Closing the Technology Gap in Least Developed Countries

A farmer village outside of Dodoma, Tanzania. ©Flickr/C. Schubert (CCAFS)

A farmer village outside of Dodoma, Tanzania. ©Flickr/C. Schubert (CCAFS)​

Imagine not having your cellphone handy to send a quick message, receive traffic updates, find your doctor’s telephone number, check a map on your way to visit a friend, or make a payment?

Soon our homes will be remote-controlled, allowing us to regulate heat and prevent water leaks while away. In the not-too-distant future, we may have autonomous vehicles. Big data and artificial intelligence (AI) are leading to breakthroughs in how we can treat deadly diseases. But who really benefits from these innovations? How many of us will ultimately profit from this Fourth Industrial Revolution or from the green technology we hear and read about, made possible through ground-breaking advances in robotics, AI, biotechnology, machine learning and the Internet of things?

We live in a time of stunning technological wizardry, but unfortunately, not all of us benefit from it. Many have already been left behind and risk falling even further behind due to the political, economic and social consequences of rapidly expanding inequality. Tremendous technological leaps are being made, but the economic and social benefits remain geographically concentrated, primarily in developed countries. Too often the least developed countries (LDCs) remain far behind if not excluded entirely. Many have little choice beyond the use of obsolete technologies, such as those used in the garment or agricultural sectors.

This is not because LDCs lack the determination or the will to catch up with the rest of the world. What we are seeing is a result of the serious and manifold development challenges these countries continue to face, experiencing delays in their efforts to eradicate poverty, achieve sustainable development and participate fully in an increasingly competitive global market. One of the root causes is found in structural limitations, as there are marked gaps between LDCs and other countries in such areas as science, technology and innovation (STI). If these gaps are not closed sooner rather than later, LDCs will not be able to achieve the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This will also mean that we will not have reached our objective of “leaving no one behind”.

The shortcomings of STI find their origin in a range of factors. Traditional development approaches based on the trickle-down assumption that increasing imports of capital goods and direct foreign investment would lead, through the diffusion of technology and innovation, to development gains, did not work out to the extent expected. More importantly, low levels of investment in research and development, low enrolment rates in higher education and thus a limited supply of skilled labor, and inadequate or unstable policy and regulatory environments capable of promoting progress, all play a role in the poor state of science, technology and innovation in LDCs.

One way to illustrate the challenges that LDCs are up against is to consider the scarcity of publications in peer-reviewed journals. In 2013, only 7 scientific and technical journal articles were published for every 1 million people in African LDCs. In comparison, in the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, about 1,100 scientific and technical journal articles were published for every 1 million people.

The correlation between investment in research and development (R&D) and economic growth is well accepted. Incidentally, the notion of moving to a “green economy” relies on research and development, as does the advent of a “blue economy” based on the sustainable use of ocean resources. Simply put, the greater the investment in R&D, the broader the scope for innovation that can drive growth. Yet for most LDCs, the ratio of expenditure on R&D to gross domestic product remains low, at less than 1 per cent. This presents a key hurdle to building competitiveness and capacity to absorb and adapt to existing state-of-the-art technologies. If we are to talk about LDCs leapfrogging to modern technologies, we will have to take into account hardware as well as software issues. Although investment in technological infrastructure is a prerequisite, investing in capacity-building to adapt to existing technology is just as important.

The case of the “newly industrialized countries” is a potent reminder of this. They used technologies from abroad to grow their industrial base before creating their own scientific and technological breakthroughs. However, this effort required an educated and skilled workforce—in short, a wide base of science-literate citizens. This is key to advancing STI. But here too, LDCs are facing obstacles. In 2015, almost 40 per cent of all out-of-school children and adolescents in the world lived in LDCs. The gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education was less than 9 per cent in 2013, compared with 33 per cent worldwide. We know that secondary school enrolment is a predictor of higher rates of Internet use. STI is driven by and has made incredible leaps because of computing power, as well as the use of the Internet for data and the exchange of information and ideas. We therefore cannot leave the LDCs behind in this regard and must ensure that secondary and indeed tertiary enrolments are increased in those countries.  

