No Technofix for the Third World

But these inventions haven’t freed the societies which invented them. For poverty, for inequality, for subjugation there has proved to be no technofix.

This is not the official orthodoxy which we hear from politicians, economists and technocrats. They would have us believe that, given enough time and the right policies, these crazy gadgets will bring prosperity, happiness and connectivity.

Maybe for a lucky few these shiny new things will do as is claimed. But, for most of the planet, a different fate awaits.

The internet is the classic example, the icon of the information and communications technology revolution, the ultimate symbol of the transformationary potential of late monopoly capitalism.

And the changes continue to roll on: in 2001 more information can be sent over a single cable in a second than was sent over the entire internet in a month in 1997.

In the high-income member-countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 28.2% of people are internet users; in the US, it’s even higher, at 54.3%. But in East Asia and the Pacific, it’s 2.3%, in the Arab states it’s 0.6%, in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s 0.4%.

And no, this is not just a problem of not enough time for this particular technology to diffuse, to simply spread of its own accord.

Penicillin was discovered in 1928 and first marketed in 1943, but there are still 2 billion people who do not have access to it.

Electric power generation and grid delivery were first available in 1831 and, in the First World, electricity is now so universal that no-one even thinks about where it comes from. But electricity has not reached some two billion people, a third of the world’s population. In 1998, per capita electricity consumption in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa was less than one-tenth what it was in OECD countries.

So why is this? Call it “techno-imperialism”.

In it only for the bucks, these corporations see little point in directing resources and products at poor people. And they see only mortal danger in providing the technique and the capital to allow poor people to create and control technology themselves.

The OECD countries accounted for 86% of the 836,000 new patent applications on technology filed in 1998 and 85% of the 437,000 scientific and technical journal articles printed worldwide. Of worldwide royalty and license fees paid in 1999, 54% went to the US and 12% to Japan.

Poor countries, meanwhile, struggling under massive debts to Western banks and institutions, find it difficult to even properly fund primary and secondary education, let along complex research: per capita expenditure on schooling averaged US$4992 in the First World in 1997 but only US$150 in the Third World.

In 1998, global spending on health research was US$70 billion – but 90% of that research addresses 10% of the disease burden, namely those diseases most prevalent in the demand-effective First World.

Even when corporations do produce goods of direct use to the Third World, they often deliberately price poor people out of the market.

While they claim that differential pricing would allow re-importing, pharmaceutical corporations’ real fear is that cut-price drugs in one part of the world would make it obvious from where they get their abnormally high (around 19%) returns: they have a patent-protected monopoly so they charge outrageous mark-ups.

Diffusion of high-tech products to the poor is restricted enough; diffusion of the techniques to make those products is all but impossible.

When they were industrialising, France, Germany, the US and others felt free to take others’ (mainly Britain’s) technology and adapt it to their needs without fear or favour. The US, for instance, didn’t recognise copyrights held by foreigners until 1891.

The number of patents claimed has risen dramatically over the past 15 years – in the US from 77,000 in 1985 to 169,000 in 1999. The promulgation of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Patent Cooperation Treaty means that a patent accepted in one country is automatically valid in most others, and the advent of the World Trade Organisation’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement has made enforcement of patents near-universal.

This has handed corporations an enormous weapon to ensure their monopoly. The US chemical giant, DuPont, for instance, is so secure behind its “intellectual property rights” fortress that it has refused manufacturers in countries like India and Korea the right to produce substitutes for ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons – because it holds the patents on such substitutes and doesn’t want competitors.

Patents aren’t the only measures in force to clamp down on technology transfer.

In the “export-processing zones” sprouting around the world, the lack of such enforced technology transfer measures is one of the big attractants for Western capital.

The southern Indian city of Bangalore, for example, has, thanks to Western companies’ passion for outsourcing, grown into one of the world’s premier technology hubs and is the centre of the country’s growing IT industry whose export revenues rose from US$150 million in 1990 to US$4 billion in 1999.

Much the same applies for other Third World countries, like Malaysia and Mexico, who’ve built “high-tech export sectors”: Western companies import pre-manufactured inputs, cheap domestic labour assembles them, then the products (and the techniques and profits) are sent back to the West.

Break apart “techno-imperialism”, however, and whole new horizons open up.

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