Technology can uplift world’s ‘bottom billion’


Technology is often oversold as either a panacea for the world’s problems or a curse inflicting disruption and displacement on the most vulnerable. Historically, neither of these characterisations is accurate.

From the steam engine to the personal computer, inventions have transformed societies in complex ways. On balance, technology has created more jobs and economic opportunities than it has destroyed. That trend is likely to continue.

Why am I so upbeat? Because everywhere I look, leaders are repositioning their economies to ensure that technological change and automation are assets rather than liabilities. As the University of Oxford-based Pathways for Prosperity Commission recently observed, with “optimism and collective action”, frontier technologies can empower even the poorest countries.

For much of modern history, export-driven industrialisation and natural resource wealth were viewed as the only mechanisms for sustained growth in the developing world. But today, new technologies and the ability to combine them with old innovations have given people more say over their economic fortunes.

For example, the Africa Soil Information Service, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has combined remote sensing software and open-source data to lower the cost of soil mapping by 97%. This offers Africa’s smallholder farmers new tools to make evidence-based decisions about their operations, thereby increasing crop yields and reducing operating expenses.

Twiga Foods in Kenya is using technology to optimise its supply chain by matching rural fruit and vegetable growers with small and medium-size vendors in Nairobi. Twiga’s approach has helped farmers to reach more lucrative markets, increased consumer choice and reduced post-harvest losses and waste.

Digital inclusion can be a powerful force. GO-JEK, a ride-sharing and food-delivery service in Indonesia, has increased drivers’ income by an average of 44% and connected many of its suppliers, usually women, to banking services for the first time.

Capitalising on the transformative potential of technology will require investing more money in people, particularly in women and children. As we argued in this year’s Gates Foundation Goalkeepers Report, better healthcare and education — two pillars of the World Bank’s “human capital index” — can unlock productivity and innovation, reduce poverty and generate prosperity. These gains are essential to the ability of countries to achieve the targets set by the United Nations sustainable development goals.

Harnessing technology will also require sensible economic reforms, better infrastructure, more capable institutions and strategies to deliver digital solutions to marginalised populations. Some countries are already taking these steps. Indonesia, for example, has launched a programme to connect 100-million more people to broadband, in recognition of the importance that connectivity can play in fostering economic opportunities.

And yet, for the bulk of the world’s “bottom billion”, phone and internet services remain prohibitively expensive. That is why governments, donors and the private sector must work together to create business and pricing models that allow for cost recovery yet still provide an adequate level of digital services to the poorest consumers. One poverty-reduction strategy worth exploring is communal access to technology.

Price is not the only factor that keeps technology out of the hands of the poor. The digital divide mirrors larger patterns of social discrimination. Wherever women live, they are about 40% less likely than men to have used the internet, which suggests that social inequities are also driving disparities in digital access. Closing this gap is important. When women use the full range of digital services, from mobile banking to telemedicine, they are generally wealthier, healthier and better educated.

As policymakers in developed and developing countries make decisions and investments that will shape the landscape in which technological change unfolds, it is gratifying to see countries hold meaningful dialogues about their digital futures. As long as citizens who are beginning to understand technology and its ramifications are included in these conversations, it is possible to design solutions that meet everyone’s needs.

Today’s cutting-edge technologies are evolving at a dizzying speed. But with foresight and preparation, the world can minimise the disruption they will inevitably cause to ensure lasting and inclusive growth. If we co-ordinate our investments in people with our spending on innovation, the new “digital age” will leave no one behind. — © Project Syndicate

Mark Suzman is the chief strategy officer and president of global policy and advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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