The Basic-Needs Problem and Technology

Basic needs have been defined in different ways. Frances Stewart sees the best approach to basic needs as

one which gives priority to meeting the basic needs of all of the people. The actual content of basic needs has been variously defined: they always include the fulfilment of certain standards of nutrition (food and water) and the

universal provision of health and education services. They sometimes also cover other material needs, such as shelter and clothing, and non-material needs, such as employment, participation and political liberty.

A review of the literature and case studies has shown that a considerable amount of work has been devoted to the basic-needs issue, predominantly attempts to identify and quantify features of basic needs and evaluate programs designed to meet them...

The planet has experienced sweeping technological, economic, political, and social change over the past two decades. This has affected the fundamental nature of the problem of poverty and, to a great extent, impinged on the possibility of realizing sustainable human development. The distribution of power shifts both within and among nations. Countries in transition to a market economy are seeking to redirect resources for S&T. Although potent interactions and feedback mechanisms operate among these facets of the new landscape, technological change is the primary driving force. Technology is changing the structure of production all over the world and, in consequence, affecting such economic variables as comparative advantages, international division of labour, income levels, productivity, employment, skill profiles, and patterns of international commerce. With microelectronic innovations in the vanguard and modern biotechnology and new materials science rapidly coming on stream, newly emerging technologies are affecting the human condition and prospects profoundly. These emerging technologies are more mobile, flexible, and knowledge intensive than ever but less energy and resource intensive. Also, although technology transfer remains important, it is now subordinated to the desire to accumulate more domestic technological capabilities, an aspect that did not carry quite the same weight in earlier basic-needs programs.

The ability to become competitive domestically and internationally is all-compelling: in the new global economy, virtually every country has made some move toward deregulating its domestic economy and liberalizing its trade regime. Many nations have accomplished drastic shifts toward more market-oriented, outward-looking economic systems. On the world political scene, a significant movement toward democratization and the assertion of human rights is taking place, and this presents new avenues and opportunities for formulating policies directed toward satisfying basic needs. Democracy tends to decentralize political control; it also signals a more propitious atmosphere for widening and deepening involvement with poor populations. Moreover, democracy has created a more favourable climate for linking basic-needs satisfaction with human rights. Taken together, economic liberalization and political democratization point to reduced reliance on paternalistic, top-down approaches in favour of policies encouraging the broader participation of key actors, including the poor. Closely related to this is the current trend to encourage decentralized decision-making and problem-solving, a trend laden with both challenges and opportunities for effectively broaching the subject of deficiencies in basic-needs satisfaction.

Over the past several decades, technological progress, supported by the new economic and political arrangements, has been responsible for vast improvements in the physical conditions and living standards of most of the world’s population. This trend is substantiated by indicators such as rising per capita income and life expectancy and declining infant mortality. For millions of people, technological progress has satisfactorily resolved the basic-needs problem. Although technologically the world has never been in a better position to improve the conditions of very poor populations, roughly 20% of the world’s population have not benefited materially from advances in technology.

In many parts of the world the poor, especially poor women, are losing ground in income and amenities relative to the remainder of the population. During 1980–91, the least-developed countries experienced a rate of growth in per capita income of 0.7%, in contrast to a rate of 2.1% in developed market economies. Meanwhile, the per capita food production in least-developed countries actually declined between 1980 and 1992 at an annual rate of 1.2%. The World Food Council estimated that 550 million people in the world were hungry in 1992, a number that jumps to around 1 billion when those vulnerable during periods of hunger each year are included. In 1981, the average per capita output in developed countries was about 20 times greater than that in developing countries; by 1991 it was 22 times greater.

Looking at the polarization problem somewhat differently, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated that in 1960 the world’s highest income quintile received an average income 30 times higher than that of the lowest income quintile; in 1990 the disparity had grown to twice that much. ECLAC also estimated that 45.9% of Latin America’s population lives below the poverty line, an increase of 2.5% since 1986, and 22% lives in extreme poverty. The World Bank estimated that the number of people living on less than $1 per day (1985 prices)2 rose from 1.051 billion in 1985 to 1.133 billion in 1990. In a news release following the recent International Monetary Fund – World Bank Summit in Madrid, the World Bank’s president, Lewis Preston, pointed out that in the next generation 3 billion more people will be in desperate need of clean water, sanitation, electricity, and other basics. By no means is income polarization confined to the South. The United States Congressional Budget Office reported that between 1949 and 1989 the lowest income quintile saw a decrease of 10% in real income, whereas in the highest income percentile income increased by 105%. According to The Economist (4 June 1994), “since 1979 real income of the poorest 10 per cent has fallen in real terms while average income of the whole population rose by 25 per cent and that for the top 10 per cent of the population expanded by 50 per cent.”

