The Role of Technology in Development

Mali Rice Farmers

Rice Farmers in Mali (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Discussion of international development often centers on the need to promote the use of new technologies. In this respect, technology is too often seen as a magic bullet to solve the problems of development. If there are hungry people, we need genetically modified foods to feed them. If there are people who lack access to clean water, we need improved water technologies like desalination or improvements in water pumps. If there are illiterate people, we need affordable computers. The list goes on and on.

But the emphasis on technological innovation to address the challenges of development ignore the social dynamics of the process itself. This is perhaps clearest in efforts to address hunger, as a recent post by Oxfam’s Duncan Green points out. While developing new technologies to increase agricultural output in the global south could certainly represent one component of a strategy to address global hunger, we cannot assume that technological improvements necessarily address social challenges. The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen in the 1970s articulated an entitlement theory of hunger. Using a comparative analysis of food production and hunger in famine zones around the world, Sen observed that hunger did not necessarily result from a lack of food. Often, famines occurred in areas where food production had actually increased in recent years. Rather, Sen argued that famine results when people cannot access the food that is produced. This subtle shift revolutionized our understanding of famines and hunger, but unfortunately did not fundamentally shift our policy strategy for dealing with them.

Duncan Green’s example, delivered at the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum last week, was taken from efforts to increase food production in Mali (see the discussion beginning on page 59 here). Rather than seeking (often expensive) technological fixes such as  new seed varieties, Green argues that agricultural output was increased by 10-20% simply by providing farmers with access to reliable, appropriate seasonal weather forecasts, thereby giving farmers the information necessary to make better decisions. This approach required no new technology whatsoever. Farmers could receive the weather forecast from radios (which they already own) or by word of mouth.

In the broader context, Green’s analysis highlights the dichotomy between “nice” and “nasty” technologies in the development community. Nice technologies include information technologies and the internet, mobile phones, and vaccines. Nasty technologies are GMOs, nanotechnology, geoengineering, biofuels, and nuclear power. The distinction, Green notes, is based on the degree to which the technology centralizes or decentralizes power. Nice technologies empower people, especially the poor, while nasty technologies tend to centralize power (via patents or high costs), thereby excluding the poor.

The “nice vs. nasty” technology distinction is useful, but it is also possible to frame the debate in a slightly different way. Appropriate technologies are those technologies developed with specific consideration for the environmental, cultural, and economic context within which they will be used. Much like Sen’s analysis of famines, appropriate technologies take as their starting point the social dynamics of their use. Development based on the use of appropriate technologies would not seek to displace labor in the production process, and would be cognizant of the gender dynamics of production. Above all, appropriate technology is accessible technology. And this is something that is desparately needed in the world of development assistance.

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