Can nanotechnology really help end poverty?

Peace & Security01 Jun 2010Ineke Malsch

In ‘Small is beautiful’ (The Broker 6, February 2008), I discussed proposals by several authors that nanotechnology might contribute to the UN Millennium Development Goals. The UN and its member states aim to reduce poverty considerably by 2015, by ending hunger, providing universal education, achieving gender equity, improving child and maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, improving environmental sustainability and creating a global public-private partnership for development.

The title of the weblog that this item is part of is a literal translation of the Dutch project title ‘Nanorecht en Vrede’. The aim of this project was to introduce the international dimension in the Dutch national public dialogue on nanotechnology, by focusing on potential future implications of nanotechnology, its applications on global peace and security, and on the interests of people in developing countries, or international justice. It also addresses regulatory aspects on a global scale.

Nanotechnology is a container term covering any kind of material or electronic device with functional structures with sizes between the individual atom and 100 nanometres. A nanometre is a billionth of a metre, or a millionth of a millimetre, or a thousandth of a micrometre – so very small..

Nanotechnology may contribute to the Millennium Goals through several applications. Membranes with nanoscopic pores or UV-light powered catalysts may be useful in local solutions for water purification and desalination in developing countries. Nanotechnology may be useful for food preservation, or for improving agricultural productivity. Point-of-care diagnostic tests for poverty-related diseases like tuberculosis may, in the future, become possible thanks to nanotechnology. It can contribute to solar photovoltaics and other sustainable energy production. From 2011 onwards, the Dutch national nanotechnology initiative will focus on applications in health, food, energy and clean water.

How can we ensure that poor people in the least developed countries really benefit from the current big investments in nanoscience and nanotechnology in the world? For example, the shortage of clean potable water has many victims in developing countries each year. Will the solutions to be developed in Dutch nanotechnology and water research centres over the coming years be suitable for use in tropical conditions, or places without much infrastructure? Not necessarily. Even in water-rich and wealthy countries like the Netherlands, future shortages of clean and drinkable water are looming. Researchers and the utility companies responsible for our water supply may give preference to nanotechnology applications that only work if they are incorporated into the existing infrastructure for sewage treatment or the purification of surface or ground water.

Early cooperation with nanoscientists in developing countries, who are also working on water purification, may contribute to solutions that are also useful in remote areas of the least developed countries. Hopefully, initiatives like the recent series of webinars on nanotechnology for water purification, which involved speakers from South Africa and Europe, will turn out to be steps in the right direction.

Blog post for publication at as part of the Nanorights and Peace project enabled by Nanopodium