Helping poor countries with nanotechnology

Foresight members and others would like to find ways to use nanotechnology to help those who need help the most. It’s a challenge, as described more generally by Nancy Birdsall, Dani Rodrik, and Arvind Subramanian, writing in Foreign Affairs. They suggest a solution, which ought to work for nanotech as well as medical technologies:

Wealthy countries can also spur technological advances that serve the specific interests of developing countries. Because poor countries lack wealthy markets, private companies in the developed world currently have little incentive to devise technologies for them…

The international community needs to learn from [the “green revolution”] example, so that the resources of wealthy firms can be harnessed to develop important technologies for the world’s poorest countries. One simple yet powerful improvement would be for rich-country governments to commit contractually to rewarding the creation of such new technologies — for example, with guaranteed purchase agreements. In effect, the international community would ensure a minimum financial return on private research undertaken for the benefit of developing countries. The Center for Global Development has devised a plan for this kind of advance-market-commitment mechanism to spark research on a malaria vaccine, at an estimated cost of $3 billion. Imagine the benefits of a $50 billion global technology-creation fund, with actual disbursement of the funds taking place over ten years or more. That $50 billion would represent only about five percent of all the financial aid that donors have promised to spend on the poor in the next decade.

Note that in this approach, one would specify a goal to be achieved, not the method used to achieve it. If nanotech is the best method, fine — if not, that’s okay too. The point is to meet the goal.

Traditional foreign aid to developing nations has had limited success. It’s time to focus more heavily on new approaches, such as microfinance and the above.

If you like this way of thinking, you’re invited to join Foresight. If you join now, your donation is matched, up to $40,000. (If you want to give the whole $40,000, we should talk!) —Christine

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