An era of innovation for the poor?


January 6th, 2012

In the 19th Decmber 2011 issue of the magazine New Statesman, Bill Gates authored an opinion piece on why he believes that “the world is on the cusp of finally unleashing innovation for the poorest”. As evidence he cites a number of examples including the development of new varieties of maize that can be 50% more tolerant of drought, a breakthough last year in the development of a more accurate and simple TB test, the Serum Institute of India releasing a low cost vaccine for meningitis A, and recent examples of technology transfer from Brazil and China.

Bill Gates has, in recent years, consistently raised the issue of a ‘tragic misallocation of resources’ in global technology research and development, complaining in an often referenced TED talk a couple of years ago that more money is spent annually on research a cure for male baldness than for a vacinne for malaria. He is absolutely right to raise this as an issue and a barrier to the poor having access to the technologies they need to achieve a reasonable standard of living.

But the New Statesman article reads as if technological innovation is all that is needed to end poverty (e.g. “Yes we have a global food crisis. But with innovators all over the world focussed on the problem, we also have a good chance to fix it”). But its not. Many of the technologies poor people need already exist, and in some cases have been in existance for centuries. Its their inability to access to them that is the core issue – due to a assortment of barriers ranging from simple affordability, to the poor having no voice in decisions around allocation of investments for basic services.

We need innovation not only in technology itself, but also innovation to over come the social, political and economic barriers that prevent poor people from accessing existing technology and that prevent innovation really focussing on the interests of the poor. So, for example, we need innovation to help utilities in urban centres in the developing world overcome their reluctance to provide water, sanitation and electricity supplies to the residents of informal settlements and shanty towns, which often make up half or more of the population of developing country cities. And, in an era where governments have largely handed over resonsibility for technology R&D to the private sector, we need ways of sponsoring research and innovation into knowledge which cannot be commodified but which is never the less helpful to the fight against poverty – for example research into improving the productivity of traditional agro ecological forms of agriculture.

Like Bill Gates, I too am an optimist. I believe this is possible and that a growing number of people are beginning to understand and respond to the challenge.

One response to “An era of innovation for the poor?”

  1. Solar Panels Says:

    Count me in on that. Indeed the different technologies to help alleviate the living condition of the less fortunate on developing countries are already with us for a long time, it is just the means for them to access this technology that is lacking. It is sad that finding means to facilitate for the access continuously takes a backseat.

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