Tiny Steps Towards a framework for democratic governance of nanotech risks and benefits in the global South

We have been looking at issues surrounding nanotechnology & development for almost  decade, so a new brief from Nano-Dev called “Nanotechnologies for development: Towards a framework for democratic governance of risks and benefits in the global South” naturally caught our eye (available as a PDF here).

Unfortunately it’s another report that fudges the issue by concluding that while nanotechnology may have some advantages there may also be some risks, without attempting to quantify or balance them.

The positive consequences of nanotechnology include direct benefits in the form of solutions to the problems of the poor and indirect benefits in the form of economic growth

The negative consequences of nanotechnology include direct risks to human health and the environment and indirect risks such as a deepening of the global divide.

Core challenges to harnessing nanotechnology for development include risk governance, cultures of innovation, knowledge brokerage and travelling technology.

Some of these risks, such as deepening of the global divide, can no more be ascribed to nanotechnology than they can to IT. One comment that did catch our attention was

Furthermore, properties at the nano-scale may be used to imitate the properties of rare minerals, thus affecting the export rates of their main producers, usually countries in the global South. Nanotechnologies may thus have reverse effects on material demands and consequently on the export of raw materials by countries in the global South (Schummer 2007).

This is an area worth further investigation. There are certainly plenty of initiatives underway to reduce the usage of materials such as Indium in touch screens, replacing it with carbon nanotubes, metallic nano particles or graphene, but will it have an effect of Zambian copper exports? Probably not. Basic economics dictates that the most  effort will go into replacing resources that are rare, expensive to refine, and have severe supply bottlenecks. Those that are extracted by simply digging a pit and loading ore into trucks will have a major cost advantage with respect to any nano engineered replacements for the foreseeable future.

While the report does address governance, the project would surely benefit from looking at the ways in which nanotechnology can address developing world specific issues.  The benefit of addressing ‘diseases of the poor’ such as drug resistant malaria and tuberculosis would far outweigh any losses of mineral exports, as would the development of off grid energy solutions to prevent the horrific death toll associated with inhaling smoke from indoor fires.

It’s fine to say that nanotechnology has both benefits and risk when applied to the developing world, but it is even more important to quantify this risks and benefits.

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