Slum apartment complex Dhaka, Bangladesh

Who benefits?

Will nanotechnologies lead to a nano-divide between rich and poor?

Many people fear that nanotechnologies will further increase the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Certainly, early examples of nano-products have been driven by a rich-world agenda: sun creams, tennis balls, tennis rackets, laptop computers, and so on. Currently, millions of pounds are being spent on sensor-laden ‘smartsuits’ for 21st-century infantry.

But it’s not inevitable that nanotechnologies will heighten global inequalities. Applied the right way, they could provide many benefits (e.g. renewable energy from solar power, medical diagnostic kits and cheap water purification or waste clean-up). Nano-based technologies may also allow countries to ‘leapfrog’ outdated technologies.

As usual, the issue depends on the priority we wish to give to problems affecting low-income countries. There has been little sign so far that the needs of poor countries are shaping the nano-revolution. An alternative is for countries to seize the initiative for themselves: some emerging economies, such as Brazil and India, are now developing nano-capacity.

But there is always a fear that new technologies can be too seductive, being pursued more for their own interest than because they offer the best prospect for solving existing problems. Many (probably most) of the world’s biggest problems could be tackled with tools we already possess.

Nanotechnology is likely to be particularly important in low-income countries because it involves little labour, land or maintenance; it is highly productive and inexpensive; and it requires only modest amounts of materials and energy.

Lead image:

Zoriah CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development