Science and Technology in the Third World

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Science and Technology in the Third World

by Al Weinrub

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 2, March 1976, p. 29–31

The Third World is that part of the world which has been ravaged by colonial exploitation and in which as a result there is now hunger, poor health and illiteracy among the masses of the people. Almost all of Latin America and Africa fall into this category as do large parts of Asia and the Middle East. 

A central problem of Third World peoples is the development of their productive capacity to meet their basic material and social needs. Of course science and technology are essential instruments for achieving this development, as has been shown by the People’s Republic of China (see China: Science Walks on Two Legs). However, while science and technology seem to be necessary conditions for development, they are not sufficient. We cannot talk meaningfully about science and technology alone, in isolation, but only within the framework of their social, economic, and political impact. What kind of development will science and technology be used to achieve in the Third World?

To date, the introduction of science and technology in the Third World has been part of the more general involvement of western industrialized nations in the Third World. Although the technologies of mineral extraction, industrialization, intensive agriculture, counterinsurgency, and population control, among others, have been used to further economic development in ways judged beneficial by multinational corporations and western industrialists, this has been done only at a great cost to the vast majority of Third World peoples. The function of science and technology has been to aid in the misdevelopment of Third World economies. With the introduction of each new technological artifact bearing the imprint of the United States, social strife and oppression mount in the Third World. 

Let’s see why this is by looking at the main ways in which science and technology are introduced into the Third World:

*The Green Revolution — This is the name that has been given to the recently developed technologically intensive form of agriculture based on new high-yield varieties of wheat and rice. High yield, that is, when planted in conjunction with optimum levels of irrigation, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. 

Was the Green Revolution invented by the Rockefellers and developed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in order to feed the peoples of the Third World? No. By creating a dependency on the manufactured inputs like fertilizers and pesticides necessary for this form of agriculture, the Green Revolution brings once-isolated farmers into the capitalist market system. The growers who use the new seed must sell part of their crops for cash in order to purchase such inputs—and these market relations function as a form of control. For international agribusiness, with AID-, U.N.-, and World Bank-financing of irrigation systems, fertilizers, and tractors, resulting in huge profits, the Green Revolution promises yet more demands for their equipment and products.

What has been the impact of the Green Revolution on the Third World? (1) It has increased the inequities between various regions of a country—those regions with an abundance of fertile, irrigated land have benefited greatly while the poorer regions have remained poor. (2) Since it has been the larger, wealthier, commericial farmers who have had the resources to implement this form of agriculture, they have benefited disproportionally. Tenants have been driven off the land, marginal farmers have been wiped out, and rural, landless laborers have been left unemployed. In other words, the social class divisions have been aggravated as agriculture becomes industrialized and mechanized. (3) The growth of unemployment in the countryside has resulted in a migration to the cities, thus swelling the urban population. (4) Since crop-price supports are normally guaranteed to help pay the increased cost of the Green Revolution technology, the price of foods has increased, hurting the poor who already have trouble paying. (5) Lands previously used to grow food, have been converted into large plantations for growing cash crops for export, thus lowering a Third World country’s ability to feed its own people. (6) The ecological instability of Green Revolution agricultural systems leaves them vulnerable to adverse weather conditions and pesticide infestations as has been demonstrated in the last couple of years.

To summarize these effects, we may say that the Green Revolution simply reinforces the adverse social conditions which already exist in the Third World. It worsens the distribution of wealth geographically and by social class, causes disintegration of village life and the growth of urban squalor, while at the same time it increases the wealth and power of the ruling classes. The Green Revolution epitomizes misdevelopment, and has been a disastrous failure for Third World peoples. 

*Industrial Misdevelopment — What has been true of Green Revolution technology is also true of technology for industrial production. The purpose of this technology is to aid in the extraction of vital natural resources from the Third World and to aid in foreign exploitation of the human labor found there.

