No technofix for the Third World
Humans can make all kinds of nifty things - the axe, the wheel, the spinning jenny, the aeroplane, the pill, the Pentium III, vanilla ice cream - and can achieve all sorts of magical things with them.
But these inventions haven't freed the societies which invented them. For poverty, for inequality, for subjugation there has proved to be no technofix.
Instead, worldwide divisions in power and wealth have consolidated into a growing technology gap, which in turn ensures that the poor and powerless can never catch up.
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.
This is the view, for example, of the authors of the United Nations Development Program's latest Human Development Report 2001, entitled ``Making New Technologies Work for Human Development'', who argue for the technofix even as their own figures show how impossible it is.
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.
For many people, of course, the internet has brought enormous changes: it has brought connectivity, it has democratised access to information as few other things have, it has opened up vistas of communication otherwise difficult or impossible. A three-minute phone call from New York to London cost more than US$300 (in today's prices) in 1930 - now its costs 20 US cents.
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.
Yet this technology is a private preserve. Access to it is limited to the First World and (to a lesser extent) to the privileged middle classes of the Third World.
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%.
The OECD, home to 19% of the world's population, is home to 79% of the world's internet users.
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.
Oral Rehydration Therapy, a simple and cheap salt-and-sugar solution, has been mass-distributed since the 1980s and has greatly reduced child deaths from diarrhoea - but even though it only costs 10 cents a sachet, it is still unavailable in 38% of cases in Third World countries.
Penicillin was discovered in 1928 and first marketed in 1943, but there are still 2 billion people who do not have access to it.
The telephone was invented a century ago. But today, while there is one mainline connection for every two people in the OECD, in the Third World, there's only one mainline connection for every fifteen people. In the least developed countries, there is only one for every 200 people. Most people on the planet have never made or received a phone call.
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''.
The control of the world lies with those who control technology - and the control of technology is in the hands of a small number of giant multinational corporations.
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.
New inventions are a monopoly venture. In 1998, the 29 OECD countries spent US$520 billion on research and development, more than the total economic output of the world's poorest 30 countries.
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.
Between 60-70% of all new research and development is carried out by corporations or other private institutions, only 15-20% by public universities (and even that is increasingly for private sector advantage). Corporations are even more dominant in the most cutting-edge areas of research: information and communications technology and biotechnology.
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.
These giant companies direct their research at products for which they can find easy markets - and those are not found in poor countries.
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.
Only $300 million was dedicated to researching vaccines for HIV/AIDS and only $100 million to malaria research, both diseases which ravage the Third World. Of the 1223 new drugs marketed between 1975 and 1996, only 13 were developed to treat tropical diseases - and only four were directly the product of pharmaceutical industry research.
Even when corporations do produce goods of direct use to the Third World, they often deliberately price poor people out of the market.
The giant pharmaceutical companies have long resisted even ``differential pricing'' on their US$12,000-a-year courses of anti-AIDS drugs, which would allow a course to cost less in Cameroon than in Canada (let alone allowing countries to produce cheap, generic versions of their brand-name drugs).
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.
Monopoly over invention
Diffusion of high-tech products to the poor is restricted enough; diffusion of the techniques to make those products is all but impossible.
Corporations and rich-country governments conspire to ensure that, even while the world economy becomes more interconnected, technology transfer is kept to an absolute minimum.
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.
Such a path is no longer open to those hoping to industrialise today. ``Intellectual property rights'' have instead become the main way that corporations have maintained their monopoly over invention and high technology, and are far more strictly enforced than they ever have been before.
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.
Under TRIPs, the validity of a patent has also been extended, to 20 years, from 10 or 15 years.
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.
The threat of fines or trade sanctions has been enough to deter poor countries from even using mechanisms of technology transfer which are legal under TRIPs, such as ``compulsory licensing'', through which governments can declare exceptions to intellectual property rights for particular reasons. Not a single compulsory license has been issued south of the equator, for instance, not even to combat the AIDS pandemic.
Patents aren't the only measures in force to clamp down on technology transfer.
The newly industrialising countries of East Asia used all kinds of mechanisms to ensure that foreign direct investment would lead to some technology transfer, such as specifications on local content or on domestic involvement in such manufacturing. Many of these are now restricted by another WTO agreement, the Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs) agreement, and will be outlawed altogether if the rich countries get their way in a new WTO agreement on investment.
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.
With such firm control over technology, even when high-tech methods of production are used in the Third World they can be enclaved and kept away from the rest of the domestic economy.
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.
But Bangalore is in a bubble. While the city's industry might be high-tech, the country surrounding it is anything but. In Karnataka, the state it is the capital of, by 1999 there were still only 2.73 internet connections per 1000 people; in even poorer states (like Orissa), that rate drops to 0.12 connections per 1000 people.
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.
What counts is not the gee-whizness of the gadgets, but control. If private corporations control technology, these gadgets are but chains.
Break apart ``techno-imperialism'', however, and whole new horizons open up.