Some Issues in Technology Transfer
Draft document for the Technology Transfer Task Group
of the NGO Strategy Group for UNCED, at PrepCom II, Geneva, April 1991

Prepared by Robert Pollard, U.S. Citizens Network on UNCED


The Secretariat has stated that what will make or break UNCED is technology transfer and the question of financial resources to developing countries. We are pleased that many governments have recognized that technology transfer should be central, but are concerned that insufficient attention has been given to a critical analysis of the underlying issues in technology transfer.

Central to the technology transfer issues that deserve fuller attention are: the nature of the relationship between developing and developed countries that is being fostered by technology transfer; the full assessment of the implications for developing countries of the adoption of new technologies and a critical examination of the prevailing assumption that the industrial nations of the North have a monopoly on environmentally sound technologies.

Technology Transfer -- A Trojan Horse?

Some industrialized countries are making much of their willingness to support technology transfer, and many developing countries appear eager to receive the technology, albeit with a concern for the terms of the transfer. Technology transfer is being portrayed as one of the "gifts" offered by the industrial countries of the North in exchange for the adoption of environmental protection policies in developing nations. But is this gift not perhaps a Trojan Horse that carries within it an invading force?

Is there any real cost to the North of this "gift", or is this perhaps an eagerly awaited opportunity to open new markets, and to develop new licensing agreements whose profitability over the long term will dwarf the cost of any initial outlay.

There is a danger that the developing nations may become caught in the process of negotiating the scope and generosity of agreements for the transfer of technology from the North without adequate consideration of alternative approaches to technology transfer.

    1. What dependency relationships -- on the practices and policies of transnational corporations based in industrial nations -- will be established?

    2. What will be the impact of the technology transfer on the locus of power, ownership and control of economic institutions?

    3. To what extent do the technologies incorporate a bias towards large, centralized, capital-intensive processes and institutions, and to what extent do the lending practices of the Bretton-Woods institutions exhibit a bias towards supporting large scale, capital intensive processes?

    4. To what extent will apparent short term profits from the new technologies be followed by the realization that their profitability depends on factors such as unrealistically low energy prices?

    5. To what extent does the introduction of new technologies tend to undermine the self-sufficiency of the local economy, and result in greater dependence on the uncertainties of global market conditions?

The full impact of adoption of new technologies.

Technology transfer agreements tend to be considered in isolation from the context or environment into which the technology is being introduced. In general, inadequate attention is given to the full impact of the introduction of the new technologies. Among the questions that call for thorough examination when new technologies are being introduced are:

    1. To what extent are existing economic activities and processes displaced by the new technologies?

    2. To what extent does the introduction of new technologies result in a disruption of the existing pattern of labor, and/or contribute to structural unemployment and acceleration of urbanization?

    3. What is the impact of technology transfer on existing local and indigenous cultures, values and social organization?

    4. To what extent does the introduction of the new technologies tend to result in shifts in patterns of consumption, particularly towards products that require more energy and contribute to the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in their production and distribution?

    5. To what extent is there rigorous examination of the full impact on the natural environment from the introduction of new technologies, and to what extent is there disclosure of the full costs of their adoption, e.g. full consideration of waste disposal requirements.

Alternate models for technology transfer.

As noted above, the prevailing model of technology transfer tends to be biassed towards the promotion of industrial technologies in the developing countries. This model incorporates an implicit presumption that these technologies are more environmentally sound than technologies that are available within developing nations. The initial impact of the introduction of these new technologies can readily be assessed within a conventional market framework, however, the market assessment generally fails to assess the full impact of the introduction of the technologies.

In the case of environmentally sound, traditional economic processes from within developing nations, they may have been functioning in less well-developed market contexts. An examination in conventional financial terms may frequently fail to reflect the full range of social, environmental and economic benefits that derives from their use. Thus a more sensitive assessment of the full value of these economic processes needs to be conducted.

Among the issues to be considered in this respect are:

    1. The development of effective means to identify, cultivate, strengthen and disseminate environmentally sound traditional and innovative technologies and processes within developing countries, between developing countries, and from developing to developed countries.

    2. Guidelines for the assurance of full protection for intellectual property rights attributable to traditional knowledge and wisdom, for example knowledge of the medicinal value of plants that may subsequently provide the basis for pharmaceutical products.

    3. Provisions to protect unrecompensed exploitation and patenting of genetically engineered products derived from genetic material that is the heritage of developing nations.

    4. An improved understanding of the relationship between the use and application of environmentally sound processes and the social and cultural context in which they are practiced.

Conditions of technology transfer

Despite the cautions that have been expressed concerning the prevailing patterns of technology transfer, it is clear that there will be significant transfer from developed to developing countries, and that there is need for close attention to the terms of the transfer, including the following:

    1. Identification of the conditions where a clear international interest exists in the adoption of specific environmentally sound technologies by developing nations that would justify:

      a. Unconditional transfer of the technology at no cost to the recipient nation(s);

      b. Provision of exceptional terms for technology transfer, both in terms of the costs and licensing agreements;

    2. Adequate consideration to development of the legal, institutional, and technical infrastructure necessary to support and sustain the implementation of technologies being transferred.

    3. Provisions for the assessment and disclosure of the full impact of adoption of new technologies, and for incorporating the full costs of the impact into the terms and conditions of the technology transfer. Impacts to be considered should include:

      a. Generation of waste, and the requirements for treating those wastes in an environmentally sound manner.

      b. Impact on existing social and cultural processes, on demographic dynamics and movement, including acceleration of urbanization, and on economic activities and on the control and ownership of economic processes.

      c. Impact on consumption patterns, on energy use, and on the generation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.


We suggest that the Secretary-General consider preparing a Report for the August Session of the Preparatory Committee that would address these concerns in a more comprehensive manner, including specifically:

    1. An assessment of the manner in which prevailing patterns of technology transfer tend to be biassed towards the introduction of large scale, capital-intensive technologies and processes, and of the impact of technology transfer on patterns of control and ownership of economic processes.

    2. A review of studies that have sought to assess the full costs and implications of technology transfer and/or to identify factors that need to be taken into consideration in assessing the full impact of introducing new technologies;

    3. A preliminary formulation of strategies to identify environmentally sound technologies within developing nations, to assess effective ways of cultivating and disseminating these technologies or processes within developing nations, and to assess the opportunities to introduce these processes into the economies of developed nations.

This is revised version of a draft document that was developed for a Technology Transfer Task Group of the NGO Strategy Group for UNCED during the 2nd UNCED PrepCom in Geneva, April 1991. Please send any coments to Robert Pollard, at

return to  bibliography | information habitat

Web page updated: 1998.04.26