The immediacy and tragedy of acute poverty is exemplified by the distressing condition of not being able to buy food for a hungry child, or medicine for a sick infant, or finding money for a funeral. The help required in such situations may indeed be small, but can make a big difference in the life of a poor family. Modern information technologies hold the promise of helping the poor in radical and game changing ways.
In an analog world it is difficult to respond to such poignant crises in the day to day lives of the poor. Obtaining real time and trusted information on the immediacy of such needs, and being able to respond with urgency and speed, poses enormous challenges. A combination of trusted organizations on ground, mobile apps, mobile money transfers, and rapid feedback and verification systems can address such challenges in ways that were not possible before.
Poverty more than a statistic
According to World Bank estimates 1.4 billion people in the developing world (one in four) were living on less than US$1.25 a day in 2005. More recently a Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) developed by researchers at the University of Oxford, found in a survey of 104 countries, that 1.7 billion people out of 5.2 billion living in those countries were “multidimensionally poor”. The MPI measures ten indicators clustered around health, education and standard of living.
Despite conceptual improvements in measuring poverty, poverty indices do not adequately capture the specific instances of how “human lives are battered and diminished” (Amartya Sen). Indices represent poverty as an impersonal statistic, while for the poor it represents a condition of fear, desperation, helplessness, and abandonment, combined with a loss of personal dignity and self-esteem.
Let us take the case of hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that there are 925 million people who are under-nourished. Under-nutrition is the cause of a third of the 8.8 million deaths of children every year. The World produces enough food to provide at least 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. However, the poorest have no money to buy enough food.
In an ideal world, no one would go hungry as those who are better off could easily help those who are not so fortunate. Even where there is a will to help, inefficient information flows coupled with inefficient and often corrupt bureaucracies have come in the way.
Modern information and communication technologies hold the potential to address this conundrum in a very powerful way. There are now 5.3 billion mobile subscriptions globally, of which more than 3 billion are in developing countries (450 million in Africa representing 43% of the population). These phones are becoming more and more powerful and according to Gartner, "By 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide."
The mobile phone can not only help communicate the plight of someone in desperate need, but can also channelize help directly to that person. The layers of intermediaries involved in helping the poor can be dramatically reduced, if not eliminated altogether. The poor could be provided with mobile phones (used phones?) with free access to a helpline. Alternatively phones available with grass-root civil society organizations or self-help groups could be leveraged.
Capturing and channelizing information
The first problem in responding to specific events constituting acute poverty is how to collect trusted information on the needs of someone poor, and who deserves immediate help. This could be done through a combination of trusted civil society organizations on the ground, and self-help groups of the poor. Global Giving a highly respected DC based NGO works for example, with trusted grass roots organizations in developing countries, as part of its operational model. So does Kiva.org, that crowdsources funding for helping the poor finance projects in developing countries. The World Bank’s Rural Poverty Reduction Project in Andhra Pradesh has helped establish more than 850,000 self-help groups of 10-15 members each; with more than ten million women as members.
The next problem is how to find the financial resources to render help. Apart from governments and institutional donors, it may also be possible to crowdsource funding, by tapping into the generosity of individuals. Mobile apps could help tap ‘spur of the moment’ donations by individuals through peer to peer connections. Such good Samaritans need not necessarily come from rich countries. There are many people in developing countries capable of contributing small amounts that can render real help to a poor person in desperate need.
Channelizing some part of bilateral aid through a mechanism of peer to peer transfers, would better meet foreign policy objectives of developed countries (Aid 2.0). This could become a powerful means of forging closer people to people relationships and winning hearts and minds. Help rendered to an individual at a critical juncture is likely to have a lasting impact on the perceptions of the individual, and promote more positive attitudes and relationships. A recent World Bank study showed how four years after the earthquake in Pakistan, “humanitarian assistance by foreigners and foreign organizations has left a lasting imprint on population attitudes”.
Financial help could be provided by using instant mobile money transfers. M-Pesa in Kenya is an excellent example of how this could be accomplished. While there may be regulatory challenges in cross-border contributions, new solutions being developed by companies like Yellow Pepper are likely to make m-transfers easier.
Once money is transferred, a quick verification could be carried out using mobile phone based systems of the kind developed by Txteagle. Txteagle, a company set up by a professor from MIT, can reach 2.1 billion mobile phone users globally and transfer small amounts of air time as an incentive to provide feedback. Using such systems, it should be possible to quickly verify whether help has reached the right person at the right time, and whether the person’s need was genuine in the first place.
The use of mobile phones coupled with advanced analytics and context driven approaches can become a powerful instrument in this context. Mobile phones form a network of sensors that record a user’s location, time, others nearby and communication patterns. These can potentially be analyzed (subject to opt-in privacy permissions) and provide useful insights into social interaction and trust relationships. Such analytics could be used to identify feedback providers for instance, whose past interactions enhance their trustworthiness and who are located in the proximity of the recipient.
The use of technology to render help in extreme instances of poverty is by its very nature country agnostic and would be as applicable to a homeless individual in the US, as it would be to a destitute family in Kenya. Further the approach would be relevant in dealing with the consequences of the economic crisis that has had catastrophic impact on the lives of a large number of people. Being able to develop methodologies and processes to respond quickly to individual crises, targeting the most vulnerable, would in itself be a very noble endeavor, and consistent with the World Bank’s mission to fight poverty with passion and professionalism.
 Sabina Alkire and Maria Emma Santos, Acute Multidimensional Poverty: A New Index for Developing Countries, OPHI Working Paper No. 38, July 2010.
 Food and Agriculture Organization, The State of Food Insecurity in the World, October 2010.
 The work of Alex (Sandy) Pentland Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT is of particular interest in this context.