New Internationalist

Technology as if people mattered*

May 2016

If you thought technology was politically neutral, think again. Dinyar Godrej argues for a fairer and more social vision.

Kenyan selling sockets [Related Image]
Charge your phones here: this man displays the board of sockets which helps him earn his livelihood in Nigeria’s Katsina city. Many vendors invest in small solar units to generate the power. © Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

In 2002, a group of Indian farmers arrived in Britain to protest about aid for farming projects. They weren’t demanding more of it; instead they were insisting on the withdrawal of up to $92 million worth of earmarked aid.

Surprised? Perhaps you won’t be when you read that the aid package was designed by consultants and advisers who were pushing a model focused completely on export that would have clubbed together land holdings and brought in corporate agriculture.

PV Satheesh, the activist leading the delegation, was firm: ‘If aid can be given on terms that genuinely improve the livelihoods of the people it’s meant to reach, so be it. Otherwise, we’d rather not have it.’

It was a small strike in the ongoing battle against the ‘technology push’ by corporate agribusiness usually disguised in development garments. The eventual goal is ‘market capture’, making farmers completely dependent on the agribusiness giants.

This vision of agriculture, essentially a corporate and anti-social vision, has for too long been viewed in terms of a technological fix. But what it reveals, more than anything else, is that such technology has a deep social and political bias – in favour of elites and to the detriment of the poor.

Today some 80 per cent of the world’s food is still produced on 500 million family farms, accounting for between 70 and 80 per cent of agricultural land. Of these family farms, only one per cent are larger than 50 hectares; 72 per cent are on plots of under a hectare.1 The gigantist follies of Western agriculture would ruin livelihoods that are often already precarious.

Satheesh has been pursuing a different kind of agricultural technology. As founder of the Deccan Development Society, he has been working with mainly women farmers (who usually lose out on outreach programmes) promoting local biodiversity, sharing seeds, developing traditional knowledge such as biofertilization, helping them grow crops that will be better resistant to climate change, and organizing them to take control of the market end.

Over the past century, 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of crops has been lost to future generations as farmers have switched to a small group of high-yielding varieties. The farmers with whom Satheesh works are the true pioneers.

Appropriate behaviour

The satisfaction of our most basic needs (food, water, energy, health) is usually dependent on some form of tech, but a recent report by the sustainable technology charity Practical Action puts it plainly: ‘Technology is cruelly polarized. The rich world enjoys more than its fair share. And, for the poor, the lack of technology is the defining feature of their poverty… The injustice is not an absence of technology, but the unfair exclusion of certain groups to access technology that already exists.’2 This is not new and, short of ‘come the revolution’, neither is the best way to address it – the concept of appropriate technology. Appropriate to resource scarcity, appropriate to local conditions, appropriately in the hands of communities rather than elites, easy to repair locally. As Amber Meikle, who wrote the Practical Action report, puts it: ‘Silver bullet high-tech innovations generally don’t affect the lives of poor people.’

The technology they most urgently need is often at the level of water hand-pumps, or evaporation-based cooling systems that don’t depend on electricity, or halfway decent sanitation. Or clean cook stoves to help the 2.9 billion people still cooking over open fires; and to change the horrible statistic of the resulting four million deaths every year from indoor air pollution.2 Or take the multifunctional brick toilet units built in Nepal that are the brainchild of architect Paul Pholeros of Healthabitat: apart from providing sanitation (in structures that withstood last year’s earthquake), they capture rainwater for hand-washing, make it easier to use human waste for biogas and bring communities together in their construction. They are being championed by the Bangladeshi government as well.

‘Innovation’ is the current donor obsession, regardless of whether the needs of the recipients may actually be better served by non-trendy low- and old-tech

But development channels are prone to fashions. We’ve had years of report funding – grants being given to grassroots groups to write the umpteenth report rather than to fund action. In terms of technology, ‘innovation’ is the current donor obsession, regardless of whether the needs of the recipients may actually be better served by non-trendy low- and old-tech.

Meikle recalls a not-so-bright idea of a football that needed to be kicked around for three hours in order to store kinetic energy to power a lightbulb. Sound fun and funky? – try kicking a football for three hours every day.

There is also the issue of enclave technology. Take the world’s first 3D lab for printing prosthetics – Project Daniel. It’s located in South Sudan, a country where just five per cent of citizens can access electricity.

The future of work

An essential aspect of appropriate technology is that while it may save labour, it defeats its purpose if it diminishes employment – if anything, it should help generate it. The prevailing technology worldview shaped by the corporate technocrats considers this an immensely retrograde idea.

For years now, the rich West has been peddled the notion of the end of work with a harvest of leisure. It’s a rosy view, of well-provided-for citizens benefiting from labour-saving workplace innovation, enjoying more creative free time.

Well, the end of work is looming for many, but in a world with the concentration of wealth and power in increasingly fewer hands, this spells destitution rather than gilded leisure.

