Technology justice

At Practical Action, we believe that our work is all about technology justice - an ethical approach to technology innovation and dissemination based on fairness and need.

In this video Practical Action's former chief executive, Simon Trace, explains why a greater movement for change is a movement for Technology Justice in the world.

A transcript of an address given by Simon Trace to Practical Action supporters in London on June 11th 2011.

Technology justice

Simon Trace My dictionary defines “Technology” as “the making, usage and knowledge of tools, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or serve some purpose”.

My dictionary defines “Justice” as “the concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, fairness, or equity”

The phrase “Technology Justice” is not however in common usage. Google helpfully informs us that “Technology Justice” is the name of a small IT support company in Atlanta, Georgia, whose motto “rescuing the afflicted end user” suggests they are primarily concerned with saving people from their computers rather than pursuing some greater cause.  There are no references via Google to the idea that the phrase “Technology Justice” might stand for an ethical approach to technology innovation and dissemination based on fairness and need. 

Practical Action would like to change this. I’ll come back to why in a minute.

But first, to a very important anniversary. 2011 marks the centenary of the birth of our founder, the economist Fritz Schumacher.

Schumacher’s ideas about the environment, economics, and technology still underpin Practical Action’s work today and, we believe, will be a critical component of any eventual solution to global poverty and a sustainable future for all of us. It is for that reason that we are very happy, along with the Schumacher Family, the New Economics Foundation and others, to be using the occasion to both celebrate the man’s life but also to bring back to the public’s attention once again, the elements of his thinking that have inspired us all and which we feel continue to be relevant and pertinent to our lives and the problems the World faces today. We have been courting press coverage - you may have seen a two-page article on Schumacher in the Observer a few weeks ago. We’ve held a debate in the offices of Parliament, and I and others will be speaking at an array of events including literary festivals and conferences in the UK and Europe over the coming months. If you are interested, Archive Hour on Radio 4 is producing a programme on Schumacher’s life on the 25th June at 8pm. You can find out more about all the events planned on special website or by just Googling ‘Schumacher Centenary’.

Fritz Schumacher was born on the 16th August 1911. And I just want to take a minute to reflect on what life was like back then, here in the UK.

You can get some fascinating (and useless) facts from Google. Did you know for example that 1911 was the year Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum was introduced to the UK? Presumably before that the only thing you had to worry about stepping on as you walked along the pavement was horse dung.

On a more serious note, in 1911 our ideas of what constituted democracy were a little different – married women over 30 still had another seven years to wait before being granted the right to vote. Unmarried women had another 17 years to wait before universal suffrage was introduced in 1928. House ownership at the beginning of the century was confined to just 1 in 10 of the population and the quality of the domestic environment was very different to today.  Coin operated gas meters and stove rental schemes had extended gas supplies into many households, although the pressure in the mains was generally not good enough to allow people to both cook and light their lamps at the same time. Electricity was still too expensive for all but the wealthy (in fact even by 1933 only 1 in 3 houses in the UK had electricity). Most houses would only have had one tap for water, in the kitchen, and if you lived in one of the northern industrial cities, you were likely to still likely to be defecating into a bucket - only 750 of Rochdale’s 10,000 houses had toilets at the time. Infectious diseases were prevalent amongst children across the country with 50% - I repeat 50% - of 5 to 9 year-olds dying from such causes between 1911 and 1915. Life expectancy at birth was just 45 years for boys and 49 years for girls.

Looking back over the UK’s recent history from the vantage point of 2011, one can only marvel at the changes wrought in just the space of one and a half lifetimes. Not least the changes that have led to the creation of a democratic and largely affluent society and to an almost doubling of life expectancy. It’s a vivid illustration of possibility, of what can be achieved given the political will and the necessary resources.

It’s not been all bad news in the developing world either over that same period. The shift from colonial oppression to independence to democratic forms of governance has continued. Globally, led largely by progress in China and India, 270 million people have been lifted above the ‘extreme poverty line’ of $1 per day in the last 20 years alone. And progress has not just been in terms of reduction in income poverty. 1.2 billion gained access to drinking water over the same period, primary school enrolment increased by 41 million children between 1999 and 2005, and 37 million additional children have been protected with basic vaccines since 2000, for example.

However it has not all been good news. In absolute terms the number of people existing in the world on less than $2 a day actually grew by 269 million over the 20 years to 2001. 1.1 billion people still have no safe drinking water and 2.6 billion no sanitation, 72 million children are still out of school, and 26,000 children under age five still die every day from largely treatable and preventable causes.  This can sound like just a list of sterile statistics, but I have seen with my own eyes the consequences of this failure to progress – whether it’s the huge and unnecessary burden of meeting simple daily needs for those with no water or energy supplies in Nepal, or the poor health and nutritional status of those with unreliable food supplies in Sudan, or the devastation wreaked by natural disasters on the lives of those already made vulnerable by the effects of climate change in the Peruvian Andes or the flood plains of Bangladesh.

The level of change we’ve experienced in the UK in the last 100 years has simply not translated into equivalent changes in the developing world.

One of the key things that underwrote the improvement in living standards in the UK was a growing access to improved technologies – improvements in building materials and housing stock, the technologies necessary to enforce environmental standards, universal access to basic services such as water and sanitation, clean and efficient energy sources in the home, and the introduction of preventative health technologies including, critically, the widespread take up of diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and tuberculosis vaccinations in the 1920’s.

