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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 730

The Importance of Technology for Development: A Political Economy Perspective

Professor Laksiri Fernando

Laksri_Fernando1.JPGSri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technological Education (SLIATE) held its 6th Diploma Awarding Ceremony on the 4th of November at the BMICH and the following is the Convocation Address by Professor Laksiri Fernando as the Guest of Honour in the Morning Session.

I sincerely appreciate the pleasure to be the Guest of Honor at the Convocation Ceremony of SLIATE, the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technological Education. I wish to thank Mr. Kamal Pathmasiri, the Director General of the Institute, for his kind invitation, for me to be here and to address you at this convocation. Special thanks go to Hon. Minister of Higher Education, Professor Wiswa Warnapala, under whose guidance the activities of SLIATE are conducted. The primary reason to accept this invitation with enthusiasm is my appreciation of what SLIATE has been doing in terms of middle level training in various types of technical vocations/professions, valuable for the country’s development. This convocation is a clear indication and outcome of that effort.

My first task, therefore, is to congratulate all those who are graduating today with their Diplomas and other certificates. I wish them, ‘all the best for their future.’ My selected topic today is “The Importance of Technology for Development.” What I am presenting here is a short ‘political economy perspective’ on the subject as it might be the best way to understand the connection between technology and development.

Common Understanding of Technology

Even for an average person, “the importance of technology for development” might be common sense today. We acquire this common sense through experience. If ground water is not easily accessible, we know the benefit of an Artesian-Well. Before the advent of the Artesian-Well in Sri Lanka, the Jaffna people invented the Thula-Well or what the southerners call Ardi-Linda. In this device a lever is used to lift water from deep dug wells. It is easier on labour, less time consuming and more productive. Similar devices are used in China even today called Jiegao. Even after the advent of the Artesian-Well, Jaffna people have continued to use the Thula-Well as appropriate because it is eco-friendly, less expensive and served the purpose.

The above story shows both sides of the coin of technology, the advantages and disadvantages. We need to be mindful of some disadvantages of some technology but that is not a reason to reject technology. Technology is one of the main drivers of society and its progress. This is established by history, both world history and our own history.

Sri Lanka inherits the legacy of an ancient civilization based on an advanced technology in water management. Our forefathers managed to overcome the vagaries of the monsoon climate, at times extremely wet and other times extremely dry, by using this technology. It was on the basis of that technology that our ancient societies prospered when the country was not affected by external aggression or internal war, like what we experienced in recent times. Large scale irrigation networks were possible using this technology crisscrossing the country.

Among other inventions, the Bisokotuwa (the Valvepit) was a high point in these technological advances of our ancient irrigation. Bisokotuwa served the purpose of a modern day sluice gate. The basis of these technological advances in water management was the thorough grasp of hydraulic principles in order that these technological inventions could be created. It was known that without scientific knowledge, inventions in technology or engineering was not possible. This is the first point I wish to emphasize today, the importance of science and scientific thinking in our economic development.

Scientific Knowledge

There were some scholars like Max Weber, for example, who thought that the Buddhist or Hindu societies will never advance in technology or science, and will never achieve economic development in the way that the Western societies have achieved. This is wrong. Already some of our Asian countries like Japan, China and India have refuted these assertions in very clear-cut practical terms. Some of these prejudices are unfortunately due to ignorance. Some others are based on self-interest; self-interest for economic and ideological dominance. These scholars or leaders thought that our societies are fatalistic and our people are inherently impotent. However, that is not the case or the truth.

The scientific methodology or the scientific approach in analyzing and resolving problems is inherent in some of our traditional philosophies. Buddhism is one example. Only difference might be that our traditional thinking also gave priority to sustainability. It also looked into not only the material world, but also the spiritual well being of the society and the individual. Therefore, it is important that while we learn science and technology of the modern origin we at the same time be mindful of the overall scientific or philosophical concerns that the Buddha and other religious leaders have taught us.

The best guide in this respect might be the Four Noble Truths. It is possible to apply these truths, without distorting their religious character, to understand and resolve the development problems that the country is facing as at present or any other problem for that matter.

