The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Galileo spacecraft illustration
Precision agriculture uses GPS data to allow for the more effective application of chemicals, saving money and helping the environment. (credit: Univ. of Arkansas)

Space technology and very poor nations

One significant fact about space technology in this decade is the way that developing nations, such as China and India, have been able to use it to enable them to accelerate already impressive rates of economic growth. Other nations, such as Nigeria and Algeria, are following suit by buying and operating small spacecraft from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited in order to jumpstart their national space expertise. Space technology is effectively contributing to the long-term development of these nations. There are plenty of obstacles to their economic, social, and political improvement, but lack of appropriate technology is not one of them.

Where space technology has not lived up to its promise is in the very poor and extremely underdeveloped nations. William Easterly, in his landmark study of the failures of development economics The White Man’s Burden, provides a list of eight nations where International Monetary Fund programs have consistently failed to help achieve anything: Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Zaire, all nations that have suffered from recent wars and subsequent societal breakdown. There is little that space technology by itself can do to help these states, but it can be used in small ways to help at the margins.

There is little that space technology by itself can do to help the poorest states, but it can be used in small ways to help at the margins.

Even in these nations space-enabled communications technology is becoming widely available. The World Bank and other aid agencies have done a surprisingly good job in getting these services into the hands of local governments and businesses. This may be more due to the workings of the free market and the profit motive than to any inherent planning skills on the part of the aid agencies or their in-country counterparts, but it is a remarkable success nonetheless.

For example, villages often have difficulty in deciding which family has the right to which plot of land. According to a 2001 paper titled “GIS, GPS and Remote Sensing”, “One of the most direct applications of GIS in developing countries is participatory mapping, where, for example, specialists interact with farming communities to create spatial inventories of natural resources, property status, land use rights and perceived problems.” Using space technology to establish basic property rights may in the long run be one of the keys to unlocking the trillions of dollars in assets that poor people throughout the world could use for investment purposes if only they could gain secure title to the land they, in fact, own.

What has not emerged is a way for small subsistence farmers to take advantage of GPS in order to improve their techniques, like reducing their use of relatively expensive inputs such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. Precision farming is now the norm throughout the developed world, and in the US it has helped lead to an unprecedented decrease in the use of these inputs and thus to a decline in the environmental problem of agricultural runoff. A small device, the size of a laptop computer that could allow villagers to take full advantage of these techniques, is certainly not beyond the state of the art. Yet, as far as we know, such a system has not yet been built or placed into widespread use.

It might be a good idea to have an X Prize-type competition to see if anyone can develop such a system or device. One rule for the contest should be that farmers in at least two very poor nations use the system and that it proved to have been effective over a two-year period.

The problem is not lack of resources but is that there is no quick, easy, and profitable way to get the information to those who need it most.

In any case the worldwide demand for agricultural products is going to skyrocket as more and more nations seek to escape their dependence in oil by using biofuels. The tendency will be for large-scale, efficient farm operations to displace the subsistence farmers. This would accelerate the movement of poor people into so-called “megacities” with all the dislocations and concentrated misery that such movements imply. It would be far better to invest in technologies that increase the incomes of small farmers and give them real incentives to grow crops that can not only feed their families but also produce a useful cash income from, for example, sugar cane for ethanol.

Space-based remote sensing technology is already being used to estimate crop yields and soil moisture, but such information is difficult to get to the poor farmers who really need it. Existing communications networks can be adapted to serve these needs. Again, the problem is not lack of resources but is that there is no quick, easy, and profitable way to get the information to those who need it most.

Easterly makes a distinction between “planners”, who control most of the large governmental and non-governmental aid organizations, and “searchers”, who seek out ways to directly help those in need. Inside the space industry we have an abundance of searchers who have long sought niches that are both profitable and contribute to the larger goals of creating a spacefaring civilization. Applying these skills to providing technology to help the poorest farmers on Earth would be worthy goal.