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The BBC's Stephen Evans
"British opposition to GM crops focuses on food quality and the effects on the environment"
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Tuesday, 10 July, 2001, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
Hi-tech poverty battle
Using the internet in India
Developing countries need high-tech solutions says UN
Information and communication technology can contribute greatly to reducing world poverty, but more international funding is needed to bring hi-tech benefits to all, according to the United Nations.


You and I don't really need the tomato with longer shelf life...But a farmer in Mali facing crop failure really needs better drought-resistant crops that biotechnology can offer

Sakiko Fakuda Parr
Report's director
In its annual report, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) says inadequate public funding, market distortions, and unfair intellectual property rights currently deny technological benefits to many developing countries.

The UNDP also says genetically modified foods, which are treated with suspicion by consumers in the developed world, could substantially increase the chances of feeding the hungry.

To accompany its report, the UNDP rates 162 countries in terms of life expectancy, literacy and income for its Human Development Index. Norway is top - the bottom 28 are all from Africa.

'Call to arms'

The Human Development Report rejects the argument that people living on a dollar a day cannot eat computers.

Woman GM protestor in Thailand
The UN says GM foods can help cut malnutrition but not everyone is convinced
It argues that information and communications technology can help overcome barriers of social, economic and geographic isolation.

"The report is a call to arms. It says there is room for a red-blooded, full-throttle application of technology to development, within the framework of smart public policy," said UNDP head, Mark Malloch-Brown.

For the UNDP, there are four priorities:

  • Develop vaccines for tropical diseases as well as HIV and TB
  • Use biotechnology to produce new varieties of staple crops
  • Low-cost computers, wireless connectivity and pre-paid chipcard software
  • Low-cost fuel-cells and photovoltaics for decentralised electricity

The report points to world-class hi-tech hubs that have emerged in Brazil, India, Malaysia, South Africa and Tunisia as a sign that developing countries can make their own technological advances.

Human Development Index
Top Five
1 Norway
2 Australia
3 Canada
4 Sweden
5 Belgium
But the report also concludes that most important technology advances bypass the world's poor because of lack of market demand and inadequate public funding.

Private sectors respond only to the needs of high-income consumers, it says.

The result is that in areas such as medicine, only 10% of global health focuses on illnesses such as malaria and HIV/Aids that disproportionately affect developing countries.

Human Development Index
Bottom Five
158 Ethiopia
159 Burkina Faso
160 Burundi
161 Niger
162 Sierra Leone
Sakiko Fakuda Parr, who directed the report, said that if shared, breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture and information could improve lives across the globe.

But she warned that technological research needed to be directed towards global concerns rather than focusing on smaller issues specific to the demands of the developed world:

Biotechnology benefits

"You and I don't really need the tomato with longer shelf life. On the other hand, a farmer in Mali facing crop failure every three years really needs better drought-resistant crops that biotechnology can offer."

"So the potential benefits that biotechnology has for agriculture for developing countries is enormously different from the potential benefits that we can have in Europe or the OECD countries," she said.

The report concludes that technological progress accounted for between 40% and 50% of mortality reductions between 1960 and 1990.

But the advance of technology continues to filter slowly to the developing world.

Electricity, which has been in widespread use since the development of the light bulb in 1870, is still not available to a third of the world's population.

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See also:

10 Jul 01 | South Asia
Brain drain costs Asia billions
09 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
UN in push to end poverty
08 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
UN launches one-stop green website
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Laptops or healthcare?
04 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
GM rice patents given away
21 May 01 | Sci/Tech
The biological goldrush
21 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
When the web is not world-wide
22 Jul 00 | World
G8 plans hi-tech help for poor
10 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Analysis: GM crops potential
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