The drive to extend that access to improved technologies to the developing world has not happened at anywhere near the speed required to see the same increase in wellbeing and quality of life as we have experienced since the birth of Schumacher.

This problem is compounded by the fact that vast bulk of technology innovation now occurs around issues that are irrelevant to tackling the problems of the poor. The Global Health Forum estimated in 1990 that only about 5% of the world's resources for health research were being applied to the health problems of low- and middle-income countries, where 93% of the world's preventable deaths occurred.  This disparity in application of funding for research can be seen across many other sectors too. For example in the agricultural sector the Food and  Agriculture Organisation of the UN  reported in 2009 that just five countries (US, Japan, China, India and Brazil) accounted for half of the $23 billion global annual public investment in agricultural R&D, whilst 80 of the lowest income countries consumed only 6% between them.

We live in a world where, according to Bill Gates, more money is spent on researching a cure to male baldness than on finding a vaccine for malaria.

We live in a world where the gap between those who have access to the technologies they need to live a decent quality of life and those who don’t is growing into a yawning chasm and where the developed world’s attention has moved on to, amongst other things, innovations in hair cream!

We live in a world that is fundamentally, technologically unjust.

And that technology injustice is not just manifest in the gap between poor and rich countries. It also now manifests itself in an intergenerational injustice. Our own addiction to fossil fuel based technologies in the developed world for example will leave a very difficult legacy for our children and grandchildren to deal with in the form of climate change.

This has to change. We have to find a path to a new equilibrium. A state where there is a better balance of effort between meeting the technology needs of the poor and meeting the desires of those better off. A state where there is a balance struck which allows all people to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same. A state of Technology Justice.

Just as the recognition that the terms of international trade are critical to development  led to the establishment of the Fair Trade movement, so we now need to press for  recognition of the critical nature that technology choice plays both in fighting poverty and providing a secure and viable future for all of mankind. We now need Technology Justice just as much as we need Fair Trade.

Some people I talk to don’t like the word Justice – it’s too political, too emotionally charged a word. Personally I find it difficult to think of a more appropriate word:

The fact that 1.1 billion people in the world still lack access to clean water when the technology and the knowledge necessary to provide them with it is both available and affordable is not merely regrettable. It’s an injustice if, as my dictionary says, the concept of justice is taken to refer to “a moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, fairness, or equity”.

My daughter is in her early teens. The fact that her future children, my future grandchildren, may suffer blighted lives as a consequence of my generation’s inability to break its addiction to fossil fuel based technologies is not just unfortunate. It is an injustice.

We at Practical Action believe our work is all about Technology Justice:

  • We provide practical ways to ensure information on the use of technology for development is available to as many people as possible through our technical enquiry services Practical Answers – used more than 1.4 million times last year alone.
  • We work in the policy arena, for example by pushing for a fair deal on support to developing countries for both adaptation to climate change and low carbon development at the international climate change negotiations or pushing the European Commission, the UN and others for greater investment in energy services for the poor in the developing world.
  • And, of course, we help around 900,000 a year to get access directly to the technologies and knowledge they need to improve their lives – whether it’s through help to access basic services, to ensure a secure food supply, to build a new way to earn a living or to be able to be able to survive and recover from future natural disasters.

Technology Justice may not be a commonly used phrase yet, but the idea is not new to us.

In my speech at this event last year I said that I wanted you to leave on that day:   feeling not just that you are supporting an organisation that does good projects to help poor men and women in the developing world, but also that you are a part of a greater movement for change.

Well I want to repeat that this year too! But this year I’ll be more specific. I believe that greater movement for change is a movement for Technology Justice in the world.

I believe that Practical Action’s work is fundamentally concerned with Technology Justice and that we have a leadership role to play in the construction of such a movement. I don’t exactly know yet what that movement will eventually look like, or what precisely we’ll be doing to bring it about. But I think its essence already exists amongst the members and supporters of the organisations engaged in the celebration of the centenary of Schumacher’s birth this year. And I believe that, through your presence here today, and through your on-going support to Practical Action and its mission you are all, in a sense, already part of the vanguard of a movement for Technology Justice.  You are all people who believe that the world could be a better place if only people had access to the technologies they need. And you are also all people who have gone beyond just believing that to getting up and doing something about it.

Don’t get me wrong. Practical Action isn’t going to suddenly drop its work on the ground in favour of working solely on campaigns and policy advocacy. Our projects helping poor people use technology to transform their lives will continue to be the mainstay of what we do, as in the past.

But it is our ambition that, in 10 years’ time, the concept of technology justice will be as well understood and supported as the idea of fair trade. It is our belief that our 45 years of experience of the use of technology for development means we have a role to play in bringing such a movement into being.  And it is our hope and our aspiration that by playing our role, we will help to create a shift in momentum that will ensure that the sort of improvements in the quality of life that have occurred in the UK over the last 100 years since the birth of Schumacher are replicated in the developing world as well.

It is my personal hope that you will be able to look back in 10 years’ time with pride on the fact that you were there at the outset, when an incredibly important and influential movement for change started.

Simon Trace,
Chief Executive, Practical Action

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