The first premise in this understanding or analysis is the concept of Dukkha. This means the existence of problems and issues or the problem of life (suffering) itself. There is no doubt that underdevelopment is a suffering for many people especially when they are below the poverty line. Poverty is undoubtedly a suffering. When a person does not have an employment or a gainful employment with a reasonable salary, or a reasonable income from any other source, it is a suffering. When parents do not have enough income to spend on their children’s education it is also a suffering for both the parents and the children alike. The list of suffering for economic reasons could be extended, but the point is the same. Therefore, the first task of the scientific approach to development is to understand the gravity and the extent of the problem Dukkha as the Buddha preached.

The second is the Buddha’s concept of Samudaya. This is more important. The right answers to the development problem/s would depend on the correct understanding of the reasons or the causes. In the case of development or underdevelopment, there should be a scientific way of analyzing and understanding the causes and the reasons for the situation. The Buddha himself has developed the laws of cause and effect (hethu pala vadaya) which can be employed for analytical purposes. We should also not be reluctant to employ any of the Western derived methods in scientific investigation of causation to understand or to analyze the multiple causes for the underdevelopment or poverty in this country. But we need to be mindful of employing finally what is relevant to the country without blindly applying what is imported from the West or any part of the world for that matter. Kalama Sutta which expounds critical thinking in a very important philosophical manner could be our guide in this respect.

The third premise is Nirodha. This is also a scientific conclusion or a premise and this is about the possibility of uncovering and resolving the problems of life, which could equally be applicable to the problems of underdevelopment and development. This is the belief in resolving problems in a scientific and a methodological manner. Nirodha is also the necessary optimism and positive thinking that is necessary in resolving problems. This is also where the Buddha refutes fatalism. The belief in Nirodha is very much needed in Sri Lanka and the development might not be achieved if there is no strong belief in the possibility of development. For Nirodha to be a reality, active participation of the people in development work is of utmost necessity.

The fourth and perhaps the most important step is the Magga. In the context of our present discussion, this means the way leading to resolving the problems of underdevelopment, uneven development, poverty, unemployment, inflation, income disparities and so on and so forth. On the question of development, it is my argument here that it should come through technology or mainly through technology. One might even say that technology is the ‘engine of growth’ whether in the private sector or the public sector. What is highlighted is technology as a means of addressing and resolving the problems of development.

Application of Technology for Development

What do we mean by technology can be a question here. What I am trying is not a definition but an interpretation. Normally we understand technology as the use of tools or instruments for any human activity. These human activities can be production, storage, exchange, transportation or even consumption. We normally identify technology with objects. This is not completely correct. By identifying technology with objects we miss the important element of technological development; the process of production and reproduction of technology.

Technology does not fall from the skies. Of course technology can be imported in the sense we can import tools and machines from other countries. This is what we have been mostly doing in the past. But to use them properly, there should also be people who know how to use them. They should be trained as what SLIATE has been doing.

In Sri Lanka’s recent war against terrorism, for example, high-tech equipment and instruments were used. They were largely imported. Perhaps the defeat of terrorism was possible largely due to the use of high level technology. But it was primarily possible because the Sri Lankans were able to master how to use them efficiently and expediently. There were innovations in Sri Lanka itself. One example is the designing and production of small combat naval crafts. They proved to be efficient and effective in naval confrontations.

Whatever the development theory one is employing, neo-classical, Marxist, neo-liberal, exogenous or endogenous, there is almost an agreement that the level of development of a country is related to the level of technological use. Jorg Mayer in 2002 did a study on “globalization, technology transfer and skill accumulation in low-income countries” and highly commended Sri Lanka after India as a country where technology is increasingly used. He assessed the use of technology on the basis of the importation of machinery and equipment. He gave figures. The figures thereafter also show that the value of imports of machinery and equipment has almost doubled between 2003 and 2007. But this is not completely satisfactory in terms of the future or full development of the country. We should have our own Magga in terms of technological development. This is what I wish to emphasize today.

Importance of the Household

Both in the case of development in general and technology in particular we need to understand the relationship from the primary unit of our political economy and that is the household. We can do it both metaphorically and in actual terms. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the household as an economic unit in all our efforts in developing this country.

