4 Issues for the future
4 Issues for the future
There are many areas of future research that demand attempts to inform current practices with the principles outlined in this document. Three of the most urgent - HIV/AIDS, climate change and nanotechnology - are highlighted here. Also important is also the issue of intellectual property rights, which affects those with HIV/AIDS and exacerbates the problem of global hunger.
The current HIV/AIDS pandemic kills six thousand people every day. Women, especially pregnant women, make up a substantial and growing proportion of those with the virus. In sub-Saharan Africa, women account for more than half of those infected. Yet, of the drugs that have been developed to tackle the symptoms of HIV/AIDS, very few have been tested systematically on women. There is some evidence that the side effects when women take the drugs are very different from those displayed by men. There is also evidence that HIV treatments are far more available to men than women, because men are more likely to be mobile, to have higher levels of literacy and to afford not only the drugs themselves but also the costs of obtaining them.
HIV drug treatments often need to be administered alongside support and care, which again is generally less available to women than to men. Cervical cancer is an extremely common side-effect of HIV infection among women, yet few in poorer countries have access to testing schemes. Women are forced to access HIV services via ante-natal clinics, which means that women's lives are only being valued by the health system around the time of giving birth. Older women, who also suffer high HIV prevalence, find it particularly hard to access treatments.
Issues of gender have been central to the development of both democracy and technology, but have been little discussed until the last two decades. Assumptions about the differences between men and women in the development of new technologies often mirror presumed differences between Western technoscience and local traditions. Men are presented as technological innovators and producers, whereas women are seen as practitioners of ancestral cultural practices that need to be changed. Whereas men design new stoves with Western engineers, women's fuel conservation techniques are considered a 'cultural practice'. Ecofeminism, which in some formulations identifies women as 'mother nature' and suggests that science and technology oppress women in their role as nurturers of the natural world, can reinforce assumptions that women are keepers of traditions, rather than agents of innovation or experiment.
In technology, as with other realms of social and economic study, gender analysis is seen by most organisations as something that should be done by women for women, rather than something that both men and women should address. NGOs that are effective at promoting equality in other areas of their work still often marginalise the status of gender analysis within their organisation, thus re-establishing a social order within which men are continually re-created as the dominant class - while, as one woman activist commented, "women make tea and organise the logistics".
The International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, which has compiled much of the evidence relating to these trends, has organised workshops at which women with HIV are able to engage with policy-makers on improving the access of women to HIV diagnosis and treatments such as cervical smear tests and anti-retro-viral drugs. However, the neglect of gender by most HIV/AIDS initiatives - and particularly the need for women's participation - means that they are joining a long list of technological interventions where women's lives are increasingly threatened more than those of men.
The global system of intellectual property rights (IPRs), called by some 'information feudalism', is a potential threat that limits access to knowledge and technology. Their proponents claim that patents and other IPRs produce globally-distributed economic and social benefits such as vaccines for diseases and improved medicines, but many patient, farmer and other grassroots organisations have accused large corporations of operating a legalised system of biopiracy, laying claim to knowledge from indigenous peoples and marginalised groups.
The system of patents was established to protect the interests of individual developers of mechanical inventions. However, by the early twentieth century corporations had developed massive research capacities in the chemical, electrical, pharmaceutical and rubber industries. Patents were then used as a means of limiting competition and allowing large companies to fix prices and control production. Corporations also used intellectual property rights and licences to enforce global knowledge cartels that divided up global markets among their members. Any attack on a patent-based cartel was difficult because it could be construed as an interference with the use of private property.
An engagement in IPR-based cartels by the largest pharmaceutical companies from the 1950s onwards fixed the prices of antibiotics at artificially high levels, leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths among those who were unable to afford them. During the 1970s countries such as India, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico built indigenous pharmaceutical industries by establishing less restrictive patent regimes than those that existed in the USA and Europe. However, in 2004, nearly 150 countries are members of the World Trade Organisation and thus have to abide by its Agreement on Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), which formalises a legally enforceable IPR regime, largely designed by supporters of corporate cartels.
The threat posed by IPRs is exacerbated by the spread of GM crops and other modern crop varieties. Whether they are inserted gene sequences as in the case of GM crops, or new crop varieties, such novelty is protected by IPRs. Under TRIPs, all member nations are obliged to implement plant variety protection measures on behalf of the owners of the genes and plant varieties, either through patents or other recognised means. These measures are better termed monopoly privileges than property rights andare designed to restrict access to crop varieties and associated knowledge. However, the genetic resources contained in crop varieties and the knowledge of how to use them have been developed over millennia, mainly by poorer rural communities of farmers and indigenous peoples who should have continued rights of access. It is open access to, and the free sharing of, these genetic resources and the agricultural biodiversity of which they are part that has allowed the development of the great diversity of crops and livestock which underpins global food security.
In January 2004, Britain's government chief scientist announced that "climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today" and thus presented the growing crisis as an even greater potential threat collectively faced by humanity than global terrorism. Yet addressing the issue poses unprecedented challenges for the international community.
A consensus of scientists from a majority of the world's nations now emphasises the urgent need to take action on climate change. Governments in Europe have expressed potential support for a levy on aviation, the fastest rising contributor to global climate change. However, it is up to environmental and development groups to use the kind of deliberative processes described here to provide support for what they believe to be socially and environmentally sound initiatives: how women and men might organise themselves to make and implement decisions to act to tackle the crisis.
Democratic initiatives should also ensure a bigger voice in debates for marginalised communities who, whether in Bangladesh or Haiti, are already suffering the effects of human-induced climate change. Participatory projects launched by groups such as Rising Tide and the Global Commons Institute have already produced agendas for social and environmental justice that have major implications for the high-carbon lifestyles of citizens of industrialised nations. Without such initiatives, governments may continue to be beholden to corporate lobbyists who use market research techniques such as focus groups to argue that people do not care enough about climate change to agree to such policy changes.
Nanotechnology - the frontier technology that enables atomic scale construction, rearrangement and design of materials - has quickened the debate over global regulation of new technologies in the twenty-first century. Governments in the industrialised world recognise the 'transformative' potential of nanotechnologies and have reacted by channelling billions into national research programmes - without creating the regulatory institutions to monitor the health, social or environmental impacts.
NGOs such as Greenpeace and the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) have advocated a moratorium on the commercial production of new nano-materials and a 'transparent global process for evaluating the social, health and environmental implications of the new technology'. One specific proposal is the formation of an International Commission for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT). An ICENT would give governments a way to gauge the scientific, social and economic effects of all emerging technologies, the ETC Group argues. The concept of an ICENT has been taken up and supported by the European Parliament's Committee on Development and Cooperation, which considers that 'new technologies should also be assessed for their impact on sustainable development' via such a mechanism.
However, social movements need to become powerful enough to challenge the decisions of technocrats and to institutionalise the principles of accountability briefly described in this document. The success of such initiatives will determine the extent to which conventions such as ICENT lead to long-term improvements in how new technologies impact on people's lives.