‘Technology Justice’ – what does it mean for how NGOs think about new and old tech in development? And would you like a job working on it?

February 1, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I had an interesting exchange with Practical Action’s policy director, Astrid Walker Bourne (right) recently, about one of my (many) hobby horsesAstrid Walker Bourne – technology and its absence from the NGO agenda. Practical Action is trying to fill the gap with a work programme on ‘technology justice’, but a failed recruitment has got her thinking about the wider issues of NGOs and technology. See below. The job is being readvertised by the way, closing date 25th Feb.

Last week, like a lot of people in the UK, the snow prevented me from getting to the office.  Looking out on the cold white landscape, I would have been stuck if I’d not had access to a wide range of technologies: oil to run the heating system, electricity to power the kettle and keep my laptop battery topped up, and broadband to connect to the world via skype, email etc. Instead, I was able to continue working regardless in a snow-bound UK. What has this got to do with development, let alone Duncan’s intro regarding our initial unsuccessful efforts to recruit a senior policy advisor on technology in development?   A few thoughts:

Are we (the NGOs and aid industry) simply useless at linking the role of technology with development? Is it because we think that poor people need, food, better health, education and income, but that somehow technology is a non-essential luxury?  There isn’t an MDG goal for universal access to energy for example, even though many would say that not much development progress is possible without it.  Or is it because we take technologies in all their guises for granted, and as a result, neglect its centrality in so much of what we do?

Or perhaps, as a colleague of mine said the other day, the dominance of social scientists in the development sector means that we ourselves are biased – thinking solely about community power dynamics, culture and social aspects of development.  Perhaps this focus of social issue may be at the expense of the technical “hardware” that has to work effectively if it is to help people get out of poverty?

In Practical Action we are working with a principle of Technology Justice which asserts that:

Everyone should have the right to access the technologies they need to live the lives they value, provided this does not prevent others from doing the same now, or in the future.

Applying the principle of technology justice to the current debate around technology and food production systems might be a way to open a lens on the big choices in front of us, and their potential consequences. It certainly prompts a different set of questions, for example: ‘how universal has the access to the benefits of ‘modern’ technology in agriculture been in the last 50 years?’ Since 1961, in the time it has taken for the world’s population to double, cereal production volumes have tripled and consumers in the developed world have gained access to cheap and reliable food. Yet the Green Revolution has passed million by, and we now face record numbers of hungry people. It’s no coincidence that three quarters of the one billion malnourished people in the world today live in rural communities where agriculture provides a livelihood for nearly ninety per cent of the population.

Income disparities have grown between those farming the best soils and able to invest in and benefit from a wide range of (often subsidised) irrigation systems, hybrid seeds and agro chemical technologies.  Yet those in rain-fed (rather than irrigable) regions, those working the most marginal soils, or those without access to credit to buy inputs (frequently women) have not gained from a similar degree of technological advancement, and they often remain trapped in poverty and food insecurity.

Floating gardens in Bangladesh

Floating gardens in Bangladesh

Applying a Technology Justice lens asks us to challenge this picture. We need to re-examine a system that relies primarily on commercial incentives to drive the innovation and dissemination of technology. For low-income marginal farmers, there may be many potential improvements to productivity, which could come from better soil fertility and water management techniques, or local seed diversification, but they may be difficult to commodify, and as a result there is little incentive for businesses to invest in research & dissemination.

The principle of Technology Justice is not just about people’s access to the technologies they need to live decently today, but that this should not prevent others now or in the future from doing the same. Of course there are real concerns that current industrial agricultural practices are unsustainable and are undermine the food security of future generations. As the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) puts it: with 1.9 billion hectares of land suffering significant degradation, 1.6 billion people living in water-scarce basins, widespread salinization of soils from poor irrigation practices and with pesticides and fertilisers polluting groundwater and impacting on the biodiversity of rivers and coastal zones, the often unforeseen consequences of an exclusive focus on yields and productivity have undermined the very resources on which food production depends.

The application of the principle of technology justice reveals a picture of a current global food system that is not just unequal but also unsustainable, incapable of feeding the world today and undermining our ability to feed 9 billion people in 2050.

Too many debates around global food production are positioned as opposites –  modern GMO-based technologists versus the traditional organic proponents.  We believe that the future should include a mix of new and old.  Where is the pro-poor investment into nano-technology for pest control; or into ICTs to link poor farmers to long-term satellite-based weather forecasting; or into farmer-based research approaches to enable local adaptive techniques to be developed, and spread; or into marker-assisted breeding (where new technology is used to map desirable genes in “conventional” breeding programmes)?   All of these would be in line with the concept of Technology Justice, helping people meet their needs today, and tomorrow.   We just need to embrace the power of technology in a more positive way.

You can apply the same concept of Technology Justice to the energy sector, with some arguing “only green energy for poor countries”

running a micro-hyrdo scheme in Zimbabwe

running a micro-hyrdo scheme in Zimbabwe

while other arguing for a fossil led development path to be continued (see Duncan’s blog on 20th Oct and the comments posted).

Until those engaged in development can invest more in the debate about the potential that technology offers – the right kind of technology – we’re missing a trick.

Hence, our call to action: we’re looking for a senior policy advisor who can help more development actors to understand and embrace the potential (good and bad) that technology offers the developing world, a technology-to-development translator if you like.  Someone who can pitch our vision for technology justice, wellbeing and equity to mainstream development debates.

Help us find that person: a great development thinker; a big picture policy bod; someone who understands technologies, but is not a geek.  Sounds interesting?  I think so.  The job advert is out now – deadline February 25th.

And if you need more encouragement check out this slideshow of things that people might not always consider when they think of technology.