Here’s how the UNDP’s Human Development Report for 2015 views what’s coming round the corner: ‘Now is the time to be a worker with special skills and the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. But there has never been a worse time to be a worker with only ordinary skills and abilities, because computers, robots and other digital technologies are acquiring these at an extraordinary speed.’1

Sean Sprague/Alamy Stock Photo
Drawing clean well water using muscle power at the community hand pump, Mondulkiri province, Cambodia. Sean Sprague/Alamy Stock Photo

Not only have workers been getting a smaller share of total corporate income over the last 15 years, but now here come the industrial robots – all 200,000 of them, newly added each year.1 With a projected 47 per cent of all US jobs threatened by computerization, those special skills better come via fairy godmother.3

So, if previously we got angry about the appalling working conditions for Foxconn workers in China, who built the fortunes of digital giants like Apple and Nokia, what will we think when they begin to be replaced by Foxbots?

The Human Development Report fears that for the poorest countries, the pressures on manufacturing jobs would result in ‘premature de-industrialization’.

This is more than just ‘disruption’ (another tech buzzword), this is technology designed to rip the fabric of society.

Socially blind technology based solely on the profit imperative has an enormous fallout – from completely destructive areas of production such as the highly innovative arms industry to environmental scars of rich world overconsumption (just call it growth).

Global dump

Witness the meteoric streak of digital technologies and one can get very excited. Such evolution, nay, transformation, in such a short space of time; such an ability to get connected and plug into a limitless universe of data. Such an almighty pile of discarded digital trash. ‘Built to last’ is so yesterday.

With a projected 47 per cent of all US jobs threatened by computer-ization, those special skills better come via fairy godmother

Consequently, digital technologies are among the most environmentally unsustainable in the world. The global volume of digital waste increases by a third every two years. We produce 75 million tons of the stuff – or 10 kilograms per person, but chucked out mainly by the relatively small wealthy population that can afford such a rate of churn.4

And we dump most of it illegally in the Majority World – one in three containers from the EU contains illegal waste under false pretences.

Open Source

Some resources for knowledge sharing.

Open Source Initiative (software) opensource.org

Open Source Drug Discovery (medicine) osdd.net

Open Source Malaria (malaria research) opensourcemalaria.org

International HapMap Project (genetics) hapmap.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

Open Source Seed Initiative (agriculture) osseeds.org


But this garbage pile is as nothing compared to the damage done at the mining sites, also mainly in the Majority World, to procure the metal and mineral raw materials required to produce the latest version. Bloodshed, widespread child labour, the increasing scarcity of the materials themselves, the huge and unsustainable environmental harm – none of this deters the production of the next must-have thing with amounts of functionality that no consumer really needs (or uses).

Much of this technology is actively designed to be thrown away at the first sign of trouble rather than be repaired. So smartphones are glued together in ways that ruin them when they are opened up; their batteries are similarly glued in. ‘We do a very bad job of preserving the raw materials that go into the products that we use,’ laments Matthias Huiskens of iFixit, a commercial company that sells repair parts, but also advocates a culture of repair by publishing free internet guides to repairing everything from digital gizmos to tractors. ‘Repair is always about creating independence, economic value and jobs,’ he adds.5

And there are always different ways of doing things – for example the social enterprise Fairphone which has developed a smartphone designed for durability and ease of repair, with attention to ethical values in the procurement of raw materials and production.6

SMS stretch

While the Fairphone may be beyond most personal budgets in the Majority World, mobile phone penetration in the poorest areas of the world has been something of a success story. An instance of leapfrogging, say advocates, where people who never had landlines now have telephony.

People who may not have electricity in their homes have mobiles. Obviously, most of these will not be smartphones and the digital divide as far as internet access goes is large, with only 40 per cent of the world’s people online, and just a third of this group tapping into broadband. As far as web content goes, wealthy countries account for 80 per cent of domain names registered in 2013; Africa for less than one per cent.1

Juan Medina/Reuters
No bum rap: activists from ONGAWA, Engineering for Human Development, pretend to defecate in front of Spain’s foreign ministry in Madrid, 2014. The placard reads: ‘2.5 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation’. Juan Medina/Reuters

Still, the way ICTs (information and communications technologies) can extend human agency is remarkable. Take offline simple sms messaging: it has been used successfully for everything from health promotion (alerts for diabetics in Chile) to independent monitoring of elections, starting with the 2007 Sierra Leone elections. Farmers and fishers are using it in many parts of the world to gauge prices at local markets and arrive at more uniform prices for their produce.

Mobile money accounts have reached those ignored by the banks – the greatest take-up is in sub-Saharan Africa. Forty per cent of adults in East Africa pay utility bills using their mobiles.

Telemedicine helps in many African countries where distances are great and access to doctors and hospitals severely limited. Today there are apps that help monitor pregnancies and diagnose cataracts. But for every pregnancy that needs special care or cataract that needs removal, there must also be the wherewithal to provide that assistance.

