In the not-too-distant past, a developing nation tended to be seen as a country that lacked access to modern technology.

Today, increasing globalisation means that rapid communication, market forces and lower import restrictions can help make a new technology available anywhere that it might be useful.

The picture is not entirely positive. Countries still vary in their ability to absorb new technologies and a technology gap still exists between rich and poor countries. Even within countries themselves the ownership, control and use of such technologies tend to be concentrated in the hands of the rich rather than the poor.

But few would dispute that new technologies are transforming social and economic prospects globally. A 2008 World Bank report calculated that, primarily as a result of such technologies, the proportion of the population living in absolute poverty fell dramatically from 29 per cent in 1990 to 18 per cent in 2004 [1].

The biggest impact has come from information and communication technologies (ICTs) — the computers, mobile telephones and satellite communications at the core of the modern information society.

Wide disparities in access still exist, due both to economic reasons and deficiencies in physical infrastructure. One of the main reasons for the slow penetration of the Internet in Africa, for example, is the reliance on slow, expensive and often unreliable copper wire connections instead of high-speed fibre optic cabling.

But the rapid spread of mobile phones has shown that, with proper planning and investment, developing countries may be able to benefit by jumping over some stages in the development process. In the case of mobile phones, this has been made possible by the use of telecommunications satellites, which eliminate the need for investment in expensive landlines.

Indeed, there are many ways in which satellites are transforming the social and economic prospects of countries in the developing world. Satellite broadcasting can be used to deliver teaching material to remote communities. Farmers are using satellite technology to learn about weather conditions and compare the prices offered for their products in local cities. So useful have satellite become that many developing countries are now financing, launching and operating their own.

Nanotechnology is finding rapid applications around the world. Potential applications range from water purification to cheaper, more effective, drugs.

As with any new technology, there are potential downsides, particularly when little is known with certainty about the effects of long-term human exposure to 'nano-particles'. No technology should be adopted uncritically. Governments need to encourage informed public debate to avoid previous mistakes when science-based techniques, such as chemical pesticides, have been introduced without sufficient attention to possible side effects.

Nuclear technology is no stranger to controversy. Despite the major challenges of keeping the technology safe and dealing with nuclear waste, it offers significant potential for helping to meet the challenge of climate change.

With all such technologies, developing countries face a double challenge. The first is to develop the mechanisms to ensure that the technology can be developed and diffused.

The second is to ensure that the technology is used imaginatively to benefit the poor. Given the low purchasing power of the poorest groups in society, governments and aid agencies still have an important role to play in ensuring that new technologies deliver their full potential for reducing poverty.

This topic gateway seeks to inform decision-makers — and the public to whom they are ultimately responsible — of both the promises and risks of new technologies, and how these might be reconciled to ensure that the global technology divide becomes a distant memory.

The merits of this information gateway lie entirely in its usefulness to our readers, so we welcome feedback on how to improve its content.

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