Quality Infrastructure from the perspective of the Global South

Quality infrastructure originated in the Northern Hemisphere

The development of (what we today call) Quality Infrastructure (QI) is closely linked to the development of trade relations between different countries. The countries of the Northern Hemisphere started to develop metrology, standards and conformity assessment already during the early phase of industrialisation. Due to the dynamically growing trade links, these countries were required to harmonise their respective systems.

In the countries of the Southern hemisphere, the QI started to develop much later, mostly from the second half of the 20th century. The main reason for this lagging behind was due to colonial trade structures. The countries of the North dominated the trade flows using their domestic standard and measurement procedures. The colonial powers built up if at all, only rudimentary institutions for food and drug control in their colonies.

However, it is striking that some countries of the Global South (GS), specifically from South America (Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela) were among the first signatories of the 1875 Metre Convention.[1] However, the early industrialisation of these countries failed, which was reflected in a discontinuity in the establishment of a national QI. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that Southern hemisphere countries started to establish their own National Metrology Institutes (NMIs), National Standard Bodies (NSB) and much later National Accreditation Bodies (NAB). This was in response to the increasing political independence and diversification of trade relations of the Southern countries. The countries of the Northern Hemisphere supported this institution building, as they were interested in establishing an equivalent quality system with their emerging trading partners.

Today, the existence of a National QI is a necessary condition for participation in international trade. More and more countries of the Global South are now members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the institutions of their QI are members of international professional organisations and signatories of mutual recognition agreements.[2] At the same time, many countries of the Global South face the choice of whether to align their trading system with the high standards of the countries of the North or benefit from cheap imports from China and Southeast Asia. The question arises whether the high standards for exports should also apply to the local market.

The asymmetry between countries of the Global North and South

Today, there is still a considerable asymmetry between countries in the Northern and Southern hemispheres about the technical competence in the field of QI. Only a few National Metrology Institutes (NMI) of the Global South have reached world-class metrology competence and are represented in the consultative committees of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). These committees bring together the world’s experts in their specified fields as advisers on scientific and technical matters. Among the tasks of these committees are the detailed consideration of advances in physics that directly influence metrology, the preparation of recommendations for discussion at the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM), the identification, planning and execution of key comparisons of national measurement standards, and the provision of advice to the CIPM on the scientific work in the laboratories of the BIPM. [3] An outstanding example is the Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science (KRISS) in South Korea, which today stands for international excellence at a similar level as its tutors from the USA and Germany.[4] NMIs from other larger economies such as Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa are also represented in BIPMs Consultative Committees.

World Class Metrology in the Global South – The Kibble Watt Balance in South Africa

Concerning the current debates on post-colonialism, [5] we can ask to what extent the development of Quality Infrastructure in the countries of the Global South differs or should differ, from that of the North. Is the development of Quality Infrastructure in the countries of the Global South solely a matter of catching up, or does it require unique strategies that are geared to the specific characteristics of the countries of the Global South?

The countries of the Global South differ significantly from one another. Particularly in terms of industrialisation, there are considerable differences between the countries of Africa, Asia and South America, and we also find a multitude of development situations on the continents. In this respect, we understand the term Global South as a general paraphrase for less industrialised countries, which are mainly located south of the equator.

Unique challenges for QI in the South

The Quality Infrastructure in the countries of the Global South often faces unique challenges:

  1. Funds for research and development are scarce so that QI bodies must finance themselves or depend on the support of international development cooperation.
  2. The QI is geared primarily to the needs of the export industry, so there is a duality between high standards for exports and low standards for domestic consumers.
  3. The private sector is weakly organised so that the state is stronger called upon to intervene in the market. In this respect, there is often a preference for technical regulations, whereas industry self-regulation is weaker.
  4. The dominant micro and small enterprise sector and the usually strong informal sector hardly benefit from the services provided by the country’s quality infrastructure
  5. International service providers dominate the field of conformity assessment.

These structural characteristics limit the possibility of merely transferring best practices from the industrialised countries of the North to the South. Besides, the QI in the countries of the Global North has developed considerably over the last decades, and the development gap between North and South has grown significantly. This often creates additional difficulties for the transfer of experience. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s [6], it was still easy for researchers and technical experts of national metrology institutes (NMIs) from developing countries to acquire their skills in laboratories of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or the German Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) to implement them in their laboratories after returning to their countries. Today, however, the laboratories of the North have achieved a technical sophistication that makes it nearly impossible for newcomer countries to catch up quickly.

There is a maxim that says, “one should not measure with the maximum accuracy, but with the necessary accuracy”.  That means that NMIs must have the capacity to meet the level of accuracy required by their industry and trade. For example, measuring time with today’s possible highest accuracy of 1015, or 1 second in about 30 million years, [7] in countries that lack a defence or space industry, is not necessary.

South-South and Triangular-Cooperation

In this respect, South-South-cooperation is taking on a new function in technology transfer. The developing countries of the southern hemisphere are now able to pass on their experience to their neighbours and even to countries on other continents (see, for example, the cooperation of the Brazilian National Institute of Metrology, Standardization and Industrial Quality (INMETRO) with Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa).[8] Many countries of the South now operate their international cooperation departments and programmes. At the same time, the countries of the North support South-South cooperation in the field of quality infrastructure in the context of so-called Triangular cooperation.

Finally, there are also areas which are new to all countries. The application of the knowledge and tools of the quality infrastructure to combatting climate change, to preserving biodiversity and to digitise the economy and society are all relatively new topics for the actors of quality infrastructure. Here the countries of the Global South have the opportunity to be among the pioneers and to leapfrog in development. At the same time, new developments affect the South differently and require solution strategies adapted to the respective conditions.


[1] BIPM, The first 17, Sèvres/ France

[2] Correia de Brito, A., C. Kauffmann and Pelkmans, J. (2016), “The contribution of mutual recognition to international regulatory cooperation”, OECD Regulatory Policy Working Papers, No. 2, OECD Publishing, Paris

[3] BIPM, The role of the Consultative Committees, Sèvres/ France

[4] Choi, D. G. (2013). A Primer on Korea’s Standards System: Standardization, Conformity Assessment, and Metrology. NIST, Washington DC

[5] Young, Robert J. C. (2003). Postcolonialism: A very short introduction, Oxford.

[6] Kellermann, M. (2019). QI Toolkit Case Studies. Case Brazil, Washington D.C

[7] Bauch, Andreas (2012), Time – the SI Base Unit “Second”, In: Special Issue / PTB-Mitteilungen 122 (2012), No. 1, Braunschweig

[8] Pace Alves, Leonardo (2013). Triangular Technical Cooperation and the role of INMETRO; In: Austral: Brazilian Journal of Strategy & International Relations, v.2, n.4, Jul-Dec. 2013, p.117-139

Feature image by Duangphorn Wiriya on Unsplash

This entry was posted in Quality Infrastructure by Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke

Dr Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke is a global expert in the field of international economic development cooperation. With more than 25 years of consulting experience, he is active in all phases of a project and program development (preparation, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation) and collaborates with various implementing organizations and development banks (German Development Cooperation - GIZ and PTB -, Inter-American Development Bank, European Union and United Nations). He has consulting experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Dr.Harmes-Liedtke is an experienced trainer and process consultant. He works with groups and teams to reflect on their situation and to then formulate change projects to improve their reality. He enables dialogue, facilitates and designs workshops, processes, and sense-making processes. He is certified in facilitation, mediation, and communication techniques which allow him to deal with sensitive, diverse, and even conflict situations. He supports systemic economic development in various roles: • As an expert and trainer in international trade, national quality policies, industrial policy, clusters, and global value chains • As a process consultant in designing and leading diagnostic processes that result in change, adaptation, and improvement • As a facilitator of dialogue, workshops, training, and sense-making processes • As a transdisciplinary researcher in the field of systemic economic development Born 1965, Ph.D. in political science and economics (Bremen 1999), MA in economics (Diplom-Volkswirt) (Hamburg 1991). German nationality.

5 thoughts on “Quality Infrastructure from the perspective of the Global South

  1. Very interesting article, I think the global collaboration proposed between countries of the southern hemisphere is very important, adapting their need for measurement to the level of industrial development.
    Despite the political difficulties of unifying the regions, which traditionally tend to seek sovereignty, I believe that the creation of regional metrology institutes should be encouraged in certain regions that are very similar.
    Thank you for share.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you. Fascinating post. I suggest there is also inequality within economies, for example between large organisations and small. For example, large organisations generate more data and so are better placed to design and apply meaningful metrics.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a good article, thank you. I would be interested to explore how increased cooperation across QI bodies – at international, regional and national level – could deliver more coordinated and effective capacity building in the GS. In that respect, the upcoming Pacific QI Initiative may prove a helpful model.

    Liked by 1 person

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