Five years on where are the examples of nanotechnology that benefit the poor?

July 31st, 2009

The RS/RAEng report (published five years ago) raised concerns that there was a potential for nanotechnologies to intensify the gap between rich and poor countries.

Practical Action was consulted by the Royal Society working party and the following letter was published in The Guardian (20 August 2004):

“Our concern is that yet another new technology will over-promise and under deliver; that in addition to the already apparent “digital divide”, we may be on the verge of a “nanodivide”. We should ensure that nanotechnologies are harnessed for the benefit of all peoples in the world not just those who can afford to fuel a consumer boom of new products. Many poor people in the world have basic requirements – for water, energy, and food – that are as yet unfulfilled. We need to ensure that nanotechnologies are used to achieve wider social and environmental goals (eg sustainable energy), rather than meeting short-term or developed world “market opportunities” for products such as sunscreen.”

Five years on what progress has been made in harnessing nanotechnology for the benefit of poor people? It is true that there have been further nano-dialogues, including those undertaken by Practical Action in Zimbabwe, Peru and Nepal. Some engagement with scientists in developing countries has been made, for example Practical Action in Peru has been a catalyst for the development of a nanotechnology network. However there is scant evidence of specific applications of nanotechnology being developed for use in developing countries. Some solar power applications have been developed in South Africa and elsewhere and some novel methods of removing arsenic from drinking water are being tested in Mexico but to date few, if any of these innovations have been applied and certainly not at any scale. You might think this position is fine because it is “early days”. But experience suggests that if efforts are not made around a research agenda on social and ethical issues it could be too late to affect the overall business model.

Perhaps of even greater importance is conceiving research projects that will include partnerships in developing countries. Such partnerships should include scientists, NGO’s, Government agencies, and beneficiary communities.

For further reflections on the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering Report see the Report from the Responsible Nano Forum.

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