No app for that: Why tech won’t solve global poverty as intended
July 10, 2013 Editor 0
Social entrepreneurs have trumpeted apps and technology as the knockout blow to poverty, but they may not provide the punch needed to make a lasting impact.
Many organizations and philanthropists–from Bill and Melinda Gates to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs–have supported technology as the missing ingredient to combat poverty. Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur call this into question in their recent Foreign Policy article, arguing that Silicon Valley’s technological innovations for the poor are short on results. “Entrepreneurial spirit and even the fanciest of gadgets will only get you so far. All the technological transformation of the last 200 years hasn’t come close to wiping out global poverty.”
Here are three entrepreneurial projects that mean well but may not live up to their optimism:
Soccket: A complex and expensive solution. The soccket is a soccer ball that generates power by kicking the ball around. After playing with it for 15 minutes, the ball powers an LED light for three hours.The technology has been trumpeted as a revolutionary solution by Bill Clinton, but it may be outshined by a simpler solution. Kenny and Sandefur write: “It really is a neat trick that a soccer ball only 2 ounces heavier than regulation weight can enclose a battery and technology pack that generates power from rolling. Then again, you can get a solar-powered lamp for $10. It isn’t clear why anyone would pay 10 times that for a light whose power source you have to kick around for half an hour to get less illumination.”
One Laptop per Child: Technological innovation, little impact. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor developed an inexpensive laptop to help impoverished kids learn through technology. Foreign Policy notes: “The project’s website claims that by distributing $100 laptops ‘we have seen two million previously marginalized children learn, achieve and begin to transform their communities.’ But in 2012, two separate studies–one in Nepal and the other in Peru–concluded that kids using the computers gained little or no benefit in terms of improved language or math skills or school attendance.”
Samasource: Tech jobs at a high cost. The nonprofit hires poor people to work in developing countries inputting simple data that’s slightly too complex for a computer to handle. The group aims to connect poor people to the developed world’s formal economy and create a source of low-end jobs. “Digital technology allows Samasource not only to send your project to the other side of the globe, but also to break down seemingly complex, skill-intensive tasks into bite-sized pieces. Last year it won awards from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Club de Madrid. And it may turn out to be an exciting model. But it is still a little early to say. The nonprofit’s website says it has paid more than $3 million in wages to more than 3,700 people. But Samasource has raised at least $12 million in donations over that time — implying that it raises $4 in donations for each $1 paid in wages.” –Kenny and Sandefur
But the authors don’t only see rain clouds. Kenny and Sandefur maintain optimism for innovation for the developing world, conceding that the hype of Silicon Valley may just have to give way to a slower approach.
Read the full article on Foreign Policy here.High tech problem solving for the developing world can overlook simpler, more effective solutions. Photo: Gates Foundation (flickr)
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