. I like the principle that, ‘there is no country that is so rich that it cannot learn from others and no country that is so poor that it cannot share its knowledge”. (Ms. Tengku Sharizad Tengku Dahlan, September 8, 2021)

The Director of the International Science Technology Innovation Centre for South-South Cooperation (ISTIC) shared her views on the changing modalities of work that have been enforced by COVID-19, the balance between Inter-governmental mandates and needs of the funding partner and her hope that, faced with all these challenges, based on shared values and experiences the global South can act collectively towards the attainment of the 2030 agenda.

ISTIC is an organization of the South, can you tell us about challenges and opportunities for ISTIC in this environment?

Tengku Sharizad kicked off the interview with a brief historical overview of ISTIC. ISTIC was established in May 2008 as a follow-up to the Doha Plan of Action, adopted by G77 and China during the Second South Summit on 16 June 2005. Malaysia accepted UNESCO’s invitation to host ISTIC with the mandate to facilitate the integration of developmental approaches into national STI policies, including organizing capacity building activities, providing policy advice, exchanging experiences, knowledge, and best practices as well as conducting research and problem solving in Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) policy in developing countries.

Tengku Sharizad explained that ISTIC is the only UNESCO Category 2 centre which focuses on SSC. She said, “It is built on the need for an international platform on Science, Technology and Innovation policy in developing countries. Almost all the developed countries have well-established science policy development centres or institutes which provide training, policy advice and conduct research.  Such capacity is lacking in many developing countries where STI systems have been very fragmented and have little coordination.” . ISTIC focuses on SSC to fulfill the needs of the countries in the global south and currently has created more than 150 strategic collaborations and alliances..

Pertaining to the environment, the Director mentioned ISTIC needs to balance between the international agenda and the aspirations of the Government of Malaysia. “ISTIC has to ensure that its mission and vision are aligned with the national agenda while fulfilling its mandate as a UNESCO Category 2 Centre. The funding of ISTIC comes from the national government. I would say that it is Malaysia’s contribution to international science. She mentioned that ISTIC faces the challenge to transform, and to respond to the changing development landscape and the evolving needs of its stakeholders and partners.

In terms of how challenges have been addressing, Director Tengku Sharizad shared that, “ISTIC has been implementing programmes based on the mandate from its first establishment. At certain points, ISTIC has to review and reset the objectives and to ensure it is aligned with the national agenda. The Director opined that, “the directive to change creates challenges and opportunities at the same time. By doing this, ISTIC gets more support from the national government, while having  more opportunities to position Malaysia at the global level. ISTIC must find this synergy between the objective to implement mandates from UNESCO and providing value for Malaysia’s support”.

How has ISTIC’s work and approach been affected by the pandemic crisis?

Ms. Tengku Sharizad mentioned that ISTIC, like many other institutions has also faced some challenges due to COVID-19.  She said, “I have to rethink the work arrangement, replace some investments to enhance the existing infrastructure and to adapt to the “new normal”.  The Director highlighted the enforced trend to work virtually, noting that the capacity building programmes have been mostly shifted to the virtual mode. She revealed that despite the success in using online training, not all trainings lend themselves well to online mode. “Some training programmes like computer science education, climate change education which are using the Inquiry-Based Science Education (IBSE) method, require hands-on learning and face-to-face engagement between the trainers and trainees. So, we need to work around this and be more Innovative and creative in finding ways to make the trainings effective and impactful,” she added.

The ISTIC Director shared that by going virtual ISTIC can cast its net wider and reach out to more participants, meaning that it can reach more people at lesser cost. Less travel is involved, thus reducing the carbon footprint of doing business. She noted that the lower cost does not automatically mean less resources are required as the new ways of working have opened up new opportunities which allowsISTIC can reach out to more countries. She said that shifting from physical to virtual mode does requires less financial resources because of reduced logistical costs and, . the resources can be repurposed into the development of training modules, data collection, mapping, for example. “Therefore, there is also a shift of ISTIC’s resource allocation”, she said.

She also underlined a new challenge of going virtual which is the digital divide, that some of the partners may not have access to internet or the quality could be poor.  In such circumstances, she said, alternative ways of reaching out to the partners have to be thought out.

In the area of science and technology, why do you think SSC matters and what have been the key achievements or past successes in applying SSC for ISTIC?

Ms. Tengku Sharizad emphasized that “science and technology hold the key to the progress and development of any nation because they play a major role in the wealth creation and improvement of the quality of life, economic growth, societal transformation”.  She indicated that SSC, in collaboration with STI, has a very significant potential that can be harnessed to stimulate this greater technological advocacy in the developing world. Tengku Sharizad added, “the big family of southern countries can aspire to the positive economic development that can contribute to the country’s GDP and technological advancement. SSC provides the ideal framework for others to adopt the best practices. It is very helpful for the developing countries in comparison to the alternatives to such collaboration. It widens the choices of partners to work with. SSC provides opportunities to pull resources together so that well-targeted, joint networks can tackle several challenges in the developing countries,, she said.

The ISTIC Director stressed that Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) are strong driving forces towards attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. She shared data on ISTIC’s outreach since its establishment, that it has benefited about 6,000 scientists, researchers, and policy makers from more than 100 countries, a majority of which are Southern nations.