What has been the impact of this technology? First, because of its concentration in areas of production which serve the needs of capital, it reinforces the inequities which themselves are the product of a history of capitalist development. Tremendous investments have been poured into the primary extraction industries, not because the Third World now needs an especially large amount of oil or copper, but because huge markets are available abroad and labor is cheap in the Third World. So too, in the manufacturing industries, where the goods which produced depend upon what is generally marketable in moneyed sectors. Thus the pattern of the outflow of resources, first from the countryside to the urban areas and second from the Third World to the overdeveloped world, is one which increases the maldistribution of material resources; the U.S.’s 6% of the world’s population has come to consume 50-60% of the world’s resources.

Second, because of the highly advanced form of technology, the imported manufacturing processes, agricultural processes, mineral extraction processes are capital intensive, not labor intensive. Hence, in spite of high levels of production, the number of people employed is very low. This situation results in growing unemployment, poverty, and urban squalor. It keeps wages low, consumption low, and standards of health and nutrician low.1

Third, with all the highly sophisticated forms of technology, the most basic needs of the people still do not get met. Televisions abound but hospitals are rare. One aspect of the problem is that technical expertise is predominantly in areas of interest to foreign capital, for example in petrochemical technology, but areas like health care are virtually ignored. This situation is largely the result of U.S. training programs which have been established to supply the technostructure for foreign investment. 

In summary, U.S. investment and the technology that accompany it make the road to rational economic development a very difficult one for the Third World to travel. That’s why it is in revolt, seeking independence from foreign economic and political control.

*Population Control — Faced with what is now regarded as the dismal failure of capitalist economic development to meet the material needs of the masses of Third World people—which of course it was never meant to do—U.S. investors have put the blame on the Third World peoples themselves. There’s too many of them. They make too many demands on the resources, natural and human, which are being depleted by foreign investors.

Birth-control technology is not seen by the Rockefellers, who have pushed birth control programs from the start, as a tool for giving Third-World women more control over their lives. It is seen rather as a tool for controlling population. U.S. investors want just the number of poor or unemployed people needed for high profits, but not so many as to jeopardize social and political stability.2

U.S. AID funding of population-control programs rose from less than $4 million in 1965 to nearly $100 million in 1971, while at the same time funding of health and educational programs decreased. U.S. multinational corporations are not trying to end malnutrition, hunger, illiteracy, and poverty in the Third World. They are trying to stave off revolution. Population control is to control people.

*Counterinsurgency — While population control programs have been pushed by Rockefeller, Ford, and AID, as a way of disguising the real problems which exist in the Third World—the problems of foreign domination and exploitation, maldistribution of wealth, of economic social, and political misdevelopment—they have been no less vigilant in protecting their interests by more direct means. The Indochina War, the CIA coup in Chile, the billions of dollars of military aid to Israel, and the recent intervention in Angola are but the most obvious examples. From the automated-air-war technology developed for use in Indochina to the most sophisticated counterintelligence apparatus for covert police operations in the Third World, the full resources of U.S. technical expertise have been put to work to subvert the popular aspirations of Third World peoples.

The latest police and military technology, however sophisticated and feared by the people, is not in itself adequate to maintain political stability. A successful counterinsurgency strategy, as a National Academy of Science panel reported in 1967, requires knowledge in intimate detail of a society’s culture, history, and social infrastructure.3 This is where Third-World-studies programs and social-science research enter the picture. Innocent as foreign social-science-research programs might appear, they are supported by over 25 government agencies as well as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, through military think-tanks, nonprofit research centers, and university programs, all as part of a program to provide the intellectual resources and information infrastructure needed for the penetration and expansion of U.S. capital in the Third World.

*Science as Cultural Imperialism — The exploitation of the Third World, its natural resources and the labor of its people, to the tune of a multibillion-dollar investment backed up by billion-dollar expenditures in counterinsurgency and population-control technology is part and parcel of what is called the imperialist system. The particular form it takes in most of the Third world is neocolonialism—control not through direct military rule, but through a local regime totally dominated by the weight of U.S. economic, military, and technological power. In addition to the many activities which are directly related to U.S. economic gains, there is a vast network of supporting activities which limit the options of Third World peoples for alternatives to foreign domination. These affect education, mass media, organized labor, community relations, etc. Though more subtle, they still constitute imperialism—cultural imperialism, the denial of a people’s culture and history.

