Over the past 12 months or so we at Practical Action have been been working on a concept we call Technology Justice. I have talked a bit about this in my blog before, but last week a Practical Action supporter, Sam Charles-Edwards, put up a really interesting and thoughtful post on his own blog, reviewing the idea and commenting on how we plan to use it. You can see his blog here. Sam raises some valid points, including asking why we might be interested in using such a concept in the first place. He suggests one of the principle purposes of using a term such as “justice” might be to highlight injustices that exist in the world today. In this he is spot on. Practical Action is interested in promoting public debate about the huge injustices that result from the way the world develops and uses technology today.
I thought it might be useful to talk a little about these injustices today, which I believe can be thought of under 3 headings:
1. A large part of humanity cannot access already existing technologies that would help them achieve a decent standard of living
Human development has always gone hand-in-hand with technical change. Technology development and adaptation enables people to achieve wellbeing with less effort and drudgery, or at lower cost and with fewer resources. Improved technologies can make a huge difference to people’s lives – providing access to basic services such as water, energy, transport and housing; helping in the development of sustainable livelihoods and providing for reliable and sufficient food supplies; providing the platform from which improvements in health, education, income and wellbeing can be achieved. In short, though the development and use of technology has not always been for the good of all, we know access to improved technology can be an effective lever out of poverty and that conversely, its absence is almost always a key feature of living in extreme poverty.
But today a substantial part of humanity still lacks access to the basic technologies that would help them achieve even a very basic minimum standard of living. For example: 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity; 2.4 billion people still depend on traditional biomass for cooking; 1.5 billion people still live in inadequate shelter; 1.3 billion people still have no access to safe water; and 2.6 billion have no sanitation. In many cases the technologies necessary to solve these problems already exist. The injustice is that a substantial part of humanity is excluded from their benefits.
2. Our technological efforts to innovate are now focussed mostly on the ‘wants’ of consumers rather than the ‘needs’ of those least well off.
This is the Bill Gates argument that there must be something wrong with our priorities given that we spend more each year on researching a cure for male baldness than we do for finding a vaccine for malaria. There are many areas where the interests of the poor in the developing world would benefit from further research – improving the efficiency of the small scale low input farming techniques that around 60% of the population of sub Saharan Africa rely on for their food and livelihoods being one such example. The injustice here relates to the misapplication of technological effort. Today’s technology research and development is largely financed by commercial institutions and, consequently, concentrates on technologies which have the potential to produce the greatest financial return rather than having the greatest impact of quality of life.
3. We make technology choices today that limit other people’s ability to make choices now and in the future.
The choices we make in developing and using technologies shape our society and can, ultimately, limit or impact on the choices others can make now, and in the future. There are examples of this all around us today. The development of bio fuel based on corn in the US leads to a rise in the price of corn in international markets and a corresponding rise in the price of tortillas, the staple food in Mexico; so in this case US consumers choice of fuel impacts on the affordability of food for people in Mexico. Or another example – our addiction to fossil fuel based technologies will leave a legacy of climate change for our grandchildren to deal with; in this case our choice of technology today limits future generations’ ability their choices and options. The injustice here is that those who make the choices (generally consumers or those representing their interests today in the developed world) are often not those who will face the negative consequences (the poor and marginalised or future generations).
Do have a read of Sam’s post on his blog and, if you feel inspired to post a comment yourself I’d be very interested to hear you views.
Practical Action has adopted the principle of Technology Justice to try to focus attention on these issues. We define Technology Justice as combining a right – that all people should be able to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value – with a corresponding responsibility – that this right could be enjoyed only so long as that choice does not compromise the ability of others and future generations to do the same.
We hope to use this to start a debate on how we want to govern technology development and use in the future. It is a debate, we believe, that is central not just to the fight against poverty in the developing world but also to the understanding what a sustainable world for al of mankind might look like.