21st century belongs to Canada, says development expert

The 21st century belongs to Canada, says Geoffrey Oldham, a pioneer in science and technology policy for developing countries whom York recognized Wednesday with an honorary doctor of laws degree.

“Canada’s embrace of diversity and its openness to the world are making it the first truly 21st-century country in a globalized world,” he told graduands from the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies. “The values of generosity, the celebration of diversity, and the embracing of tolerance and understanding of others have become the uniquely defining features of Canada and they set it in a class by itself in the family of nations. To me these values and characteristics represent the only real hope for progress in humanity in this new century.”

Left: Geoffrey Oldham

“It’s a conviction I hold strongly,” said the British geophysicist, who started his career in the oil industry until a Canadian academic, inspired by China’s use of science and technology to reduce poverty, invited him to help establish closer scientific links between China and the West. This was the beginning of a long association with Canada and, later, York.

Oldham spent several years in Asia, then in 1970 helped establish Canada’s International Development Research Centre, a new type of aid organization that, he told the graduands, would help developing countries build their own scientific and research capabilities so they’d be in a position to solve their own problems.

Oldham has advised governments in China and the transitional South Africa on strengthening their scientific and technical capabilities. In the 1990s, he was the United Kingdom delegate to the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development and chaired its working group on gender and science for development. The working group identified cultural barriers to science education and careers for girls and women, and how agricultural development programs that introduce new technology target the work of men and ignore the work of women.

Right: Oldham is congratulated by York Chancellor Peter Cory

“York University played a major role in my work for the UN on gender and development,” said Oldham, and cited contributions from President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna Marsden and environmental studies Prof. Bonnie Kettel, among others.

York also hosted the UN’s gender advisory board from 1996 to 2005. “This particular UN activity has made a substantial difference to the lives of many women in the developing world. But the impact has been minuscule compared to what remains to be done to achieve gender equity” in science and technology. He urged graduands to “make special efforts to identify and redress the remaining gender inequalities whenever and wherever you encounter them.”

All of us, he said, need to help “ensure the benefits from science and technology are maximized and its harmful effects are minimized. You don’t have to be scientists to do this, but you do have to take a very active part in the democratic process.”