Friday, February 18, 2005

Nanotechnology and the Poor

Nanotechnology and the Poor: Opportunities and Risks, January 2005, Meridian Institute,


NANOTECHNOLOGY AND THE POOR is a working paper and the issues it raises will be examined in greater detail at a forthcoming meeting in Alexandria, Egypt.

In summary, it claims nanotechnology is becoming a huge phenomenon and stakeholders might want to engage it upstream. It complains there is little effort to connect the development of nanotechnology with the development of poor nations and neighborhoods. Stakeholders in the South are serving nearly no role in nanotechnology.

This is the first issue I would like to examine. Who and what are "stakeholders" in this debate? It seems everywhere I go I hear more and more rhetoric about involving "stakeholders" but I remain puzzled about who they are. It seems problematic to say everyone is a stakeholder. Simply put, the public is not interested in science and technology decision making per se. While the public may express interest for a brief period of time when some scientific issue is salient to their lives, that seems to soon wear off.

This commentary is not meant to suggest that Southern voices are not relevant to development strategies for nanotechnology. However, if everyone is a stakeholder, are we obligated to institute consensus conferences and other deliberative experiments for everyone? If so, then we are talking about a massive science literacy experiment that is simply beyond our resources. If we are not able to bring in the greater vision of stakeholders, what do we do? If we bring them in and they simply refuse to participate, what do we do?

Do we stop development until some time when they are prepared to interact and participate? Is there some negotiated middle ground here? When we involve stakeholders and they decide against a technology, will government and private industry be expected to pull back to recede? Will all governments and industries abide by public sentiment? Boycotts and protests are not universally effective.

Greater still, what if all this rhetoric about involve stakeholders merely is being spouted to quell protest? What is all this talk about stakeholders merely perception management? Is this just another example of symbolic politics?

Back to Meridian.

They make a case that application of nanotechnology might produce safer drinking water, cheaper lighter low-cost solar cells, slowly release drugs, etc. Meridian also tags the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy that provided much of the information for ETC's recent "Down on the Farm" and summarizes some of risks mentioned in both those documents. Meridian also summarizes some of the studies on carbon nanotubes and toxicity issues. Meridian mentioned the reductions in raw materials inputs and its impact on developing economies and recaps some of the public awareness and regulatory challenges facing developing economies.

The report ends with a section of roles and responsibilities including governments connecting nanotechnology programs with official development assistance programs. It mentions "pro-poor business" and corporate social responsibility as two business phenomena that might be used to bring the benefits to the poor. The report also questions the rate of patenting and its implications for products for the poor. Finally, it reviews the few NGOS drawn to the subject, few of which identify issues of the poor.

In general, it concludes we may need to go upstream together. The global dialogue is occurring but it may take more than international meetings to wrestle some of the benefits of nanotechnology for the poor.

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