The idea that technology can end poverty has been hotly debated in recent years. So much so that The Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog made the claim that the “D” in ICT4D, or Information and Communication Technologies for Development, more resembled “debate” than development. Supporters say access to technology can accelerate economic development. Critics have pointed to classrooms full of unused computers and under-developed irrigation to show that, no, technology cannot end poverty.
The key to harnessing technology in the fight against poverty is to consider the usefulness of the technology to those living in extreme poverty. Technology can be cutting edge in theory but worthless in practice. For example, it does no good to develop a high-tech, high-yield seed if farmers do not have the space to store surplus crops.
Perhaps, as Susan Davis, CEO of BRAC USA, suggests, ‘tethering’ technology to reality will provide the common ground fertile enough to incubate a solution. In her recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Ms. Davis queries whether technology can end poverty. Noting that her organization, BRAC, is known for using surprisingly low-tech solutions, she goes on to praise the use of technology so long as it takes a practical approach to grappling with the local and human dimensions to the problem.
This approach is gaining traction. Even in universities, the importance of the perspective of the poor in crafting effective technology is made clear. The course description for Info 181. Technology and Poverty, a course at the UC Berkeley School of Information, includes the following:
“Students will come to understand poverty not only in terms of high-level indicators, but from a ground-level perspective as ‘the poor’ experience and describe it for themselves.”
The takeaway here is that through communication and practical awareness of conditions on the ground, technology can be a useful tool in addressing global poverty.
– Herman Watson