In terms of the hardware obstacle, the lack of high-speed connectivity in LDCs poses a major challenge. Inadequate connectivity prevents access to the most promising broadband applications for education, health, finance and other sectors, as well as to global and regional knowledge networks. Most LDCs face great difficulties in making broadband Internet access available and affordable for all. Digital technologies have great potential to bring economic and social development benefits to these nations. For that to happen, considerable effort is required to empower and equip Governments and the private sector with the capacity to leverage it.  

Our task lies in supporting LDCs in order to make access to technology and knowledge available to everyone, and to unleash the potential of people’s creativity and ingenuity. Difficulties are there to be overcome. Lagging behind does not need to be an eternal curse for LDCs. They do not need to remain tied to outdated and inefficient technologies. A critical first step would be to recognize and act on the need to support this group of countries, to help them catch up. A helping hand has been extended through a newly established United Nations entity—the Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries.

The Technology Bank began its operations in September 2017 with the signing of the host country agreement between the United Nations and Turkey. Its objective is to support LDCs in building their STI capacity; foster national and regional innovation ecosystems; support homegrown research and development; facilitate market access; build capacity in the area of intellectual property rights; and assist with the transfer of appropriate technologies. The establishment of the Technology Bank also marks the achievement of SDG target 17.8, the first SDG target to be met.

Among the first activities the Technology Bank will undertake is the preparation of baseline STI reviews and technology needs assessments in five LDCs—Guinea, Haiti, the Sudan, Timor-Leste and Uganda—in cooperation with other United Nations organizations. In addition, the Technology Bank has already started working on the promotion of “digital access to research”, teaming up with Research4Life, a public-private partnership that has been active in more than 100 lower-income countries, including all LDCs, since 2002.

The partnership brings together United Nations agencies, 180 international publishers, universities and other organizations to provide researchers in the developing world with online access to international academic and professional journals, databases, and other information resources. The Technology Bank is currently focusing on improving access for scientists and researchers to data, publications and STI initiatives in 12 LDCs: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda.

The opening of the Technology Bank comes at an important moment, when we are seeing seeds of innovation being planted across many LDCs. This gives us great hope that the Technology Bank can be a value-adding, instrumental tool to help create the success stories that are emerging from LDCs.

Health is a key area in which innovations in mobile services have had important development impacts. In Malawi, Airtel 321 provides information on maternal and child nutrition via mobile phone in the local language. In Tanzania, an SMS-based application has been developed that makes the birth registration process more efficient, cost-effective and accessible for parents. In October 2016, Zipline, a combination high-tech startup drone manufacturer, logistics service provider and public health-care system consultant, began using drones to deliver medical supplies to remote health clinics in Rwanda. Zipline’s partnership with the Government of Rwanda has dramatically reduced the time it takes to deliver essential medical supplies.

We also know how important technology is to breaking down barriers to financial inclusion. One successful example concerns mobile money, which has spread rapidly in LDCs. It has helped the “unbanked” to move out of financial exclusion to building not only better lives for families but, importantly, creating horizons of hope that a better future can be ahead.

Agriculture, a mainstay of so many LDC economies—and incidentally, of so many women living and working in LDCs—has greatly benefited from digital technologies. Mobile phones help increase not just the growing and harvesting of food but also price-setting. The Pink Phone project in Cambodia is a good example. The initiative helps women farmers exchange expertise and access resources, purchase land and thus sell more produce. In Senegal, Mlouma—a virtual platform—provides farmers and, importantly, investors with real-time information on prices, location and availability of produce via a website or mobile phone.

The latest developments in transport technology have already had a major impact, transforming the way people commute, create jobs and do business. The light rail system that went into operation in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, in 2015 has totally transformed urban mobility. It is the first light rail and rapid transit system in Eastern and sub-Saharan Africa. In this context, it also bears mentioning that Ethiopian Airlines now operates a state-of-the art Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

These are just a few examples, but they all demonstrate that it is possible for LDCs to keep abreast of the latest advances in innovative technology. They show what public-private sector partnering and South-South cooperation can achieve, and prove that technology is not an end in itself but a valuable enabler on the path towards achieving sustainable and inclusive development for everyone.

The Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies puts forward this message in a set of principles that give us the necessary framework to proceed with our efforts and ensure that the benefits of new technologies are put to use for equitable and sustainable development. We must avoid a head-long rush for the latest and greatest, which could result in marginalization and leave the poorest countries behind.