Technology for development

Print edition : August 04, 2001

Human Development Report 2001 - Making New Technologies Work for Human Development by the United Nations Development Programme, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001; pages 264, Rs.475.

THE United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) recently released 11th Human Development Report deserves attention for more than one reason. It provides a detailed account of the status of human development at the end of the 20th century. In doing so, it makes use of the specific, quantified and monitorable goals for development stated in the United Nations Millennium Declaration. And it enters into the controversial area of the role of new technology for human development.

As the 21st century dawns, the challenges of human development remain large. "Of the 4.6 billion people in developing countries, more than 850 million are illiterate, nearly a billion lack access to improved water sources, and 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation. Nearly 325 million boys and girls are out of school. And 11 million children under age five die each year from preventable causes - equivalent to more than 30,000 a day. Around 1.2 billion people live on less than (the equivalent of) $1 a day (1993 PPP U.S. $), and 2.8 billion on less than $2 a day. Such deprivations are not limited to developing countries. In OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Develop-ment) countries, more than 130 million people are income poor, 34 million are unemployed and adult functional illiteracy rates average 15%" (pages 9-10).

Global inequalities in income are also high. In 1993, the poorest 10 per cent of the world's people had only 1.6 per cent of the income of the richest 10 per cent. The income of the richest 1 per cent added up to that of the poorest 57 per cent. The richest 10 per cent of the U.S. population (around 25 million people) had a combined income greater than that of the poorest 43 per cent of the world's people (around 2 billion people).

Not a pretty picture, but not one to be dismissed as totally hopeless. For, in terms of the targets set by the Millennium Declaration the performance has been quite mixed. The goals of the Declaration to be achieved by 2015 are:

* To halve the proportion of the world's people suffering from hunger,

* To halve the proportion of the world's people without access to safe drinking water,

* To achieve universal completion of primary schooling,

* To achieve gender equality in access to education,

* To reduce maternal mortality ratio by three quarters,

* To reduce under five mortality rates by two thirds,

* To halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases.

In addition, three international development goals have been accepted - to reduce infant mortality rates by two-thirds; to provide access for all who want reproductive health services; and to implement national strategies for sustainable development by 2005 to reverse the loss of environmental resources by 2015.

An audit of performance is shown in the accompanying panels.

The Report's discussion of the role of technology in human development must be set against this background of terribly uneven performance in moving towards the specific millennium goals. The case for technology is that "digital, genetic and molecular breakthroughs are pushing forward the frontiers of how people can use technology to eradicate poverty. These breakthroughs are creating new possibilities for improving health and nutrition, expanding knowledge, stimulating economic growth and empowering people to participate in their communities." Further, "Today's technological transformations are intertwined with another transformation - globalisation - and together they are creating a new paradigm; the network age. These transformations expand opportunities and increase social and economic rewards of creating and using technology. They are also altering how - and by whom - technology is created and owned, and how it is made accessible and used" (page 27).

This factual opening statement about new technology in a new context is discussed at length in the rest of the Report. The discussion is wide-ranging, touching specifically on the opportunities and risks. It is impossible to sum up that discussion. Hence, a few selective comments.

The Report cannot be said to be too romantic about the possibilities of a technological solution to poverty and deprivation. It recognises many impediments, limitations and risks. For instance, it is pointed out that while for the starving millions in many parts of the world technological innovations increasing food production will be helpful, the problem in the case of advanced countries, particularly in America and Europe, is that of surplus production and hence they will attach low priority to technology and research that will result in substantial increases in the production of foodgrains. However, the Report is basically optimistic about the possibilities of technology and the message conveyed is that if the advanced countries are willing to help and the poor are willing to cooperate, there is now the possibility of a technology-prompted solution to the persisting development problems. The support for this view is provided by a concentration of attention on medical technology. Medical breakthroughs such as immunisations and antibiotics have been cited as major achievements of the 20th century resulting in reductions in mortality, especially child mortality. It is pointed out that technical progress accounted for 40 to 50 per cent of mortality reductions between 1960 and 1990.

But these medical technology innovations have two features which cannot be claimed to be common in other technological breakthroughs. Medical technological innovations seldom have adverse any effects on any major section of society even in the short run. Consequently, there is usually a great deal of public involvement, often through agencies of government, in their propagation and adoption and, in fact, even in the very processes of innovation.

In the relationship between technological innovation and human development, the presence or absence of social purpose is a crucial criterion. The Report admits that in most spheres today matters relating to technical progress - research, designs, production, propagation - are governed not by considerations of social benefits, but by calculations of profitability of economically powerful private agencies. The process of globalisation which the Report frequently invokes certainly has some positive influences for opening up technological possibilities for poor countries and poor people. But in relation to technology what globalisation does is far more an intensification of the drive for profits of large global players whose primary motive is not global human development. Far from it!

A specific instance that the Report refers to in this context is that of penicillin. Although it was discovered in 1928, it was not marketed until 15 years later because "the untapped demand for antibiotics was undoubtedly huge, but pharmaceutical companies were not interested." No one is likely to argue that at the beginning of the 21st century private corporations show more sensitivity to human needs. The conflict of interest between public benefits and private profits is becoming more intense thanks to the rapidly spreading market principle and the control that powerful agencies exert on market operations. According to the Report, "Public research, still the main source of innovation for much of what could be called poor people's technology, is shrinking relative to private research. Gaining access to key patented inputs - often owned by private firms and universities in industrial countries - has become an obstacle to innovation, sometimes with prohibitive costs" (page 98).

In this context, an issue that needs to be carefully examined is the impact of the regime of Intellectual Property Rights on technological innovation for poverty eradication, improvement of public health and other key indicators of human development. It is also necessary to make detailed assessments of the consequences of the use of modern biotechnology innovations in agriculture and related areas before succumbing to the pressures to adopt them immediately.

In the concluding section of the Report, there are some interesting observations about possibilities to increase financial resources for technology research. It is pointed out that if advanced donor countries were to increase official development assistance by 10 per cent and dedicate that to technology research, development and diffusion, a sum of $5.5 billion would become available for that purpose. If the donor countries were to take seriously the agreed standard for official development assistance of 0.7 per cent of their GNP (Gross National Product), and if just 10 per cent of the resulting increase were to be earmarked for technology research, that would bring an additional contribution of $16 billion. But funding for this purpose does not have to come exclusively from developed countries. The rich in the developing countries also have resources that can be devoted for this public purpose. In 2000 Brazil had nine billionnaires with a collective worth of $20 billion, India had nine worth $23 billion, Malaysia had five worth $12 billion, Mexico had 13 worth $25 billion, Saudi Arabia had five worth $41 billion. So the problem is not that resources do not exist; it is not that knowledge and skills are not available. The bottomline is that knowledge, resources and power do not easily come together to raise the quality of life of the poor. Technology cannot deal with that problem.

Dr. C.T. Kurein is Professor Emeritus, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

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