By James Smith
Technology is inextricably linked to development. Neither exists without the other, each propels the other along, and the successes and failures of both are bound together. However we choose to conceive of development, as a deeply historical process of change or as the small-scale activities non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engage in, as macro-economic policy or community development, technology is always present.
That ubiquity may well be a problem in itself. If we have access to the results of technology - clean water for example - we become blind to the technology itself. From another perspective, if we focus development around targets and end products - improved health, improved education, or access to energy - we may not focus on the technological and knowledge-based building blocks we need to get there (and often it’s not easy to understand for the non-expert, anyway). Technology, and underpinning science, may be hidden both by its presence and its absence.
Commentators on development have tended only to focus on the headline-grabbing, global impacts of the Green Revolution, the explosion in the use of mobile phones, the possibilities of the internet or the search for a vaccine for HIV or TB. Technology, though, is not only about vaccines, agricultural biotechnology or IT; it concerns almost everything we do, or hope to do.
Problematising technology in and for development is incredibly important, from the simplest and most local to the most complex, networked and global. There are key issues here, one of process and one of justice. Process: How do we germinate innovation - the process of applying new knowledge, learning and technologies to solve problems and meet needs? Justice: How do we ensure that people have access to the technologies they need to alleviate their poverty and meet their developmental needs?
These issues are intimately related to each other. Innovation means equipping people with the tools to articulate their needs, building the networks through which they may do so, and inculcating learning that will allow those needs to be met. Justice means acknowledging that people have a right to access the resources they need to live the lives they value, and finding ways through which people may realise those rights – more often than not, other than simply through a market.
Acknowledging the mutually constitutive relationship between technology and justice – to unlock the transformative power of knowledge - would go a long way to placing technology, and in particular how we articulate, understand and drive its innovation, at the centre of sustainable poverty alleviation.
Practical Action, one of the leading INGO advocates of technology for development, is currently recruiting for someone to reflect exactly on these issues. Apply!