Research and the development of new technologies can drive environmental change in positive and negative ways. They may increase the demand for natural resources, their application may impact on the integrity of ecosystems and they may offer an opportunity for more efficient use of natural resources, cleaner production techniques and improved environmental management. However, new technologies may also pose new risks to human and environmental health.

In the last 20 years, the advances in technology have been monumental. Key areas of development include more effective monitoring and assessment techniques, such as remote sensing, the transformation of ICT, biomaterial engineering, rapid advances in biotechnology and genetic modification, and more efficient and faster transportation. Technological innovation can offer important opportunities for responding more effectively to challenges in areas such as economic productivity, agriculture, education, gender inequity, health, water, sanitation, energy and participation in the global economy (UN Millennium Project 2005b).

The pace of technological change in Africa has been slow and is mostly linked to FDI; it has not contributed significantly to enhancing the availability of products and services required by Africa to promote development (FAO 2003). The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation commits the global community to making technological investments in Africa, particularly with a view to increasing the pace of industrialization, but also for improved management of resources, such as water and energy, and the improvement of service provision in these areas. Industrial growth without complementary investment in monitoring systems and health services is likely to create new levels of vulnerability for poor people.

Expenditure on research and development activities, as a percentage of GDP, is very low for African countries. However, there are inadequate statistics available for proper analysis. Developing country investment in research averages 0.9 per cent of GDP, compared to 2.5 per cent for OECD countries.

Information and communication technology at the global level have been significant drivers of economic change, but access to communication technology remains very low despite significant growth in this sector between 1990 and 2003, which increased economic opportunities and participation in global markets. In Burkina Faso, for example, in 1990 there were only two telephone main lines per 1 000 people, but by 2003 this had more than doubled to five lines per 1 000 people, compared to Equatorial Guinea where there was a 450 per cent increase over the same period from four lines per 1 000 people to 18 lines per 1 000 people (UNDP 2005). Other countries, such as Zambia and Uganda, show no growth and Angola has experienced a decline (UNDP 2005). Levels of availability of main lines in 2003 varied significantly across the region, with 285 lines per 1 000 people in Mauritius, 156 lines per 1 000 people in Cape Verde and two lines per 1 000 people in the Congo (UNDP 2005). Access to cellular phones has increased dramatically, with an average of 54 subscribers per 1 000 people in SSA. Several countries, including Gabon, Morocco, Botswana, Tunisia and South Africa, have in the range of 200-400 subscribers per 1 000 people (UNDP 2005). The percentage of internet users is also very low (UNDP 2005).