to Eliminate Global Poverty
Presentation made at a special session in the meeting of the
Presidents Information Technology Advisory Committee, U.S.A.
National Science Foundation
September 17, 2000
Information Technology(IT) is going to change the world dramatically, in all it dimensions. IT is transforming old economies into New Economies. Its real potential, however, lies in creating "New Society" --- a society which will allow everyone of its members unlimited opportunities to unleash all the creativity and ingenuity he or she has inside of him or her. If we can materialize this potential of IT there will be no one in the world to be known as a poor person.
IT offers an opportunity unprecedented in the entire human history to end poverty from the face of the earth. Despite well-intentioned declarations in the past, the number of people in extreme poverty has increased over time. Today it stands at 1.5 billion.
Although IT offers the most exciting possibilities for overcoming poverty, and even ending poverty in the world, this potential will remain unrealized if we leave it to the usual market forces to guide the direction of the IT industry. It is no fault of the market that it does not lead the world in the socially desirable direction. Fault lies in the absence of enough social consciousness-driven entrepreneurs in the market place to make it happen. We need to fill this vacuum by creating these social consciousness-driven entrepreneurs and adding social agenda to the otherwise purely financial-gain based business enterprises.
"Digital divide" can only get worse if no social interventions are made in shaping the nature and direction of the IT industry. "Digital divide" will more and more also mean knowledge divide, skill divide, and, of course, opportunity divide.
I have been arguing that poverty is not created by the poor people themselves. There is nothing wrong in the poor people. They dont lack anything intrinsically. They are endowed with the same human qualities as anybody else around the world.
All human beings have enormous potentials inherent in them. Each person is capable of not only taking care of himself/herself, but also to contribute to the advancement of the frontier of human capability. Poor people do not get the opportunity to ever discover their own potentials because of the social and economic barriers built around them.
IT has the capacity to remove these barriers most effectively and sustainably. No other technology in human history ever had this capacity to work directly against the barriers around a single individual. This is the most exciting part of IT we must recognize and make use of, with all the skill and commitment we can master.
There are two important things that I should draw your attention to.
One : There is an enormous amount of goodwill and commitment at the individual and governmental level to end poverty in the world today - more than ever before. All global development agencies have declared a unified goal to reduce the number of poor people by half by 2015. One cannot be more categorical than this.
Two : Many initiatives at academic circles, company levels, governmental levels, UN agencies levels, foundation levels have already been taking initiatives to explore possibilities of taking IT to address the problems of poverty. The world has recognized very clearly that this is a very important area to which IT must be extended.
Attempts are being made to make handheld, simple, inexpensive IT devices, wireless devices, create contents and connectivity to bring health services, education, business opportunities, by using voice command, touch screen, speech technology to make it easy for illiterate users. Many more initiatives will keep coming.
The very logic of IT requires that we create a global framework, which can provide stimulus to all these initiatives and ensure continuity in the learning process. Also, we need a clearly spelled out purpose and direction in all these efforts. To achieve these, I am proposing to create an "International center for Information Technology to Eliminate Global Poverty." I feel that the time is right for the creation of the "center". Millenium Declaration of the United Nations to end global poverty and remove digital divide, Okinawa Charter of Global Information Society, of July 2000, signed by G-8 heads of governments, have already set the global agenda. Need for an organizational framework to provide support to this important task will be felt more and more, as efforts intensify. Someone will have to create this organization if we are serious about eliminating poverty.
There is an on-going view that IT is totally irrelevant for the poor people. IT is too complicated for the poor who are generally illiterate; IT is too expensive for them to reach out to; the poor dont need fancy IT, they need food. Skeptics will always be there. When we began our cell-phone company, Grameen Phone, the skeptics said : "You got to be crazy to think of giving cell phones to illiterate poor women in the villages who never saw a conventional telephone in their lives; she would not know how to dial a number; anyway, whom is she going to call ? It is to expensive an equipment for her to afford."
Today, everybody in Bangladesh looks at Grameen telephone ladies in the villages with admiration, and some, with jealousy. They are doing a roaring business selling telephone services to the villagers. When I asked one in the first batch of telephone ladies after they got into the business whether she has difficulty in dialing numbers, she challenged me to blindfold her and give her a number. If she failed to dial it correctly the first time, she would return the phone and get out of the business, she said. I was stunned by her confidence in her new-found skill. Another Grameen company is setting up internet kiosks in the villages and running them on a commercial basis. We are pleasantly surprised to see the response from the villagers in using the Internet and other computer services. Young people are signing up to learn computer skills for a fee. In villages where electricity does not exist, solar panels are powering the cell phones and computers. Grameen has set up a Solar Energy Company to bring solar energy to those villages.
Micro-credit and IT both have a common capacity --- capacity to empower the poor people, particularly poor women. Much of this dollars and cents cannot measure. I am convinced that the best way to change a society is to give dignity and self-reliance to the poor women in that society. Both IT and micro-credit do it very effectively. They mutually reinforce each other when it comes to addressing the issue of poverty.
Today we have 2200 telephone ladies in Bangladesh. We can easily create 100,000 telephone ladies or more today if only we can extend our network coverage fast enough. With 100,000 telephone ladies running their telecommunications businesses in Bangladesh villages, I can tell you Bangladesh will be a very different country than what it is today. Imagine these telephone ladies using WAP phones and offering Internet services ! I am absolutely sure theyll be successful in that business, too.
A Grameen company, Grameen Communications, is launching a joint venture with Hewlett Packard to bring e-healthcare, e-banking, and e-education through what is being named as Grameen Digital centers, using the fiber-optic network of Grameen Phone. NEC of Japan is starting a program to fight infectious diseases using the same Grameen Digital centers.
Whether the poor can afford IT, or not afford it, whether an illiterate person can handle IT, or not able to handle it, will depend not on the amount of investment needed by the poor, or the complexity or operation of IT. It will depend on the appropriateness of the institutional environment around the poor and the rate of return on the investment theyll be making. Micro-credit can provide such an appropriate institutional environment.
The most important reason for creating the proposed "center" is to bring focus of IT on the poor, particularly the poor women. Focus of IT at present is exclusively on the business. We need a parallel exclusive focus; not just extensions of business-related IT to cover some ground in the poverty area. IT has to be designed from the level zero to all the way up keeping the picture of a poor woman in the front of the designer. The designer has to start the work by asking himself/herself the question : What are her daily problems ? How can my device/appliance help her find solutions to these problems ? It may involve designing a brand new chip for the poor, a new device, new everything. The finished product will be a device, which will be a constant companion to the user, the poor woman. The device will become her constant friend, philosopher, guide, business consultant, health, education and marketing consultant, trainer --- everything. In one phrase, it will be her "Aladins Lamp." At the touch of the touch screen, or mentioning of a "magic word" the genie will come out of the lamp and help her find the solution she is looking for. Step by step, shell come out of her own shell, discover her talents and take her family out of poverty. Her children will become the best friends of the IT genie from their childhood.
I hope I have succeeded in providing you with some good reasons to think about creating an International center for Information Technology to Eliminate Global Poverty. I hope an initiative can be put in place to explore and elaborate the concept fully and move towards creating the "center."
We are entering into a very exciting phase of human history. As we do that, let us be absolutely sure that we make adequate preparations to create a human society that we can all feel proud to be apart of. We must create a society that ensures human dignity to each and every person on this planet, and nobody has to suffer from the misery of poverty -- EVER.