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Using Scientific Technology for Development

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June, 2002

In the developed world, scientific technologies improve health care, education, management, transportation, communication, recreation, and security. Also, the problems of obesity, the threat to privacy, mad consumerism, and environmental degradations are linked to scientific technologies. Although pockets of Asia and Africa experience parallel use of scientific technologies, more than half of the communities do not have access to the systems created by scientific technologies. Bringing carefully selected technologies to developing communities can have a positive impact. But, in the past, many transfers of technology to developing communities have failed to achieve their intended results, have caused more harm in the long term, contributed to social and environmental damage, and overall had a negative impact. Thus, the essential question this essay seeks to answer is what criteria should be used in selecting, and transferring scientific technologies to developing communities.

Defining Terms

To be clear about the terms, I use scientific technologies for technologies developed using science and expertise. Genetically modified seeds, electronic devices, and computers are examples of scientific technologies. Assembly production method, chemical manufacturing techniques, and "scientific management" are also scientific technologies.

About "2.8 billion people, or almost half of the world's population, live on less than $2 per day"[AKIN 10], and developing communities are where the majority of the population live on less than $2 per day.

I use technology transfer in an equivalent way as used in the report Methodological and Technological Issues in Technology Transfer by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN organization. The report defines technology transfer to mean [MTITT 55]

"the broad set of processes covering the flows of knowledge experience and equipment amongst different stakeholders such as governments, private sector entities, financial institutions, NGOs, and research/educational institutions."

"Technology cooperation" and "technology communication" imply the same meaning in a more liberal terminology. The report includes the following list as the "most common" mode of interaction where technology is transferred

  • direct purchases
  • licensing
  • franchising
  • foreign direct investment
  • sale of turn-key plants
  • joint ventures
  • subcontracting
  • cooperative research arrangements and co-production agreements
  • export of products and capital goods
  • exchange of scientific and technical personnel
  • science and technology conferences, trade shows and exhibits
  • education and training (of nationals and foreigners)
  • commercial visits
  • open literature (journals, magazines, books, and articles)
  • government assistance programs.

Note that most of the modes can be influenced and directed by host government or community policy. East Asian countries such as Korea, Taiwan and Singapore achieved "technological success"[TLI 55] largely due to their active government policies. In commenting on science and technology policies of governments of Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore Sanjaya Lall states:[TLI 55] "All demonstrate that selectivity can shape the industrial and technological structure in beneficial ways, and governments do no fail in improving upon imperfect markets."

Past Experience

Transfer of science and technology has taken place throughout history. The Greek-Egypt-Indo-China exchange, the transfer of mathematics and ancient works from Middle East to Europe, and the transfer of British and European languages and sciences to Asia, Africa, and Native America are three major historical transfers of science and technology.

Since the mid 20th century, technology transfer means the technological aid granted by developed countries to developing countries. Technology transfer failed in most Asian and African countries, with an exception of the East Asian countries. Channing Arndt on his essay Technical Co-operation notes "in the early 1990s, the world was at least perceived to be completely devoid of successful TC projects on which future efforts could be modelled."[FAD 168] From the various reports analysing the causes for failures, four main reasons stand out:

  1. Lack of "human and physical capacity" needed for proper use of technology
  2. Considering the recipients' interests as secondary
  3. Transfer of inappropriate technology.
  4. Lack of community consultation, education and input.  

1. Lack of "human and physical capacity":

Introducing scientific technology without proper human and physical infrastructure has resulted in failures. During the early 20th century when backward Russia attempted to rapidly modernize by adapting American technologies, the lack of social and physical infrastructure caused serious setbacks. The historian Hughes cites an observer reporting, "fleets of disabled tractors dotted the landscape. Spare parts were short and repair work poor"[HUGHES, 275]. Hughes points out the difficulty of not having the equivalent system or condition for tractors to be used effectively. Further Hughes notes [259]:

"The American engineers and management experts who played a leading role in transferring technology to the Soviet Union in the 1920s came back with stories of enthusiastic, frantic, and harsh efforts to install the Taylor system, punctuated with disastrous failures. That peasants-become-industrial-workers did not arrive at work on time because they had no clocks in their homes suggests the magnitude and depth of the problem of technology transfer. "

Technology transfer transformed the backward Russia into an industrial giant, at tremendous humanitarian cost. It is ironic however that Russia is rebuilding and modernizing yet again.

Another illustration of failure of not having the proper system to use technological aid is noted by Channing Arndt. In comparing the rapid rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II with the failure of other developing communities to do the same, he identifies the lack of "human and institutional capacity" as the main reason. I will extend that the aims and systems of the donor and receiver were socially, technologically, and historically similar, thus the aid was more effective. In contrast, the conditions of Indian, African, and other communities are unique.

