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Using technology to challenge poverty


One Laptop per Child at Kagugu Primary School, Kigali, Rwanda. cellanr under a Creative Commons Licence

For many people in the Global North, technology is so pervasive that it is hard to imagine life without it, and harder still to keep up with constant technological change and innovation. Yet at the same time, billions of people living in poverty around the world lack essential technologies that could help them to meet their basic needs.

So, as governments enter the final few months of discussions that will cement global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the next 15 years, the international development charity Practical Action is proposing a paradigm shift to use technology to challenge poverty. Its new report, ‘Introducing Technology Justice: a new paradigm for the sustainable development goals’ outlines 3 key global technology injustices that need to be addressed if we are to truly strive for a world without poverty in 2030:

  • inequitable access to existing technology
  • innovation that ignores the poor
  • unsustainable use of technology

How the costs and benefits of technology are shared are an injustice that results from choices made in how technology is innovated, disseminated and used. These choices largely ignore or exclude the poor.

The critical link between technology, development and poverty reduction is now well understood. Long-used and now seemingly simple technologies such as piped water and electricity have relieved billions of people, mainly women, from lifetimes of drudgery and freed their time to contribute to more productive activities. But we have failed to ensure everyone can enjoy the benefits of even these basic technologies, and the focus of innovation today has veered far off track from the big environmental and social challenges facing us today.

International collaboration around the SDGs should be used to jointly identify core technologies that underpin a minimum standard of life, and create an environment that overcomes current barriers to universal access. Key global research and development priorities – focused firmly on need rather than profit – should be identified, and investment incentivized and tracked against them. Proposed UN technology mechanisms, including the Technology Facilitation Mechanism and Technology Bank, which will help transfer innovations to those countries least well off, should be supported to play a new and vital role in building systems of innovation in developing countries, to break their dependence on often inappropriate ‘technology transfer’. This will require an overhaul of the TRIPS agreement – the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – to rebalance patents in favour of developing economies, environmental sustainability and poverty issues.

Perhaps most challenging of all is that it requires everyone to seriously look at the impacts of our technology consumption: on those around us, on global climate and the unequal distribution of natural resources, and on the legacy that we are leaving behind for future generations.

Amber Meikle is Senior Policy and Practice Adviser at Practical Action. To find out more, visit Practical Action or follow me on @tecjustice.

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