Making New Technologies Work for Human Development
The mainline news media give much attention to professional anti-globalization and anti-biotechnology demonstrations but virtually ignored this year's report of the United Nations Development Program; perhaps they think it's too politically incorrect.
by Jerome F. Winzig
On July 10, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released its annual survey, the Human Development Report, entitled "Making New Technologies Work for Human Development." Its carefully reasoned approach to globalization and technology stands in sharp contrast to the narrow-minded negative rhetoric espoused by those who demonstrate and riot at every global event these days. Perhaps that is why most of the news media paid scant attention to the report.
The UNDP's own press release described the report as "a timely and provocative analysis of the potential of biotech and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for developing countries. It argues that these new technologies can play a huge role in reducing world poverty, and refutes the view that technology is primarily a luxury for people in rich countries."
The director and lead author of the report is Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, a Japanese national and an economist who has worked for over 20 years on development politics and operational programs, particularly focusing on Africa. When she spoke in London at the launch of the report, she began by saying globalization is here to stay. She then summarized four key conclusions of the report and pointedly told her audience, "I realize that many of you - perhaps half of this room here - are not convinced by what I have just said."
Fukuda-Parr concluded her remarks with these words: "Technology is not inherently good or bad - the outcome depends on how it is used. Today technology deserves new attention because digital, genetic and molecular breakthroughs are pushing forward the frontiers of how people can use technology for human progress. The ultimate significance of the network age is that it can 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."
The report takes to task the tendency among some in the rich nations of the world to impose their politically-correct views on the rest of the world: "The current debate in Europe and the United States over genetically modified crops mostly ignores the concerns and needs of the developing world. Western consumers who do not face food shortages or nutritional deficiencies or work in fields are more likely to focus on food safety and the potential loss of biodiversity, while farming communities in developing countries are more likely to focus on potentially higher yields and greater nutritional value, and on the reduced need to spray pesticides that can damage soil and sicken farmers. Similarly, the recent effort to globally ban the manufacture of DDT did not reflect the pesticide's benefits in preventing malaria in tropical countries."
The report cites concrete examples of how technology has benefited the developing world in rapid and significant ways. Life expectancy in Asia, Africa, and Latin America increased from about 30 to 70 in four decades, starting in the 1930s. In Europe, that same change took over 150 years. Undernutrition in South Asia decreased from around 40 percent in the 1970s to 23 percent in 1997 and was made possible by technological breakthroughs in plant breeding, fertilizers, and pesticides in the 1960s that doubled world cereal yields in just 40 years. In contrast, it took 1,000 years for English wheat yields to quadruple from 0.5 to 2.0 tonnes per hectare!
The report argues that genetic and information technology breakthroughs of the last decade are essential in improving health and nutrition, expanding knowledge, stimulating economic growth, and empowering people. It points out that information and communications technologies are breakthrough technologies for people's participation in politics. It insists that when technological transformations are combined with economic globalization, they expand the financial and social rewards of technological innovation and make them more accessible and usable.
The message of this report is one of optimism, that technology combined with globalization can be of enormous benefit to the world's poor. While the report has been virtually ignored by an unreceptive news media, its 274 pages are available to everyone at http://www.undp.org.