2. Considering recipients' interest as secondary

If recipients' interest is secondary, then technology transfer looses its aim and focus. During the Cold War, the United States and Soviets imposed their interests in communities, disguised as aid. Susan George, an influential social activist, uses the following quote from Mr. Coffin, Deputy Administrator of USAID during 60's to illustrate how donors' placed their interest ahead of the recipient:[47]

"Our basic, broadest goal is a long range political one. It is not development for the sake of sheer development…The problem is…to evaluate the manner in which the program can make the greatest contribution to the totality of U.S. interests."

Even today donors place their economic interest above humanitarian concerns in providing technological transfer. For instance, Japan offers television stations, hospital equipment, and other products so as to electronically "hook" the developing community as consumers.

Whenever the interest of the recipient is secondary, the technology transfer is "supply driven"[FAD 159]. "Donors conceive, design, and implement projects with too little input from recipients…, At the same time, the supply driven character of technology cooperation implies that projects often address low priority needs from the recipient country's perspective." [FAD 159]

3. Inappropriate technology:

Transfer of inappropriate technology causes harm to the recipient. "Technological enthusiasm" and arbitrary assertion that most advanced technology is the most appropriate, contribute to the selecting inappropriate technology.

Also, inappropriate technology takes place when receipts are used as testing grounds or dumping grounds of equipments. Mechanization is not always economical where labour is abundant, and where redirection and retraining are costly or impossible.

4. Lack of community consultation, education, and input:

Lack of community education, consultation, and input for technological transfer projects contributes to project failures. Channing Arndt summarizes the issues as:[160]

  • " inefficient emphasis on training "
  • " excessive reliance on long-term resident expatriate advisers"
  • "Failure of the expert - counterpart model."

Towards New Criteria:

The organizations involved in technology transfer have unique methods. Their ideology or interests influence their methods. I have not studied their methods in detail, and do not intend to filter a criteria based on their methods.

I recognize that technology transfer is a complex task. It is like introducing a foreign species into an ecosystem. Avoiding the past shortcomings is necessary for selection and transfer of technology. However, selection and transfer is proceeded by a fundamental step: "the definition of social goals"[SUSAN 71], or determining the preferred quality of life.

The quality of life is a measure of the human condition. The UN uses life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rate, and real GDP per capita and other such indicators to measure the quality of life. Informally, the quality of life is perceived as the percentage of people who own television, cars, and other goods, the amount of industry in a country, and how open the economy is to outside business. Quality of life cannot be measured precisely. But, communities have "basic human needs"[KELVIN 147], and in incorporating them I outline a preferred quality that I feel can be satisfactory to an ordinary man. I recognize that such an outline is subjective. Still, the preferred quality of life can be used as the stage of development toward which any technology should aim to achieve.

An individual's quality of life must be considered on a personal and community level. A person needs access to adequate healthy food, and clothing which is economical, culturally sensitive, and in accordance with weather. He or she needs a home that provides insulation from extreme weather, circulates clean air, and has access to clean water. A person needs primary education, and meaningful work. Mobility, at least within the national borders, and variety of leisure activities should also be available to the individual.

Security, transportation, recycling and waste management, and a sanitary system must be coordinated and delivered at a community level. Also, access to high quality health care, access to the natural environment, and adequate participation in government must be ensured for all members of a community. The environment of the community must be sustained and clean. Moreover, the community should facilitate the highest intellectual, scientific, spiritual, artistic, and exploration activities.

Contrary to the popular notion, I believe only health care, space exploration, and learning are the important avenues where we should strive for continuous growth. For avenues such as food production, transportation, recycling and waste management we should seek for optimum solutions based on specific social goals.

After determining the preferred quality of life, Susan George suggests the following steps for a community to take:[GEORGE 86]

  • "Assess the available resources for attaining them (social objectives) - both material and human"
  • "Determine restrictions you will encounter" : geographical, economical, or ecological
  • "Determine the economic instruments that are in line with your objectives, resources, and restrictions.

She holds, if the social objectives were set clearly "appropriate technology should appear almost by magic as an integral part of the goals, limited by the restrictions and paid for by the economic instruments."[GEORGE 86] I mostly agree with George. Further, a community should include genuine aid as a resource during the assessment. Also, technology transfer can be used as an "economic instrument" to achieve the set social objectives.

The New Criteria:

The criteria for selection and transfer of technology must be guided by the preferred quality of life and must avoid past shortcomings. I inadvertently imply the donor as the party doing the selection. In general the following criteria should be met:

  1. The recipients' need must be primary
  2. Technology must be innovated around existing systems
  3. Use appropriate technology
  4. Technology transfer through community initiative
  5. Include local input, and provide priority to local initiative
  6. Guard against criminal intentions.