A price point too far

Even the vision of basic primary healthcare for all is still a dream – many poor countries were forced to gut what little public provision they could offer during the further immiserating years of structural adjustment that began in the 1980s. Under the whip of the IMF and the World Bank, private provision of healthcare (always an option for enclaves of the rich) was encouraged and payment extracted from those in direst need. The very idea of public health as a public good is still to recover from this onslaught.

In this context, one-off preventive treatments become most attractive as tech solutions to the development community. Vaccines are seen as the low-hanging fruit. Vaccinate large segments of the population against some of the worst preventable diseases and you save costs down the line. The wider context of adequate nutrition, clean water and sanitation, and access to decent basic healthcare are much messier targets.

But the cost of the basic package of vaccines that the UN recommends for all children has risen 68 times since 2015, even at the lowest available prices.7 Nearly half of this jump is due to the cost of the pneumonia vaccine currently in the tight grasp of drug giants Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The development of this vaccine was encouraged through advanced market commitments – advance promises to buy enough to guarantee the makers a profit – and it is an adapted version of what was already being produced. Pfizer and GSK have already made $28 billion from sales.

Yet, largely due to their pricing, 75 per cent of the world’s children remain unprotected against a disease which is the leading infectious cause of childhood death. Nearly a million children succumb to pneumonia each year – one every 35 seconds.

Today the lowest available price for this three-shot vaccine is $10 for the very poorest countries, negotiated by Gavi, the public-private global vaccine alliance, started by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is a stalwart defender of patents (he couldn’t have amassed his mountains of loot were it not for them), so you won’t find Gavi arguing for compulsory licensing of this essential vaccine, which would be the most logical option; instead, it appeals to the drug corporations to be charitable towards the poor. An Indian producer is developing an alternative that it promises to sell at $6, but it will not be available until 2019 at the earliest. Meanwhile, medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders is campaigning for the current producers to drop the price to $5.

So a vital medical advance remains captive in private hands, and access for all remains a distant dream.

Push sustain

Much could be said about the deficiencies of current intellectual property rights regimes where companies are allowed to privatize the fruits of what is often public research.

But perhaps more important in the context of technology justice for the poorest is to realize that the invisible hand of the market invariably fails them. They ‘cannot express demand in a way that allows a commercial solution’.2 To get workable ground-up technology that they can own and manage, the state (aided by international development bodies) must play a greater role. An old-fashioned idea but there may be an opening for it.

In September last year the UN General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals following on from the Millennium Development Goals. The key word seems to be ‘sustainability’ in a wishlist of targets ranging from ending poverty and hunger and reducing inequality, to numerous conservation and development goals. Technology, how it is developed, shared and deployed, will play a crucial role, but ‘sustainability’ will be out of reach if only market options are on offer.

UN member states have also agreed, overcoming strong opposition from rich countries led by the US, Britain and Japan, to a UN Technology Facilitation Mechanism to address issues in technology development, sharing and diffusion.8 The leaders of the opposition don’t want this task team to bring up any issues of intellectual property rights in a UN forum, nor do they want the UN to be poking its nose into the socioeconomic and environmental implications of new technologies. It’s the old corporate agenda.

Will it gain the upper hand in the context of goals that have sustainability and greater equality at their core? Must the common good submit to the relentless machine of corporate profit? The battle lines are clear.

Dinyar Godrej

*With thanks to EF Schumacher, whose 1973 classic Small is Beautiful had the subtitle ‘Economics as if people mattered’. Schumacher’s vision of intermediate technology later came to be known as appropriate technology.

Citizen reporters

Look out on 24 May for our digital feature by citizen reporters from Sierra Leone. They will be talking about the impact Ebola had on their lives and communities, using story-gathering techniques built round mobile phone technology.

We’ve hooked up with On Our Radar (onourradar.org), a platform that seeks to bring the voices of isolated communities before a global audience. The coverage will accompany next month’s edition, for which NI co-editor Hazel Healy travelled to Sierra Leone.

onourradar.org/ebola/tag/afterebola/

  1. UNDP, Human Development Report 2015, nin.tl/hdr2015UNDP

  2. Practical Action, Technology Justice: A call to action, 2016, nin.tl/practical-action-info.

  3. CB Frey and MA Osbourne, The Future of Employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerization?, 2013, Oxford Martin School of the University of Oxford, nin.tl/job-sacrifice.

  4. Presentation by Ben R amalingam, Institute of Development Studies, Technology Justice Forum 2016, nin.tl/tech-justice-2016.

  5. Presentation by Huiskens at Technology Justice Forum 2016, see 4 above.

  6. nin.tl/Fairphone-facts.

  7. All information on vaccines from MSF’s A Fair Shot campaign, afairshot.org.

  8. ETC Group news release 16 July 2015, nin.tl/UN-tech .

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 492 This special report appeared in the technology justice issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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