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Human Development Report 2001: UNDP report focuses on role of technology in advancing development and reducing poverty

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 2001
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The Human Development Report 2001 was launched in Mexico on July 10. This year’s report explores how new technologies can advance human development and, in effect, help make globalization work for all. Currently an urgent question in international policymaking circles, the links between technology, poverty reduction, and human development were also a prominent theme of the recent Genoa summit of the Group of Eight. Previous editions of the Human Development Report—the flagship publication of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)—have scrutinized globalization, growth, poverty eradication, and human rights from the standpoint of human development.

Technology and growth

The report builds on the premises that development gains in the twentieth century were largely driven by technological breakthroughs, that technological progress accounts for much of the difference in growth rates among countries, and that it thus plays a pivotal role in sustained economic growth. But the report also reminds us that technologies taken for granted in rich countries, such as electricity, and access to basic medicines have yet to reach a third of the world’s population. Meanwhile, information and communications technology (ICT) can help overcome social, economic, and geographical isolation; increase access to information and education; and enable poor people to participate in more of the decisions that affect their lives. In assessing the potential of such technology, the report notes new opportunities for poor people in terms of political empowerment (such as the global e-mail campaign that helped topple Philippine President Estrada in January); health networks (as in The Gambia and Nepal); long-distance learning (as in Turkey); and job creation (as in Costa Rica, India, and South Africa).

Potential of biotechnology

Beyond focusing on ICT, the report breaks new ground in addressing the potential of advancing development with the help of biotechnology (drugs and genetically modified crops), placing the spotlight on the trade-offs between biodiversity and food shortages. It asserts that the current debate in Europe and the United States over genetically modified crops mostly ignores the concerns and needs of the developing world. Western consumers who do not face food shortages or nutritional deficiencies are more likely to focus on food safety and the potential loss of biodiversity, while farming communities in developing countries are more likely to focus on potentially higher crop yields and greater nutritional value. For example, according to the report, recent efforts to ban the manufacture of DDT worldwide did not take into account the pesticide’s benefits in preventing malaria in tropical countries. On a more positive note, the report also explains that, even in poor countries without much health infrastructure, breakthroughs in medical technologies have already raised life expectancies quickly and dramatically. For example, during the “lost decade” of the 1980s, when income growth in many developing countries was stagnant or negative, a new oral dehydration therapy and improved vaccines reduced by about three million the number of deaths from major childhood illnesses.

Uneven benefits of technology

The report refutes the argument that basic development must come before new technology. Within international development circles, some have worried that technology might draw resources from more traditional development goals. Rather, the report argues that ICT, together with biotechnology, can make major contributions to reducing world poverty. UNDP administrator Mark Malloch Brown warns: “Ignoring technological breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture, and information will mean missing opportunities to transform the lives of poor people.”

Many of the most important technology opportunities have bypassed poor people to date because of a lack of market demand and inadequate public funding, the report says. Public sector funding and incentives for research and development could compensate for these market failures, but governments in both developing and developed countries have so far failed to provide the necessary support. As a result, only 10 percent of global health research focuses on the illnesses that constitute 90 percent of the global disease burden. In 1998, global spending on health research was $70 billion, but only $300 million was dedicated to vaccines for HIV/AIDS. The diffusion of technology has also been uneven, with developed countries accounting for 80 percent of the world’s Internet users. Meanwhile, the total international bandwidth for all of Africa is less than in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, and the total bandwidth for all of Latin America is roughly equal to that of Seoul, Korea. Fair use of intellectual property rights, particularly fair implementation of the World Trade Organization’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), is central to future progress. The report argues that current commitments under TRIPS to promote technology transfer to developing countries amount to little more than paper promises while intellectual property rights can go too far, contributing to the “silent theft of centuries of developing country knowledge and assets.”

While the technology revolution and globalization are creating a “network age” and changing how technology is created and diffused, technology is created in response to market pressures and not to the needs of poor countries. And while national policies are indispensable (even in a network age) and all countries (even the poorest) need to implement policies that encourage innovation and the development of advanced skills, national policies will not compensate for global market failures. International initiatives and the fair use of global rules are needed to channel new technologies toward the most urgent needs of the poor. The report concludes that public policy rather than charity will determine whether new technologies become a tool for human development.

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