I must note that groups from donor countries often emphasise on need to liberalize the economy, need to reduce government, and the need to build institutions based on Western model, and more accountability on the part of recipients in their recommendations to improve the effectiveness of technology transfer and foreign aid. In contrast, the criteria I summarize are more along with radical and environmentalist points of view.

1. The recipients' need must be primary

The offer of technological assistance should be an asset to communities. The provider must be explicit in terms of the cost involved [FAD 161], reason for the aid, and monitoring method to enable the community to make an objective decision. If a community has determined their objectives, then the technology transfer can be effective.

2. Use appropriate technology

From Gandhi, Schumacher to Greenpeace the call for appropriate technology is a movement. Small-scale industries, village technology, intermediate technology, alternative energy development, and low cost construction methods are all areas where research have led to successful projects.[KEVIN] The "craze for technology" should be avoided, and a balanced approach considering all factors of technology and its impact should be taken.

3. Technology can be innovated around existing systems

As was noted earlier, lack of "human and institutional capacity" or systems found in the developed world is a drawback to technology transfer. For example, more than 50% of the population of India lives in villages.[KEVIN 149] A village activity revolves around the temple, and landlords rather than banks, and government offices. Although, technology transfer should not facilitate exploitation, it should allow for innovation according to existing systems. The following quote by Sachs summarizes the notion of innovating around existing systems.[KEVIN, 155]:

"Instead of starting with ready-made technologies and then adapting at great pains the economy and environment to these transferred technologies, it is suggested to do it the other way round, making the best possible use of the specific natural and cultural of each ecosystem."

Moreover, the technology must be innovated considering the inequalities, and power structures to empower the poorest of poor.

4. Technology transfer through emigrant initiative.

In the last three decades, a significant number of immigrants from developing countries have settled in the developed countries. These migrants are best positioned to lead initiatives in co-ordination with native communities for technology transfer. They are more socially sensitive, and keen to serve native community needs and have greater access to developed world technology. A case in point is the rehabilitation and technology transfer activities undertaken by Sri Lankan Tamil community abroad. The Tamil Eelam Economic Development ORganization (TEEDOR) is the main vehicle which uses the expertise found among Tamil immigrants for research, and implements the projects in co-ordination with TEEDOR's Sri Lankan branch []. The Tamil Student Volunteer Program is a new student led organization that aims to provide direct assistance to people in the North-East of war ravaged Sri Lanka. Although, the financial capacity of these organizations is limited, they are better positioned than the IMF, World Bank or Governmental Agencies to diagnose need and implement projects.

5. Community education, consultation, and input

I am from a third world country, and I know that large numbers of developing communities are illiterate of their rights, abilities and the larger world around them. Those dedicated to helping these communities must inform the people of their rights, abilities, and the world, and enable them to make their decisions. Furhter, all projects simply need to involve and seek input from the people to succeed.


From the beginning of the research I assumed that the transfer of scientific technology could accelerate development, and aid in achieving social objectives; I still do. But, the process of transfer, and the selection of technology are far more complex avenues than I had anticipated. Although social activists, sociologists, psychologists, economists, technologists and historians have studied this issue, there is no consensus on the sub-issues or the method of transfer.

The technology transfer is a dynamic process. The inequalities, values and aspirations of the recipents shape, and are shaped by the technology. In the past, technology transfer projects have failed partly in failing to realize this aspect. Further, lack of the "human and physical capacity", community involvement, appropriate technology, and priority to recipients' interests has contributed to failure of technology transfer projects. As Susan George highlights, defining social goals by the community is a fundamental step before considering any technology transfer projects. Therefore, the criteria for selection and transfer of technology must be guided by preferred quality of life of the community and must avoid past shortcomings. Considering recipients need as primary, using appropriate technology, innovating the technology around existing systems, consulting the community and guarding against criminal elements are all guidelines drawn from past shortcomings and guide towards preferred quality of life. The criteria are indicative of the direction shown by common sense and sought by social activists.

Works Cited

Akin L. Mabogunje. 2001. Poverty and environmental degradation.
Enviornment 1: 8-18.

Bert Metz, and others, eds.
Methodological and Technological Issues in Technology Transfer.
Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Finin tarp, and Peter Hjertholm, eds. 2000.
Foreign aid and development: Lessons learnt and Directions for the future.
New York: Rouledge.

Thomas P. Hughes. 1989.
American Genesis: A century of invention and technological enthusiasm 1870 - 1970.
New York: Penguin Group.

Kelvin W. Wilouojhby. 1990.
Technology choice: A critique of the appropriate technology movement.
London: Westview Press.

Linsu Kim, and Righard R. Nelson, eds. 2000.
Technology, learning, and innovation: Experience of newly industrializing economies.
New York: Cambridge.

Susan George. 1977.
How the other half Dies.
New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld.

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