How Technological Justice Can Fight Global Poverty

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Human development has gone hand-in-hand with technical change. Technology (defined for these purposes as both knowledge and tools) enables people to achieve well-being with less effort and drudgery, or at lower cost and with fewer resources. Technical innovation is essential for people to be able to make more effective use of the resources available to them and to respond to social, economic and environmental changes.

For those of us lucky enough to live today in one of the so-called “developed nations,” modern technology is so woven into the fabric of our daily lives that we barely notice how dependent we are on it. But remove even just one simple strand and things start to unravel very quickly, as a simple thought experiment demonstrates.

The Tech Disparity

Try to replay the first two hours of your day after getting out of bed on a cold, dark winter’s morning in your mind. Then repeat the exercise imagining how you would have fared if you did not have an electricity or gas supply to your house, your neighborhood or your place of work. That’s how a third of humanity lives. One hundred and thirty-two years after Edison introduced the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb, 1.3 billion people are still living in darkness, with no access to electricity, and 2.7 billion still cook over open fires. Clearly we have a problem ensuring well-established technologies are made available to all who need them.

Here’s another couple of statistics. A 2008 Global Health Forum report estimates that only about 5% of the world’s resources for health research are applied to the health problems of low and middle income countries, where 93% of the world’s preventable deaths occur. Meanwhile, a 2009 UN Food & Agriculture Organization report estimates that the 80 poorest countries of the world account for just 6% of global, publicly funded agricultural R&D, and just 2% of privately funded agricultural R&D. So the problem is not just about the dissemination of existing technologies, but also about where our technology innovation effort lies.

If you follow the money and see where the bulk of global investment in technology R&D goes, it is not into things that address some of the biggest issues of the day — the nearly 1 billion malnourished people in the world, the 1.3 billion without electricity, the nearly 1 billion still without access to clean drinking water. As Bill Gates once said in a TED talk, there is something very wrong with a world that spends more on developing a cure for male baldness than it does on finding a vaccine for malaria.

The problem doesn’t stop here, however. At the moment, the world exists in what could be called a “double whammy” state of technological injustice. Not only does technology innovation and dissemination overwhelmingly favor the wants of today’s rich and powerful consumers in the developed world over the needs of the poor in the developing world, it also overwhelmingly prioritizes the aspirations of today’s generation over those of future generations. Our addiction to fossil fuel-based technologies will leave a very difficult legacy of climate change to our children and grandchildren’s generations, which may well limit their ability to live the lives they aspire to.

The Concept of Technological Justice

Humanity now faces a huge challenge. The way we oversee technology innovation from here on will determine whether we can find a sustainable future within the carrying capacity of the ecology we inhabit and whether that future will involve well-being for some or for all. This implies that our development and use of technology has to comply with the principle of “technological justice” — namely, the right of people to decide, choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.

The concept of technological justice requires a rethinking of how — both in the developing and the developed world — we encourage and nurture technological innovation that has social value and is environmentally sustainable. Engaging more people (especially poor women and men) in national debates around science and technology policy is important. Technological justice also requires us to understand and adapt the current drivers that power technological innovation.

We need national science and technology policies, state research funding, tax regimes and international trade agreements and regulations that value and foster collaboration and open source approaches to R&D, and that favor these over processes based on competition and the capture of intellectual property rights, where it is clear the former will provide greater social and environmental benefits. Only by doing this will we develop systems of innovation that not only deliver new and powerful science-based technology solutions to some of the major problems the world now faces, but also be able to fully harness the power of existing indigenous knowledge (including that which cannot be commoditized and so is undervalued by the current system) to contribute to that goal.

The Task Ahead

Is that really possible, particularly in a world which favors short-term, market-driven decision making? Five years ago I would have said “no,” but circumstances are changing. Perhaps for the first time in history, these two great challenges — fighting poverty and finding a sustainable future for all — are beginning to join up into a single issue. We cannot find a sustainable future for any of us on the planet, rich or poor, unless we find a way to deal with the threat of climate change, and thus comply with the principle of inter-generational technological justice.

But, as we saw at the last two failed global rounds of negotiations on climate change, we’re not making progress on carbon. Why? One big sticking point is that it is not something that’s solely in the hands of the developed world any more. Even if the U.S. can be brought on board, a global deal on carbon is meaningless unless the developing world, and in particular the big economies of India, China and Brazil, are brought on board, too. And that will not happen without a global deal on technology transfer to the developing world that addresses poverty in their own countries.

In their current form, our market-driven economies, with their short-term horizons and externalization of environmental costs, cannot deliver solutions to these problems. But markets just work inside a set of rules. Change the rules to internalize environmental costs and favor long-term decision making and there is a chance that capitalism can still be part of the solution. Will that happen? Almost certainly. Will it happen in time to prevent catastrophic environmental change and widespread poverty-fueled conflict? Only if we want it to badly enough.

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