The Technology Route to Development

From bicycles to radios to internet connections, technologies of various kinds are part of what constitutes a more developed lifestyle even in places where incomes continue to hover at $1 or $2 per day.

Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and contributing writer to Foreign Policy magazine, has just written a superb book titled Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding – And How We Can Improve the World Even More (Basic Books, 2011).   

Unlike most books on the subject which focus primarily on how to raise incomes through centralized bureaucratic initiatives, Kenny subtly reinforces the point that income alone isn’t the most accurate measure of development. Instead, he emphasizes development as a process with many ingredients, and elevates an often neglected one: technology. From bicycles to radios to internet connections, technologies of various kinds are part of what constitutes a more developed lifestyle even in places where incomes continue to hover at $1 or $2 per day.

Theories of growth tend to take shape along partisan lines, with some economists favoring environmental factors, culture, investment, or institutions, but rarely providing a comprehensive approach. Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Solow brought forth the role of technology, stressing that technology is comprised not only of things such as steam engines and transistors, but also processes like assembly lines and accounting practices. (Stanford economist Paul Romer, in his emphasis on ideas and innovation, is the rightful heir to Solow.) Interestingly, process technologies no longer flow only from rich to poor, from the West to the rest, but now develop indigenously in the form of “frugal innovations” like Tata’s Nano car from India.

Given that the per capita income of the average person in Africa today is no higher than that of a resident of Great Britain circa 1850, what is driving the global convergence of quality of life indicators worldwide is very much technological in nature. As Kenny puts it, “The best things in life are cheap.” Here he is referring to basic foods and medicines, particularly anti-malaria and anti-diarrhea medications, water purification, small pox immunization, and books to spread literacy. It is these drivers of individual liberation, combined with better governance, which are making people happier even if incomes rise slowly. Technology makes certain material goods and personal freedoms easy to afford and hard to deny, both economically and morally.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute

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