There are two aspects of cultural imperialism: one is the emulation of foreign cultural forms and their substitution for the native culture, and the other is the spread of neocolonial ideology. Science plays an important role in both aspects: First in the transfer of science to the Third World in a form which directly replicates U.S. science, a form which is totally inappropriate to the problems and conditions of Third World peoples. Second, in the perpetuation of an ideology which defines scientific and technological growth as progress, and the ultimate solution to the problems of social and political oppression. Closely related is the myth of the political neutrality of science and the conception of science as the domain of a certain elite.

Science becomes an agent of cultural imperialism through the many scientific and educational aid programs which export U.S. science textbooks, curricula, apparatus, research establishments, and educational programs to Third World countries. These are enhanced through international conferences such as the June 1973 Mexico meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The result of this scientific/educational penetration is the production of thousands of engineers and scientists totally unable because of their training to solve local technical problems or who think doing so is beneath them, or who for these and other reasons go down the brain drain to the U.S.

When we view science and technology within the context of the relations between the rich, advanced technological countries and the poor peoples of the Third World, we see that the multiplicity of technological aid programs for the Third World are not in the slightest way charity. Rather they are designed to serve the large corporations whose interests lie in the promotion of economic growth within the capitalist system of private investment. The conflict between capitalist forms of economic development and the needs of the vast majority of the people of the Third World has been the basis for the class str_uggles which have erupted throughout the Third World in recent years. If anything, these contradictions are worsening and the struggle of the people against oppression will escalate. In the light of these political struggles science and technology can have no neutrality. 

This fact is understood in the Third World. Its best expression appeared in a document prepared by a host of Mexican scientific and technical groups and Science for the People in June 1973 in opposition to the AAAS Mexico City meeting: 

If we do know that there exists a science which is imperialist in its uses, its organization, its method, and its ideology, there must exist, and in fact there does exist, an anti-imperialist science. It is still in its infancy, and it takes different forms, according to the conditions it is found in. In colonial countries, dependent countries, or imperialist countries, it begins by exposing and denouncing: we denounce the use of science in the service of domination and exploitation; we denounce the use of science’s name in the new pseudo-scientific racism; we denounce the conversion of science into a commodity and of our universities into corporate offices. From denunciation we move to active criticism; we look for means to put our scientific knowledge at the service of the people, and therefore as an instrument of revolutionary national liberation movements. 

We challenge the system of training which tries to continue producing obedient experts. We are beginning to develop a new science on behalf of the whole of technology and society—an integrated science which refuses narrow specialization and idiot realism. We repudiate hierarchical-classist structures in order to search for forms of collective work and more democratic forms in research as well as in training. We repudiate the mystification of a science reinforced by a specialized vocabulary and we will launch a campaign to popularize science. As scientists and revolutionaries we unite with anti-imprialist scientists of the world and with popular movements of our countries. 

The focus of world science has to change, as it has changed in the past. But the new science which will be developed in the Third World cannot and must not copy the bourgeois science which it displaces. We will make a new science whose form and content form an integrated part of the struggle for human liberation. 

Al Weinrub


For documentation of the arguments made briefly in this article, see “Science and Technology in Latin America,” SftP, December, 1972 and a host of articles in past issues of SftP (write SftP, 16 Union Sq. Sommerville Ma. 02143 for an index).

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  1. In Puerto Rico investors obtain a 28% return of invested capital (twice as high as in the U.S.) while the average wage of a Puerto Rican industrial worker is 1/2 to 1/3 lower than the North American level. At the same time the cost of living in Puerto Rico is 25% higher, and the official level of unemployment in May, 1975, was 22% (30% unofficial.)
  2. 35.3% of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age have been sterilized according to a study done by Puerto Rican demographer Dr. Jose Vasques Calzada in 1968. Almost two-thirds of the women are between the age of 20-49 years, with 92% under 35.
  3. This study is printed in Hearings of Senate Foreign Relations Committee on D.O.D. Sponsored Foreign Affairs Research, May 9, 1968, pg. 66.