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Technology for development
Monday, 19 October 2009 04:56

Technological progress was a major factor driving the Industrial Revolution.  Great Britain's previously manual labour and draft-animal–based economy shifted towards machine-based manufacturing. It started with the mechanisation of the textile industries, the development of iron-making techniques and the increased use of refined coal.  Production capacity grew dramatically thanks to the introduction of steam power fuelled primarily by coal, wider utilisation of water wheels and powered machinery.  And so it continued with the development of all-metal machine tools, steam-powered ships, railways, and the internal combustion engine and electrical power generation.


And so our questions are the following: in today’s world of rapid developments in information and communications technologies (ICTs), biotechnologies and so on, to what extent can new technologies provide a fast track to economic development; can new technologies be powerful in terms of solving global challenges like climate change and infectious diseases; and what can be done to enable us to more fully exploit the potential of new technologies.  Against that, are there risks associated with new technologies, and can these technologies be misused.  All these issues were brilliantly tackled in the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2001, “Making New Technologies Work for Human Development”.





Let’s look back to developments of recent decades.


Immunizations and antibiotics led rapid gains in health and survival in Latin America and East Asia, resulting in more rapid increases in life expectancy than in Europe a century before.  In the 1980s, the impact of the breakthroughs oral rehydration therapy and vaccines led to major reductions in child mortality.  Starting in 1960, a green revolution of plant breeding, fertilizer use, better seeds and water control transformed land and labour productivity around the world.  This increased food production and reduced food prices, thereby eliminating much of the undernutrition and chronic famine in Asia, Latin America and the Arab States.  Like the printing press of earlier centuries, the telephone, radio, television and fax of the 20th century opened up communications, reducing isolation and enabling people to be better informed and participate in decisions that affect their lives.  In the 1970s, the acquisition and adaptation of manufacturing technology brought rapid development in Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.  And today, cellular telephones allow countries to make giant leaps, like the jump into mobile banking in the Philippines.  But there is a risk that these new technologies might even widen the technological divide that already exists between rich and poor countries.


Today’s technological advances, like ICT and biotechnology – are perhaps faster and more fundamental, with more powerful implications for development.  Technological progress is closely intertwined with globalization.  The competitive global market place stimulates technological progress, while globalization is increasingly technology-driven including through e-business.


.  ICT has moved us from the industrial age of vertically integrated businesses to the network age, with low communications costs facilitating the development of horizontal networks.  Production is increasingly organized in supply chains among subcontractors, suppliers, laboratories, management consultants, education and research institutes, marketing research firms, distributors, etc, which each one playing a niche role, often located in different countries.  Scientific research and innovation is increasingly collaborative between institutions and countries.  ICT also provides access to knowledge for poorer countries.  The demand for high-skilled labor increases mobility and gives rise to a brain drain.  But, it also creates diaspora networks, such as the business connections between Silicon Valley and Bangalore.  And ICT has made civil society a powerful advocacy force, both nationally and globally.  An e-mail campaign helped topple Philippine President Joseph Estrada in January 2001.  At the same time, there is a digital divide both within and between countries, as some groups have better access than others – urban/country, educated/uneducated, young/old, male/female.  There are however many divides, 2 billion people do not have access to electricity.


.  biotechnology, the capacity to manipulate genetic material, holds great potential for medicine and agriculture.  In 1989 biotechnological research into hepatitis B resulted in a breakthrough vaccine.  Imagine what an affordable cure or vaccine for AIDS could do for Sub-Saharan Africa.  In China, genetically modified rice offers 15 per cent higher yields without the need for increases in other farm inputs.  Increasing biopharmaceuticals and DNA vaccines are very important for livestock diseases, increasing cereal yields, new crop varieties with greater drought and disease resistance, less environmental stress and more nutritional value.  But most transgenic crops exist in US, Canada and Argentina.  We need to manage health, environmental and social risks.  But the problem is that biotechnology research is not sufficiently focused on the problems of poor countries, like tropical diseases and crops and livestock of marginal ecological zones.  And already 2 billion people still do not have access to low cost essential medicines like penicillin, which were developed decades ago.


To exploit the full benefits of new technologies, skills are more critical than ever.  It is also necessary to create environment that encourages technological innovation.  Countries need to unleash the creativity of their people.  Key elements are: a technology policy; a competitive telecommunications sector; stimulating research; stimulating entrepreneurship; and providing access to venture capital is very important for high risk research.  Most R&D takes place in the rich OECD countries, although some emerging economies like China and India are becoming important centres of innovation.  60 per cent of R&D is carried out by the private sector, which neglects opportunities to develop technologies for the poor.  It responds to the needs of high-income consumers – only 10 per cent of global health research focuses on the illnesses that constitute 90 per cent of the global disease burden.  And there is also great potential to combine traditional knowledge and scientific methods.  For example, Vietnam has dramatically reduced malaria thanks to the development of a drug extracted from the indigenous thanh hao tree, which has been used in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine for centuries.


While new technologies have the potential to revolutionalise economic development, they do bring many risks, and there is a history of many disasters.  Mad cow disease almost certainly owes its origin and spread to cost-cutting techniques used to make cattle feed.  Nuclear power came to be seen as a threat to health and the environment after the Three Mile Island and Cherobyl accident.  And although it is currently seen as part of the solution to climate change, the problem of nuclear waste disposal has not yet been solved.  Genetically modified plants are suspected of introducing new sources of allergens, of creating super weeds and of harming species such as monarch butterflies.  Cutting edge biotechnological research has raised ethical concerns about the possibility of human cloning and the easy manufacture of devastating biological weapons.  ICT facilitates international crime, supports drug networks and assists in the dissemination of child pornography.  Every country must manage the risks of technological change.  But most developing countries are at a disadvantage because they lack the regulatory institutions needed to manage the risks.


What do we need to do to maximize the potential of technology for development?  The UNDP calls for global action on four fronts:

.  Creating innovative partnerships and new incentives for research and development – motivating the private sector, government and academia to combine their strengths in R&D, both within developing countries and through international collaboration;

.  Managing intellectual property rights – striking the right balance between private incentives to innovate and public interests in providing access to innovations;

.  Expanding investment in technologies for development – ensuring the creation and diffusion of technologies that are urgently needed but neglected by the global market;

.  Providing regional and global institutional support – with fair rules of the game and with strategies that build the technological capacity of developing countries.


In particular, there is much that rich country governments can do to ensure that new technologies address the most pressing needs of the world’s poor people, like: greater funding for R&D, differential pricing between rich and poor countries for medicine and other essential high-tech products; and fair implementation of global IPR.  There is a need for urgent research in the following areas: vaccines for malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, etc; high-yielding and drought-tolerant varieties of sorghum, cassava, maize and so on; low-cost computers and wireless connectivity; and low-cost energy systems.  We cannot count on the private sector allow to do this research, rich country governments and international organizations have an important role to play.


One issue that perhaps requires increased attention is that of traditional knowledge which can be an important source of health security, food security and livelihood security for the world's poor.  There could be great benefits from sharing and actively disseminating such traditional knowledge for promoting more locally appropriate, culturally acceptable and ecologically sustainable methods of protecting community health, nutrition, shelter and livelihoods.





Human Development Report, “Making New Technologies Work for Human Development”.  2001.  United Nations Development Program.

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