Technology Ends Poverty, but Where is the Trick?

Technology allows many things today that were inconceivable or impractical in the past. Bringing new technologies into play and creating partnerships is essential in the plan to end extreme poverty. However, there is still a long way to go. Creating apps or funny gadgets just for the sake of having them is not what will help the world achieve the overall objective of ending poverty.

Advances have indeed made a huge difference in the lives of the poor, but there’s also a healthy amount of skepticism out there, and some very respectful people are calling out naïve or inappropriate uses of information and communication technologies.

Kentaro Toyama, a Professor of Michigan School of Information, warned us about the extra excitement about this theme: “Technology -no matter how well designed- is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around”.

In their bestseller “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think”, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler demonstrated that “higher productivity associated with the falling cost of technology is leading us to a world of plenty”.

But the real trick, wrote Susan Davis in the Harvard Business Review (), “is making sure everyone shares in the coming abundance- or at least has a fair shot at doing so”. And this is very difficult to achieve in a world where most product innovations are geared toward the rich.

In Mr. Toyama’s words, “Disseminating a technology would work if, somehow, the technology did more for the poor, undereducated, and powerless than it did for the rich, well-educated, and mighty. But the theory of technology-as-magnifier leads to the opposite conclusion: the greater one’s capacity, the more technology delivers; the lesser one’s capacity, the less value technology has. In effect, technology helps the rich get richer while doing little for the incomes of the poor, thus widening the gaps between haves and have-nots”.

“The myth of scale is seductive because it is easier to spread technology than to effect extensive change in social attitudes and human capacity. In other words, it is much less painful to purchase a hundred thousand PCs than to provide a real education for a hundred thousand children; it is easier to run a text-messaging health hotline than to convince people to boil water before ingesting it; it is easier to write an app that helps people find out where they can buy medicine than it is to persuade them that medicine is good for their health.”

Based on the wide experience accumulated by BRAC (the organization she is part of), Susan Davis points to three main aspects of Social Entrepreneurship:

Invest in local innovation: The poor and marginalized may not have been to school, but that doesn’t mean they’re uneducated. They’re often experts at “frugal innovation”. Piecemeal, low-tech solutions often go further -and are more easily scaled-up-than anything dreamed up by R&D-centric outsiders”.

Grapple with the human dimensions of the problem: You need to understand not just the thrill of empowering people in principle, but the challenges in practice. You must take in account the workaday hassles easily overlooked in the excitement of helping people. One must be sensitive to the stress of uncertainty with new innovations.

Immerse yourself in the details: If you find yourself frustrated, bored, or driven to distraction by the nitty-gritty, that’s a sign you may be on the right track.

Professor Toyama goes a step further, when states:

“My point is not that technology is useless. To the extent that we are willing and able to put technology to positive ends, it has a positive effect… the value of a technology remains contingent on the motivations and abilities of organizations applying it—villagers must be organized, content must be produced, and instructors must be trained… In other words, disseminating technology is easy; nurturing human capacity and human institutions that put it to good use is the crux.”


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