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Published on 01/09/2011

Nanotechnology and Developing Countries

Can the Nano World Serve the Developing World?

Nano, from the Greek nanos, means “dwarf” and refers to tiny objects. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. The term “nanotechnology” encompasses many different realities: the miniaturization of electronic components etched on the scale of a few nanometers, or the nano-scale manipulation of matter and thus the manufacture of nano-materials.

In 2005, sixty-five Canadian experts[i] contributed to a study that showed a potential impact by nanotechnology solutions on seven of the eight Millennium Development Goals, notably in the areas of energy, agricultural productivity, and water treatment and purification.

Five years later, the conditions necessary for the realization of these impacts are far from having been met. This is what was revealed by the results of a study on the risks and opportunities of nanotechnologies for developing countries conducted between 2009 and 2010 by GRET and VivAgora on behalf of the Agence Française de Développement (AFD).

Many institutional, financial, human and political obstacles impede opportunities and progress in relation to nanotechnologies from materializing. Important prerequisites need to be envisaged to deal with the socioeconomic and environmental risks generated by the adoption of nanotechnology activities. Among them figure the mismatch between the technological progress in developed countries and the needs of people in developing countries; the inability of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to take part in nanotechnology innovation; the risk of over-patenting raised by the inappropriateness of intellectual property regimes for the specificities of nanotechnologies; and the risk of the substitution of certain nano-products for the raw materials whose production provides income for developing countries (cotton, rubber, cocoa, coffee or some minerals). And many more, as the joint GRET-VivAgora study shows.

This area of technological innovation opens up new areas of work for those involved in development assistance. These areas notably include helping LDCs to control their future through better understanding of the stakes, risks and opportunities offered by nanotechnologies; defending the rights of developing countries to receive scientific and technological innovations; and even supporting the construction supra-national regulatory bodies since the environmental and health risks posed by nanotechnologies ignore borders.

For more information, see:

On VivAgora’s website:

On Gret’s site, for download: