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Making New Technologies Work for Human Development


Whether it is modern medicine's prolonging of life or the fashioning of hunting tools in earliest times, it is hard to think of any milestone in human progress that did not have a technological breakthrough behind it. The real significance of the technological revolution of the last decades is that the potential of what people can do for human well-being is now greater than ever before. Yet paradoxically, many people remain skeptical about the value of new technologies for poor people and of technological innovation as a driver of development.

Today the world seems divided between technology enthusiasts and skeptics. The enthusiasts see the new breakthroughs opening possibilities for new inventions in medicine and agriculture, access to information, and knowledge that can tackle some of the most enduring problems of poverty. Skeptics see many new technologies as irrelevant for the daily lives of poor people: "Do poor people who are struggling to put children in school and find health care really need the Internet?" Other technologies, such as biotechnology, are seen to be dangerous for human health or the environment. And for many, technological progress is a tool for the rich and not for the poor; it might even be seen to have negative socioeconomic impacts. Many perceive it as driven by the global market, enriching the global corporation, and adding yet another force by which the poor can be squeezed out of their livelihoods.

Oddly enough, I agree with both positions. Today?s technological revolution has expanded the possibilities for tackling some of the most enduring problems of poverty. But we are a long way from developing the applications or tackling the issues that the skeptics raise.

Let?s look at some of the most contentious issues.

First, do poor people need the Internet? Yes! There is now ample evidence from around the world--from Brazil to India to Senegal--of the Internet?s multiple benefits. It can be a breakthrough technology for empowering people. When farmers get access to price information, it can break the monopoly of the local traders; distance learning makes good-quality education accessible; and people can use it to mobilize politically as they did in the people-power movement that challenged former President Estrada in the Philippines.

But the Internet will remain a tool of the rich and mostly irrelevant to the vast majority of poor people unless the technology can be developed to match the needs and the purses of the poor. What is needed is not just infrastructure but also computers that can spread to villages without infrastructure--wireless devices that run on batteries, for example--at a fraction of current market prices. But this will require proactive public policy; the global technology companies are unlikely to invest in such goods on their own because poor people do not constitute much of a market.

Second, is biotechnology a solution to world hunger or should it be banned? The debate has become increasingly fueled by these extreme positions. We need to develop a "Third Way" with stronger measures to tackle risks as well as to harness the potential of biotechnology to the pressing need to improve productivity of poor farmers. Scientists need to develop much more knowledge about the environmental and health risks of biotechnology. But developing systems for managing risks is also essential. Risks are also often location-specific, so building capacity for risk assessment and implementation of safety regulations is required at the country level. Ultimately, it is the people themselves who have to make their own decisions about risk on a case-by-case basis. Information to the public, such as labeling, is therefore essential.

Technology is by no means a silver bullet for eradicating hunger or tackling world poverty. Deep-rooted socioeconomic factors must be overcome, but technology that raises the productivity of poor people can be a big help. As much as half of the world?s poorest people (the 1.2 billion people who live on less than $1 a day) are farmers who live in uncertain climates and grow food crops such as cassava and sorghum. Their livelihoods are threatened, and little progress has been made to improve their productivity. The Green Revolution that doubled or tripled the productivity of farmers growing rice, maize, and wheat on better soils has bypassed them.

Third, which path should be taken for technology development: indigenous or modern? This is a false choice. True, the advent of technological innovation can threaten indigenous methods and knowledge, but the bunker mentality of rejecting all innovation does not help either tradition or people. The way forward should be to mix the benefits of modern scientific methods with indigenous knowledge to create innovative technology that can solve problems in people's daily lives. Vietnamese scientists, for example, have done leading research in malaria treatment and produced medication that has utilized the best of modern science as well as established indigenous knowledge. Many countries also need to protect against bioprospecting and introduce new provisions to protect indigenous knowledge.

The Need for New Partnerships

It would be a tragic mistake to dismiss the huge potential of new technologies for addressing some of the most enduring problems of poverty: drought- and pest-resistant varieties of food for poor farmers who have been bypassed by the Green Revolution; treatment for many tropical diseases, such as malaria and sleeping sickness; low-cost wireless computers that can break the information isolation of rural communities that rely only on the radio and word of mouth; and low-cost energy supplies for the vast majority of people in developing countries using dung and firewood.

But the global market that is moving technology forward will not take the benefits of technological progress for poor people and poor countries into consideration; on the contrary, it is likely to ignore them, if only because they do not constitute a market. Private investment goes where markets already exist; of the 1000-plus pharmaceutical products that have come to market globally since 1975, only 13 were for tropical diseases. Only 10% of global health research focuses on the illnesses that constitute 90% of the global disease burden. For every $100 of agricultural gross domestic product in 1995, industrial countries invested $2.70 in public agricultural R&D, developing countries just 62 cents.

The public sector has not responded to the potential for science and technology to contribute to human development. Over the past 10 years, public spending has stayed stagnant while private spending has increased rapidly--from about $400 billion in 1990 to more than $500 billion in 1998. Private agricultural research reached $10 billion, but the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research--the premier network of research institutions specializing in agricultural research for developing countries--could not raise $400 million.

Although it is certain that left to itself, the global market will not invest in technology for poverty reduction, no government can single-handedly cope with the lack of public investment in the most urgently needed new technologies. New international initiatives are needed to channel new technologies toward pressing needs. Rich countries, international financial institutions, and the private sector could support a global effort to create incentives and new partnerships for R&D . The public sector cannot do it alone, if only because much of the know-how resides with corporate patents and scientists and because much of the financial resources reside in private philanthropy. Corporations take research results to product development and then on to the market. The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative provides an excellent model of such initiatives. New approaches to mobilizing resources can be developed: Why not encourage more billionaires in developing country to mobilize global research on the scale of the Gates Foundation? High-tech companies can also devote a percentage of their profits to research noncommercial products, as proposed by the head of research at Novartis.

The long-term solution to innovations for development priorities will come from the south. This is not pie in the sky but a reality. In fact, contrary to common impressions, there is a tremendous dynamism in developing countries. Developing-country research is producing world-class results: a meningitis vaccine in Cuba, malaria treatment in Thailand, a $300 basic computer in Brazil. In the words of the Brazilian team leader, "We realized that this was not a First World problem; we were not going to find a Swedish or a Swiss company to solve this for us. We had to do it ourselves."

Technology is not inherently good or bad; the outcome depends on how it is used. The ultimate test of the technology revolution is whether it will empower people by enabling them to use and contribute to the world?s collective knowledge. The great challenge of the new century is to ensure that the entire human race is so empowered, not just a lucky few. And the solution depends, in a nutshell, not on charity but on policy: strong national and global incentives, rules, and resources.