STI can have cross-cutting themes for example, digitalization, fast evolving areas such as artificial intelligence. Due to COVID, there is a gap of STI in some of the less developed countries while some of the developed countries can cope with the advancement of STI. Is there a strategy in ISTIC to address this widening of the gap of STI?

Director Tengku Sharizad pointed out that this is a concern in ISTIC’s work.  She noted that ISTIC has to reach out to the global south for training, capacity building programmes and research, and that inclusivity in offering these to partners is important. She observed that where ISTIC engages participants virtually, not everyone is able to participate realistically due to the digital divide and inequalities.

One of the suggestions that ISTIC proposes to reach technologically less advanced communities is to utilize a different platform, for instance, through radio or TV to reduce the inequality of the digital divide, at the same time the training programmes can still reach the target group.

She emphasized the need for infrastructure establishment, and further explained that, “the participants also need the minimal technological services and knowledge and digital literacy; for instance, the fundamental basic training to navigate to the internet, the digital platform”. She referred to UNESCO recommendations that state the “need to focus on indigenous technology and indigenous knowledge”. To conclude she asked the rhetorical question, “How are we going to reach out to all these indigenous communities when there is the big digitalization gap? ISTIC has to find a way to address this big challenge”.

What would you like to see introduced or changed in the way we have been applying South-South Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region?

The Director noted that the Asia-Pacific region is characterized by incredible diversity. Her thoughts were that the diversity makes it more challenging for SSC to be effective.  She highlighted that, “at the same time, this diversity can also be our strength”. SSC in the global level rests on the strong political foundation. The support and the personal commitment of the government, the leadership of the state in a developing country is very important but can change. She further observed that sustainability and continuity of a plan/initiative is very important regardless of such changes. On the other hand, organizations like UNOSSC and UNESCO have the continuity to continue the focus on mandates through their strong convening power, global presence which can be leveraged to create policy momentum, and to ensure effective implementation”.

The Director reiterated that ISTIC’s interest in systematic follow up and institutional support, for instance, more documentation on South-South success stories through  knowledge and experience sharing. Beyond the notion of solidarity among the developing countries, SSC can be an effective instrument for the development in this region.

Are there any other thoughts that you would like us to convey to readers?

Director Tengku Sharizad mentioned that developing countries are learning from one another and exchanging lessons from each other. The problems facing the global South are similar and include corruption, poverty, war, hunger, poor healthcare, and low levels of education. She highlighted that this what creates “the global South, a family of shared values. All these countries can sit and share ideas. This is what SSC is all about. It is all about the collaboration, cooperation, connection, communication. SSC plays the central role in the framework of the 2030 agenda because it is based on the same philosophy of development, the philosophy based on collective action and solidarity. I like the principle that, “there is no country that is so rich that it cannot learn from others and no country that is so poor that it cannot share its knowledge”.

Do you have any upcoming proposals/ ideas/ projects incorporating SSC in the next few years?

Ms. Tengku Sharizad related the message that ISTIC is in the process of renewing its agreement (Between UNESCO and Malaysia) for the third 6-year term. In this context, ISTIC has developed new strategic plans. One of the plans is to establish the Global Innovative Research Consortium (GIRC) with leading scientists providing a global collaborative platform for research, development, and strengthening the focus on STI for the benefit of the global South inclusive of sharing the technology between the developing countries and the technologically advanced countries.

“Open Science is a new initiative that ISTIC will be involved in. There is a need of a shared agreement to get these shared practices. Open Science policy can remove the obstacles and accelerate the speed of research in order to increase the regional collaboration and network in the post pandemic era. Open Science can offer a greater potential for SSC. ISTIC is looking forward to leaning on the South-South platform and to work with the key players in South-South Cooperation,” she said.

How can UNOSSC facilitate your Office’s work to help scale up South-South Cooperation?

In her conclusion, the Director said that “in the case of GIRC, UNOSSC can help us to mobilize the financial resources, the expertise through South-South and Triangular Cooperation partnerships and strategic alliances. UNOSSC can play the catalytic role, becoming a more effective backbone to facilitate the partnership between the global south governments and multiple actors such as think tanks, civil society organizations to enhance the information sharing and provide more collaboration opportunities”.

Director Tengku Sharizad reiterated that “UNOSSC and ISTIC have this function as a convener, a collaborator, a catalyst, a connector. We are really looking forward to working with UNOSSC to enhance our new programmes”, she concluded.

Ms. Tengku Sharizad Tengku Dahlan assumed the position as the Director of the International Science, Technology and Innovation Centre (ISTIC) under the auspices of UNESCO in June 2020. ISTIC is UNESCO Category 2 Centre that functions as an international platform for South-South cooperation in science, technology and innovation (STI). She has 20 years of experience in international relation, R&D and technology management and institutional governance, with a primary focus on science and technology industry. She holds a BSc in Microbiology from the Flinders University of South Australia. Before joining ISTIC she was attached to the Academy of Sciences Malaysia where she headed the STI Strategic Initiatives and Partnership Division. Prior to this, she served the International Science Council Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (ISC ROAP) for eight years, responsible for developing and implementing its regional strategy and programmes, with a special focus on areas like Urban Health and Wellbeing, Disaster Risk Reduction, Science Policy and Inter-Regional collaborations.