Will New Technologies Help or Harm Developing Countries?

Dani Rodrik at Project Syndicate: “New technologies reduce the prices of goods and services to which they are applied. They also lead to the creation of new products. Consumers benefit from these improvements, regardless of whether they live in rich or poor countries.

Mobile phones are a clear example of the deep impact of some new technologies. In a clear case of technological leapfrogging, they have given poor people in developing countries access to long-distance communications without the need for costly investments in landlines and other infrastructure. Likewise, mobile banking provided through cell phones has enabled access to financial services in remote areas without bank branches….

The introduction of these new technologies in production in developing countries often takes place through global value chains (GVCs). In principle, GVCs benefit these economies by easing entry into global markets.

Yet big questions surround the possibilities created by these new technologies. Are the productivity gains large enough? Can they diffuse sufficiently quickly throughout the rest of the economy?

Any optimism about the scale of GVCs’ contribution must be tempered by three sobering facts. First, the expansion of GVCs seems to have ground to a halt in recent years. Second, developing-country participation in GVCs – and indeed in world trade in general – has remained quite limited, with the notable exception of certain Asian countries. Third, and perhaps most worrisome, the domestic employment consequences of recent trade and technological trends have been disappointing.

Upon closer inspection, GVCs and new technologies exhibit features that limit the upside to – and may even undermine – developing countries’ economic performance. One such feature is an overall bias in favor of skills and other capabilities. This bias reduces developing countries’ comparative advantage in traditionally labor-intensive manufacturing (and other) activities, and decreases their gains from trade.

Second, GVCs make it harder for low-income countries to use their labor-cost advantage to offset their technological disadvantage, by reducing their ability to substitute unskilled labor for other production inputs. These two features reinforce and compound each other. The evidence to date, on the employment and trade fronts, is that the disadvantages may have more than offset the advantages….(More)”.