To be sure, the household is not only a consumption unit. It is a savings unit and an investment unit. The household may belong to a particular class or social strata. Whatever the situation, it is as a result of the decisions of the household that the country’s savings and investments are largely determined.

In the case of the rural agricultural sector, the household is also a production unit. While this might not be the case in other sectors, there are production functions related to the household in general. That is where the decisions are taken that determines a country’s future labor force. Whether a child would become a future teacher, technician, doctor, engineer etc. are determined primarily within the household, of course influenced by other exogenous factors. The household also is the primary unit where technology is acquired, used and transmitted and create the basis for macro level development of technology in a country. This is one reason why we can argue that development is basically an endogenous process.

Broadly speaking, technology is the application of innovation both in terms of ideas and instruments for any type of human activity. Technology is applicable not only to engineering or natural science-based endeavors but also to social sciences. The information technology (IT) has brought these fields – the natural sciences and social sciences - much closer than ever. There are other fields or mixed fields where the application of technology is relevant. What is behind innovation is undoubtedly knowledge. This means that the development of technology will depend on the development of knowledge.

It may be a slight exaggeration to say that all future economies will be ‘knowledge economies,’ the way Paul Romer has said. But the emphasis on the concept of ‘knowledge economy’ is fairly correct. Here we make the emphasis on knowledge production and management in order that other production sectors including agriculture are innovated and made efficient. By giving the knowledge a primary place we also create the possibility of curtailing any technological development which can be harmful for the environment, other species or the human species themselves. The tendency to use nuclear energy for war purposes is an example. Knowledge should be the guide for technological innovation as well its proper control and management.

Coming back to my main theme of the household, this is where the innovation or technology should begin. It is our experience that the conditions of our households have considerably improved during the last four decades or so. To highlight some figures, 89 percent of the households now have their own houses. Only 5.6 percent of the houses are still thatched and 79 percent have tile or asbestos roofs. While 78 percent of households have radios; 71 percent of them also have television sets. Technology use in the kitchen can be considered the main liberator of especially the women. It appears, however, that Sri Lanka has a long way to go in this direction. While LP Gas users are only 15 percent, 83 percent of the households still uses firewood. On the positive side of the household conditions, while 80 percent households have water seal toilets, 39 percent have pipe born water.

Metaphorically speaking Kitchen is the epitome of the innovative technological activity. Development does not merely mean that we produce more. It means that we produce better. Our mothers know how to make tastier food items even out of limited ingredients or resources. This is the example that we should follow in development, the mother’s or the housewife’s example. What is important is how you mix the resources in order to get a better product. This is what we call the recipe. Creating innovations or technologies are like creating new recipes. The new recipes are necessary not only in creating new food items – it is only a metaphor – but in all our products from rice to tea and garments to automobiles.

Improving the Human Capital

The example of the household as well as the kitchen shows us that it is basically the development of knowledge that could drive innovation, technology and therefore the development. The knowledge cannot come without. It should come within. That is why those who understand the primary role of knowledge in innovation, technology and development consider the development path necessary for any country to be endogenous and not exogenous. This is the reality. This is how the developed countries developed. This is how the developing countries like Sri Lanka also could develop.

There are exogenous factors impinging on or relevant to development but those are secondary or supportive. There are times where those factors are more negative than positive. In selecting exogenous factors necessary for development we also need to select them from helpful sectors but not from hostile sectors whether it is trade, aid, loan, technological transfer or any other matter.

The development of knowledge is one major task of higher education. The Ministry of Higher Education, with its network of universities and other institutions like SLIATE, is in charge of that task. Development of knowledge is the contribution that higher education institutions like SLIATE could make and making to the human capital. The future of Sri Lanka would largely depend on how we develop the country’s human capital with necessary knowledge, skills, motivation and qualifications. This is the value of SLIATE and the value of the courses that it has been conducting in order that the graduates from this institution would creatively and innovatively contribute to the country’s development. Therefore I again would like to congratulate the SLIATE and its Director General and all those who obtain their diplomas and certificates today at this ceremony.

Professor Laksiri Fernando, Director National Centre for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences (NCAS) .

- Asian Tribune -

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