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Matching development challenges with tech solutions in the fight against extreme poverty

Sarah McCue's picture
The goals of multilateral development agencies, United Nations and World Bank Group are laser-focused on the post-2015 development agenda, calling for transformative change by eradicating extreme poverty and raising economic prosperity for all.  This vision for a new era in development is rightly bold and ambitious, but cannot be delivered without fully embracing the transformative power of technology and innovation, including information and communications technology or ICT. 
 
Most would agree that technology solutions exist for most every seemingly intractable problem.  Yet often our greatest challenge is to match the problem with the solution.  In my various “technology for development” and trade promotion roles with the United Nations and World Bank, it is so clearly evident that government leaders know what problems they need to solve, but are simply unaware of the technology solutions available to them. Even the most highly informed development experts are not aware of the technologies being produced for their particular area of expertise, and technology firms are often unaware of the vast and specific challenges developing countries face. 
 
Thus, it is critical to first identify specific, not general challenges in areas such as access to capital, business creation, countrywide connectivity, education and training, employment, environmental protection, government administration, health, housing, hunger, infrastructure, pollution, population growth, trade expansion, waste, water scarcity, and women’s empowerment.  These are but a fraction of problems facing the developing world.
Photo: flickr, courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (http://ow.ly/zjGTn)

After identifying challenges, must seriously engage and partner with global technology leaders. We must not depend on utopian concepts of collaboration or ignore the fact that corruption trumps all barriers to poverty reduction, but instead illustrate the intractable problems that developing countries face to allow the technology sector to identify their specific technology solutions that can be deployed for the benefit of developing countries. 
 
Most practitioners in the international development community realize that collaboration happens only in exceptional, high-profile circumstances.  But in the case of the technology sector, there is inherent interest in partnering to bring solutions to problems that have often been unsolvable.
 
We must say to Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, Dell, Google, HP, Hitachi, Intel, IBM, LG, Microsoft, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and others – including thousands upon thousands of small tech firms – “Here is the problem.  What is the best solution?” Using Amazon as an example, focusing Amazon.com, Kindle and Amazon Web Services for specific development initiatives is one example of literally hundreds where the vast innovations of these technology titans could be focused on developing country imperatives
 
Amazon aside, what else can the tech sector bring to the development agenda to best apply their aggregators, apps, portals, platforms, and websites to educate and inform? And how can their communication technologies (mobile phones, Skype and SMS), big data analysis, cyber security, electronic commerce, knowledge management, social media, 3D printing, broadband and other solutions help raise awareness and advance the development agenda?
 
We know the problems; the technology sector knows its solutions.  Therefore we must launch a call for solutions and a corresponding problem-solution databank for technology investments in priority sectors (e.g., health, food security, education, entrepreneurship, etc.). 
 
We must then create a campaign to educate as many government officials and bureaucrats as possible on the specific technologies under their sector of responsibility that will create economic growth, jobs, efficient and effective government, and social change. 
 
Finally, the collective “we” – representing country donors, multilateral development agencies, United Nations and World Bank –must then work with country leadership to integrate technology and its multitude of innovations and solutions into their funding portfolios and projects
 
Taking this practical approach will allow us to truly identify how existing technologies and innovations can be a game changer in the effort to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity through job creation, skill development, GDP growth, basic services delivery and the emergence of new services and industries. 
 
It is simply not possible or wise for any development specialist to claim to be aware of the technology solutions that are being released on a near-daily basis by the most innovative and successful technology firms.  It is incumbent upon us to step back and take a moment to create a problem-solution databank that then allows the development community to create far more informed and strategic national strategies.
 
For example, ask yourself what are the budgets of governments, country donors, United Nations, and World Bank for education in general?  Then ask yourself what are the specific line items and budgets allocated for online education?  A fraction of all education budgets are focused on the far more efficient, effective and strategic role that online education can play in bringing technical, child and adult learning to under-served and remote regions.
 
In the next 10 to 20 years at most, online education will upend the vast and traditional education sector to bring knowledge at no or low cost.  Imagine if free and open pre-K and K-12 general education were offered globally in multiple languages, including an entire series of free and open technical certification programs focused on specific skills (e.g., 3D, drone, environmental, agricultural technologies, entrepreneurship, etc.). However, for this to happen, we need a bold, far-reaching and courageous strategy to truly bring education to the world.
 
For example, I am the managing director of a private foundation that is developing a free, open master degree program in quantitative finance to rival the most prestigious master degree programs currently offered at a cost of +/- $150,000 to obtain this degree.  The cost to develop this university will be just over $3 million and, when launched in early 2015, enrollment will be open to anyone, any w​here with an interest in obtaining a degree in quantitative analysis at zero cost to the student.  The goal is to build more efficient financial and other industries in the most underdeveloped countries by providing the education needed for young people to pursue careers in data and financial analysis.
 
Imagine the impact that could be made by offering a series of these free, open schools and universities in particular subjects and technical areas at a fraction of the development and operational costs that are currently dedicated to traditional education. 
 
Certainly "education" is a vast, difficult and entrenched topic, governed by largely traditional perspectives but I do believe the development community can play a pivotal and ground-breaking role if it developed a visionary and courageous online education and technology strategy that fractures its silos to create a 21st Century approach to education using technology and ICT. 
 
The problems are known and the solutions exist – in education, in health, in food security, in most international development sectors. 
 
It is a vast and exciting topic on how we can better mobilize leading technology firms to respond to these global grand challenges.  Silicon Valley and other technology corridors around the world exist to solve problems and what better opportunity than to engage technology firms in finding solutions to the world’s most intractable problems.
 
We have not yet fully engaged with the tech sector to facilitate truly transformative change. But think about the potential of such engagement: never in the history of humankind have we been given the opportunity to use technology at such a scale to benefit so much of humanity.  

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