The digital war on poverty

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Jeffrey Sachs, ever the optimist, has announced victory - or something very near it - in the digital war on poverty. Writing yesterday in the Guardian, Sachs had this to say:

Extreme poverty is almost synonymous with extreme isolation, especially rural isolation. But mobile phones and wireless internet end isolation, and will therefore prove to be the most transformative technology of economic development of our time...There are now more than 3.3 billion subscribers in the world, roughly one for every two people on the planet.

Perhaps I am a Luddite, but Sach's article brings to mind Rousseau's Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (available in English translation here). Rousseau expresses a certain skepticism about the benefits of technology that has been echoed repeatedly since. Here is one interesting passage:

Thus we find Socrates, the wisest of men in the judgment of the gods, and the most learned of all the Athenians in the opinion of all Greece, speaking in praise of ignorance. Were he alive now, there is little reason to think that our modern scholars and artists would induce him to change his mind. No, gentlemen, that honest man would still persist in despising our vain sciences.

Now, before you think I've totally lost it, let me get to the point. Technology is only as beneficial as the context in which it is used. As I have pointed out in the context of classroom learning, a computer probably isn't going to be a perfect substitute for a good teacher. Perhaps even more to the point, a lot of technology requires infrastructure that can only be maintained if a society has got a lot of other things in place - namely property rights and access to finance. As I explain in this post:

In Broadband for Africa, author Mark Williams points out that "[t]he broadband access gap between Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world is getting wider, just as the gap in basic voice communications is getting smaller."

I agree with Sachs that mobile phones and internet have an extraordinary role to play in ending poverty. But I think - taking a page from Rousseau - that we should be cautious about ascribing revolutionary power to these technologies.


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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