Technology and the market, an exclusive relationship

By Diego Cevallos

Mexico City, Jul 10 (IPS) - The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said Tuesday that technology cannot continue to be tied to the demands of the market, and advocated that it respond to the demands of the poor instead, a stance that won applause from social activists and researchers, though some said the UN agency does not go far enough.

Technology is largely created in response to market pressures and not to meet the needs of the poor, a relationship that must change, says the UNDP Human Development Report 2001, released in the Mexican capital Tuesday.

Wealthy nations that have benefited by technological revolutions have long left the developing world behind, said the UNDP’s world administrator Mark Malloch Brown, adding that now is the time to take advantage of new technologies to use them as a strategic tool for development.

German sociologist Heinz Dieterich, a professor at Mexican universities and author of numerous books about world poverty, told IPS “it is encouraging that the UNDP is joining civil society groups in their demands to democratise access to and benefits of technology, which today resides in the hands of a few transnational corporations.”

The host and key speaker at the global presentation of the report, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox, maintained that the market-development dilemma is a false one. If there is equilibrium, he said, the two combine in favour of human progress.

According to the UNDP document, the market is not proving - at least in the case of technology - to be making a clear contribution to the development of poor countries or attending to their needs.

Research and development activities, experts and financing are concentrated in the industrialised North, and controlled by transnational firms and by the latest demands of the global market, which is dominated by high-income consumers, says the report.

In 1998, the 29-members of the ‘rich men’s club’, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), spent $520 billion on research and development, a sum surpassing the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of the world’s poorest 88 countries, according to the UNDP.

The research conducted in the OECD countries, largely by private companies, responded to the demands of the industrialised world, not to those of the developing South.

For example, world spending on health research was $70 billion in 1998, but just 300 million dollars went towards searching for a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, a disease that is devastating some regions of the developing world.

The UN agency maintains in its annual report that the moment has come to use technology advances in medicine, agriculture and information as keys to overcoming poverty.

Sociologist Dieterich lamented that the report failed to identify more exactly that the largest obstacles for development lie in the power of big technology transnationals, “which make decisions based purely on profit and not on global social interests.”

Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American spokeswoman for the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), said in comments to IPS that, although the report is positive, it was surprising that it included the use of transgenic crops among the new technologies suggested for the developing South.

Today, five transnational corporations control the biotechnology intended for agricultural development, and they are the same ones that manage the use of the genetically modified seeds and their crop-specific pesticides that are marketed worldwide, she said.

“It is unfortunate that the UNDP is promoting a technology that involves so many risks, that accentuates the dependence of poor countries and, according to recent studies, does not guarantee higher yields,” said Ribeiro.

Djibril Diallo, UNDP director of communications, had warned that the agency’s report would “evoke strong reactions from both the (political) right and the left.”

Raul Benet, head of the Mexican office of the environmental watchdog Greenpeace International, loudly criticised the report during the presentation ceremony, condemning the UNDP’s alleged promotion of the use of transgenic seeds.

Benet’s outburst, however, did not interrupt the presentation, and shortly afterwards Malloch Brown lauded transgenic technology for its “enormous potential” for creating new crops with higher nutritional value and greater resistance to pests.

But technologies like this can carry risks. As a result, says the report, the governments of the world must foment national policies and international trade laws in this respect, and must establish new relationships with private companies to take greatest advantage of technologies that can alleviate poverty.

Dieterich maintains that profound changes would have to occur before transnationals would re-think their market logic and seek a democratic use of technology, but he expressed some optimism that this could happen in the not-so-distant future. – SUNS4934

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