Technological innovation can work for the poor

Dr David J. Grimshaw

Greater public value should be released from science and technology specifically for the benefit of the poor in developing countries, argues David Grimshaw. But putting this technology to good use will require more engagement with local communities, so that they can retain ownership of the solutions

Technology has long been recognised as playing an important role in human development. Over the past four decades, there have been unprecedented innovations in technology. And yet, despite the best efforts of many people, poverty is still widespread and many poor people do not have access to the technology that could help them.

It is now 38 years since the publication of Ernst Fritz Schumacher’s seminal work, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. The organisation he founded, now called Practical Action, still promotes the use and adoption of  intermediate technologies (described by Schumacher as “vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper and freer than the super-technology of the rich”) to reduce poverty the world. The essential idea is that technology should be “compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person”.

New science-led technologies present some specific challenges, including the perceptions of high cost, high risk, high complexity and the lack of knowledge about what is available. Yet new technologies also present an enormous number of opportunities. By moving away from the entrenched systems of patents, production, and markets that older technologies are locked into, they can do things differently and more appropriately.

Vital issues like sustainable development, climate change and democracy are all influenced by the role of science and technology in society. A major challenge is to release their public value and channel it to help reduce poverty in developing countries. The benefits that are generated by the use of science and technology should not be reaped solely by the market. Releasing this public value, in a global context, is one of the most significant and challenging issues facing societies throughout the world today. According to a 2007 report by UNCTAD, over the last 25 years, only 3.9 percent of total World Bank lending has, on average, gone to scientific and technological projects. More funding needs to be directed to these areas if the poorest countries are to profit.

Technology is far from neutral in relation to both development and power. This has been apparent since long before the introduction of the current range of new technologies such as ICTs, biotechnology and nanotechnology. As the historian David Edgerton notes, while the West gets used to the increasing pace of innovation “most change is taking place by the transfer of techniques from place to place”. Technological systems – the way things are used, abused and controlled – may often be subject to political influence, but there are ways in which we can talk about better or worse new technologies. We can judge them according to the extent to which they lock people into certain systems (as, for example, GM crops and centralised nuclear power do) or provide an open platform for new sorts of use (for example, Linux or micro-renewable energy).

Taking, as a fundamental axiom of appropriate technologies, the idea that they should serve the human person is a useful starting point for asking how they can contribute to solving some of the intractable problems of poverty. Efforts to solve the widespread contamination of drinking water by arsenic in the Bay of Bengal region – which affects the countries of Bangladesh, India and Nepal, where an estimated 64 million people are at risk – provide a good example of this principle.

In Nepal, as in the other countries, the challenge is to try to reduce the current cost of testing while also improving its accuracy. A workshop in Kathmandu in 2009 brought together multiple stakeholders, including scientists and representatives of communities, along with the government’s water authorities. It examined the local context in which arsenic testing takes place and the current technologies – including their deficiencies – with a view to building an agreement about how (or if) new science-led technologies could be deployed. It was hoped that a new design brief would emerge, leading to the development of a prototype for an improved arsenic sensor, which would be tested by the workshop’s participants before being adopted in the field.

There is an established practice of participative development where ownership and power are fostered in local communities. In other discussions concerning water needs and new technologies (for example multi-stakeholder dialogues on nanotechnology in Zimbabwe held in 2006 and workshops in Peru during 2007 on mercury pollution from small-scale mining in the Andes), Practical Action has employed a three-stage model of participation. It begins by talking through ideas with the key stakeholders, followed by engagement with scientists before delivering a solution. This method can increase expectations of actions to follow so there has to be an explicit recognition of both the complexity of the problems at hand and the fact any solution may take time – perhaps even years – before it can be put into use.

The aim of this process is to deliver a new technology that meets local needs. Dialogue is merely the first step. The emphasis has to be on understanding and solving a real problem, rather than on developing a new widget. And it pays to be ‘technologically agnostic’ about solutions. In the case of nanotechnology and water, the development of a new device which meets the requirements identified may come from a number of scientific disciplines, including synthetic biotechnology, and so we should remain open-minded.

Sometimes an appropriate technology for solving a real human need may already be available in the market and only needs some adaptation before it can be used. Often, it has been found that a blend of old and new technologies can bring enormous benefits to people living in remote rural communities, and this is especially true of the use of available communications media (see the box on podcasting in Zimbabwe).

The concept of appropriate technology may have been around for several decades but it is still relevant when considering how to introduce technologies into poor communities. The prospects and promise of many new technological developments – the mobile phone, the internet, nanotechnology, and genetic modification to name a few – have often been exciting, but their ability to provide sustainable change in the lives of poor people has been limited. Choices that fulfill the needs of people must be made. This requires moving away from the old ways, which are supply-driven and focused on delivering products to a market at a price, maximising profits for the owners of the intellectual capital.

Implementing a more engaged approach will not be easy, just as changing the culture of an organisation is not easy. Solutions need to be driven by the poor communities themselves, so that they retain ownership. These kinds of actions need to be embedded in all international development efforts that aim to challenge poverty through the use of new technology.

About the author:
Dr David J. Grimshaw is Head of International Programme (New Technologies) with Practical Action and is a Visiting Professor of Information and Communications Technologies for Development at Royal Holloway, University of London

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