These conditions have contributed to a greater marginalization of poor populations and a feeling of alienation and hopelessness among them. The term marginalization is intended to convey that the poor are excluded and have no way to influence the distribution of power or resources to their benefit. It does not imply that they have no visibility or influence on the lives of those who are not poor. The basic-needs problem means that directly or indirectly, people who are not impoverished are open to a variety of detrimental impacts. They suffer a heightened sense of insecurity, run greater health risks, incur increasing expenses for personal protection, and pay higher taxes. Partly owing to technological advances (coupled with a greater emphasis on competitiveness) the middle class and elites of many nations already suffer from less job security and growing anxieties, augmented by the increasing violence and criminality of those with basic-needs deficiencies.

In the experiences of three least-developed countries — Ethiopia, Togo, and Uganda — the problem of extreme poverty is a dramatic feature. In Ethiopia, for example, almost 51% of the population lives below the absolute poverty line. Other salient aspects of these countries were the predominantly rural population and the extremely high proportion of youth under 15 years of age, resulting in a high level of dependency in the total population. The overwhelming majority of the economically active people in the rural areas and a great portion of those in the urban sector are self-employed. Health coverage and sanitary conditions are poor, and, accordingly, life expectancy is low, as is the number of educational facilities. Consideration of these aspects is fundamental to formulating a strategy for directing technology at the satisfaction of basic needs, which is almost synonymous with formulating national economic-development objectives.

Previous models for addressing the basic-needs problem have become inadequate. A sea change is occurring in important facets of the human condition, and this renders earlier models at least partially obsolete. People who are denied the opportunity to meet their basic needs are fiercely expressing their discontent. Increasingly, their situation presents the greatest challenge for socioeconomic development and has acquired environmental and national security dimensions. [It is clear that]

an assertive attack on the basic-needs problem needs to go far beyond the traditional poverty-alleviation strategies tried unsuccessfully in the past. A local basic-needs approach calls for a greater emphasis on domestic technological management, a greater absorptive capacity among the poor for the benefits of S&T, and a wider spread of the fruits of growth through decentralized production and consumption planning, as well as popular participation . . . .

Deleterious poverty-related effects are no longer compartmentalized in poor countries, and extreme poverty is adversely affecting the quality of life of all the world’s people. The spirals of less security and more expenses, fractures along cultural, ethnic, religious, and social lines, and North-to-South interventions are unsustainable. This is primarily why a fresh strategy is sought for solving basic-needs deficiencies that is consonant with the new technological, economic, political, and social realities. Several other factors of great importance also figure in this context. First (and absolutely central to the discussion), market forces can and should be constructively and imaginatively employed in ameliorating abject poverty; however, to improve the conditions of the very poorest segments of society, extramarket interventions are a prerequisite. To achieve the goal of technology for basic needs, a fundamental condition is the fashioning of avenues, bridges, or linkages through which poor populations can breach the expanding knowledge and technology gap that perpetuates their economic, political, and sociocultural marginalization. Second, the focus must be squarely on human beings. Things, such as technology and knowledge, are important but only insofar as they relate to human beings and only to the extent that they are deployed and manipulated for the betterment of the human condition and further sustainable human development.

Third, the process of combating basic-needs deficits is value-laden: ethics and attitudes influence the chances and extent of success. A primary ethical element is the challenge to the global Science &Technology community to recognize that with the capacity to make significant contributions to resolving basic-needs problems comes an associated responsibility and a moral obligation. The battle concerning attitudes will entail enabling people to move from passivity, a sense of inferiority, and a feeling of helplessness to active participation, with confidence based on collective and individual achievements and justifiable hope. These and perhaps other matters of value will interact powerfully with access to and deployment of S&T for the alleviation of poverty.

- An Assault on Poverty, Panel on Technology for Basic Needs, United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, 1997

1 comment:

  1. Very nice write up. Easy to understand and straight to the point.