There’s a rather sceptical commentary from Howard Lovy about a BBC report on a study from Peter Singer and coworkers. At the centre of the report is a list of areas in which the authors feel that nanotechnology can make positive contributions to the developing world. Howard’s piece attracted some very sceptical comments from Jim Thomas, of the ETC Group. Jim is very suspicious of high-tech “solutions” to the problems of the developing world which don’t take account of local cultures and conditions. In particular, he sees the role of multinational companies as being particularly problematic, especially with regard to issues of ownership, control and intellectual property.
I see the problem of multinational companies in rather different terms. To take a concrete example, I’d cited the case of insecticide-treated mosquito nets for the control of malaria as a place where nanoscale technology could make a direct impact (and Jim did seem to agree, with some reservations, that this in could, in some circumstances, be an appropriate solution). The technical problem with insecticide treated mosquito nets is that the layer of active material isn’t very robustly attached, and the effectiveness of the nets falls away too rapidly with time, and even more rapidly when the nets are washed. One solution is to use micro- or nano-encapsulation of the insecticide to achieve long-lasting controlled release. The necessary technology to do this is being developed in agrochemical multinationals. The problem, though, is that their R&D efforts are steered by the monetary size of the markets they project. They’d much rather develop termite defenses for wealthy suburbanites in Florida than mosquito nets. The problem, then, isn’t that these multinationals will impose technical fixes on the developing world, it’s that they’ll just ignore the developing world entirely and potentially valuable technologies simply won’t reach the places where they could do some good.
To overcome this market failure needs intervention from governments, foundations and NGOs, as well as some active and informed technology brokering. Looking at it in this light, it seems to me that the Singer paper is a useful contribution.