Silicon sustenance

Technology and Poverty Reduction in Asia and the Pacific
OECD Observer

Can technology help to reduce hunger and eventually poverty, and if so, under what conditions? When Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe refused to accept 20,000 tonnes of maize from the US to feed his starving people, the world collectively gasped. The problem, of course, was that it was genetically modified.

This presented a number of sticky issues having to do not only with possible health and environmental effects, but with long-term market independence and possible effects on trade.

As Technology and Poverty Reduction in Asia and the Pacific points out, 40 years ago the Green Revolution promised to abolish hunger by increasing crop yields through a set of “miracle seeds”. The use of better fertilisers, potent pesticides, modern irrigation and high-yield grain seeds did have a dramatic effect on agriculture, reducing malnutrition in much of Asia and Latin America as well as parts of Africa, despite a trebling of the population. Cereal production in Asia has doubled over the past 30 years, and calorie availability per person increased by over 20%, while real food prices have fallen by 50%.

Yet some argue that most of the benefits of higher production go to the employers, not the labourers. Traditional farming methods have been lost, the environment compromised, and crop yield has stabilised. This book, a collection of presentations from a Development Centre seminar, assesses the lessons learned from the Green Revolution and looks at the promises held out by the modern “Gene Revolution”. It goes on to question the harmful effects on the poor of over-protective intellectual property rights and examines the current state of information technology in Asia, and what role it can play in reducing poverty.

The mere provision of technology is not enough. Bangalore in India is a kind of Silicon Valley, claiming to have more engineering colleges than any other city in the world. Yet, the region suffers more poverty than many other regions and its literacy rate is not much higher than the Indian average of 65%. Many graduates may well emigrate to lucrative positions at NASA or Microsoft, but the city’s impressive focus on IT excellence is not yet combating poverty.

©OECD Observer No 34, October 2002

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