The Tech Fix for Global Poverty
Despite real progress on many socio-economic fronts, approximately one billion human beings struggle to find enough to eat every day, day after day, in the world’s poorer countries. Addressing these problems was the topic of a recent German Marshall Fund report: Transformational Partnerships: Innovative Approaches to Addressing Food Security in Africa. But how do the world’s “donor” countries – still mainly located in Europe andNorth America– mobilize sufficient resources to address the myriad causes of poverty in the era of the Eurozone crisis, when federal budgets are shrinking and when populations of the hungry continue to rise in many of the poorest countries? Might high-tech solutions be a central part of the answer; might technological breakthroughs be the “game changing” solutions? That was the core question at a recent forum sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The colloquy, dubbed Frontiers in Development, offered tempting breakthroughs for the optimists in attendance, but also stimulated tough policy questions. Frontiers in Development asked us to consider the plight of an average African dairy farmer, struggling on the outer perimeter of the supply and demand chains. Her three cows produce a reasonable amount of milk each day, but there is no refrigeration (because there is no electrical power) at her farm, and she owns no vehicle to deliver her milk to the dairy in the nearest town. So, she pays a middleman to pick up her milk, and she pays a middleman to deliver supplemental feed for the cattle, and necessary medications, on the store’s delivery schedule. Because of poor roads, the pick-up and delivery processes are haphazard, time-consuming, grossly inefficient, and very expensive. Knowing that supplies often spoil and will be erratic, the dairy pays her the minimum price for her milk. Because all transactions are handled in cash, she pays a fee for transporting the money, and loses interest on her earnings. Collectively these factors amount to what is known as the “last mile problem” in international development, resulting in a low return on investment and high transaction costs. What’s the solution? A four-way, cell-phone-based communications hook-up among the farmer, the dairy, the feed store, and the delivery service that facilitates pick-up when the milk is ready; that lets the dairy know how much milk is arriving and when; that allows the farmer to schedule a feed delivery at the optimal time; and that even provides the farmer, based on an analysis at the dairy’s laboratory, with real-time information on how to adjust the cows’ feed supplements to optimize production. The same system, with a few more “apps,” can serve to open a bank account in town for the farmer, facilitate electronic transfer of her dairy earnings to an interest-bearing account, and allow her to pay her bills at the supply store, eliminating fees for transferring cash. According to reports at USAID’s conference, this kind of low-cost, high-impact IT system is working right now across the developing world. The American foreign aid agency is hardly alone in probing high-tech approaches. European Commission and World Bank websites are full of similar innovations. TheUK, Swedish, and Canadian development agencies are jointly sponsoring a “Humanitarian Innovation Fund” to spur discoveries to assist in disasters. Think high-tech systems, for example, to unify children and parents who have become separated in a flood, earthquake, or refugee camp. The German development agency, GIZ, has launched a program to transfer innovative climate technology to partner nations. These potential “game changers” have serious policy considerations. All of the questions we face in Europe and North America – questions about privacy, potential fraud or theft, manipulation of data – will all be encountered in Africa, Asia andLatin America, in an environment where countervailing protective systems might not be as well developed. Who will own and control the IT systems on which these technologies are based, and what does that mean for the “country ownership” that partners value highly? When the beneficial technologies include voice recognition or biometrics identification technology, will human rights be adequately protected in nations without fully developed democratic traditions? Will linking “last-mile” dairy farmers and shopkeepers into the global economy ultimately empower them, or make them pawns to larger economic forces? Will poorer nations develop the regulatory environments to protect their citizens in the high-tech future, and will these national level regimes be compatible with a global information ecosystem? One impassioned participant in the USAID conference was moved to exclaim: “The limits on how we can transform societies are bounded only by your imagination!” Well, that and a bevy of serious policy questions. Whether they share the enthusiasm of our optimistic colleague, or are cautious about the implications of these breakthroughs, transatlantic policy makers will need to focus on the high-tech fixes for poverty, as they are already arriving in the global commons. James Kunder is a Senior Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. Photo by Flickr user IICD.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.