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Tropical disease research led by poorer nations

Research into viruses such as Zika is being led by so-called Innovative Developing Countries Research into viruses such as Zika is being led by so-called Innovative Developing Countries
22 Sep
Many countries that are classified as being ‘not high income’ nonetheless lead the world in tropical disease research

When Zika broke out in South America in 2016, Brazil put more research and development into curing the tropical disease than most. In fact, its research output was the second highest in the world, after the US. Its contribution outdid many ‘high income countries’ as classified by the World Bank.

Brazil is not alone. Many countries that do not fall into the ‘high income’ category appear in the top 25 tropical diseases research. These are the findings of a study by researchers at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, which discovered that countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Kenya, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey contribute more research per person than most ‘leading’ nations, often outstripping the richer countries. Carlos Morel, lead author of the analysis, dubs these nations Innovative Developing Countries – or IDCs. ‘They innovate more than expected, given their economy,’ he says, ‘and these innovations are not reflected in traditional economic indexes.’

The World Bank classifies countries according to GNI – gross national income – which it divides per person. Until 2016, there were only three categories for GNI: high, middle and low income countries. Back then, high income countries were controversially defined as ‘developed’ and the remaining two-thirds as ‘developing’. This changed in 2016 when the World Bank introduced four tiers: low, middle low, upper middle and high income. Plus, it scratched ‘developing’ from all of its publications – ‘the conclusion was that it was becoming less relevant’ it wrote at the time.

For Morel, the new categories give a ‘much needed’ update, but still feed assumptions about the rich and poor roles in development. ‘Ranking countries by income level alone does not detect the innovative countries,’ he says. The research joins a growing chorus that argues measuring countries by more nuanced standards. ‘Splitting countries into two groups – rich and poor; developed and developing; leaders and followers – appears to us to be progressively more simplistic, unrealistic and a heritage from colonial times.’

This was published in the September 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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