Ideas Matter: Can Technology Solve Global Poverty?

On December 2, 2010, there was a panel discussion titled “Can Technology Solve Global Poverty?” in Cambridge, MA, hosted jointly by the Boston Review and the MIT Political Science Department. (The Jester appreciates the platform provided by the Boston Review — thanks to editors-in-chief Josh Cohen and Deb Chasman!) The panelists were Kentaro Toyama, Nicholas Negroponte, Rachel Glennerster, and José Gómez-Márquez, and moderation was handled expertly by Archon Fung. Brief bios of the panelists are all available here: http://bostonreview.net/about/ideasmatter/#toyama; a video of the event should appear there soon, as well.

There was some drama on stage, but the panelists’ views were nothing new for people who follow this space. So, just a quick summary…

– Toyama: Technology magnifies human and institutional intent and capacity. In international development, technology is rarely a solution by itself. (Geez, this guy is a human broken record!)

– Negroponte: Laptops transforms education for children. Anyone who can’t see this needs a therapist!

– Glennerster: Look for whatever solutions work in international development, technology or otherwise. Then do randomized control trials (RCTs) of them to verify effectiveness.

– Gómez-Márquez: We need to design technologies and systems so that they will work in a hostile environment.

Overall, the Jester couldn’t have agreed more with Toyama, but there were some things that Toyama didn’t do well. For example, he didn’t clarify that he was talking mostly of ICT up front (although the Jester increasingly believes the amplification thesis applies beyond ICT and beyond international development). He also came  off as anti-technology, or anti-ICT4D, which is not quite true. He’s just pro-foundational-investments-in-human-capacity-that-rarely-require-much-technology.

Glennerster and Gómez-Márquez both held extremely reasonable positions about technology, namely that sometimes they can be helpful. The only problem with extremely reasonable positions is that while they are invariably true, they provide no additional insight.

Toyama’s core thesis primarily leads to arguments against (1) the indiscriminate spreading of technology without a full understanding of impact, (2) any hype around technologies potential that ignores the necessary human or institutional requirements for success, and (3) ignoring of opportunity costs when cheaper solutions abound. There is nothing wrong with cost-effective technology being used in the right way to amplify existing positive intent and capacity, as the Jester recommends for ICT4D-ers.

Of these, Point (3) on opportunity costs was discussed on the panel. (Everyone except for Negroponte appeared to agree with (1) and (2).) The Jester fully agrees with Toyama’s point about opportunity costs. When presented with multiple ways to solve similar problems, which should you choose? One slogan often goes, “It’s not either/or, do all of them!” This is an approach that might appeal to the United Nations, where participation and consensus is the goal, but the reality is that funds allocated to international development are always limited. If you “only” have a budget of $100 million for a million students, you can’t both buy them all computers and do meaningful teacher training. You have to choose how to allocate the budget.

That choice often, though not always, comes down to a simple question — Which intervention provides more bang for the buck? Unfortunately, ICT rarely comes in on the cheaper side, particularly in low-labor-cost environments (note to self: Jester, hurry up and get to Myth 9: “Automated is always cheaper and better”). Negroponte seemed excited to reveal that OLPC only costs a dollar a week per child, but as Toyama and Glennerster both responded, there are interventions that cost 100 times less, with known and significant educational benefits, and even a dollar a week is too much for countries that barely spend that much total on education per child. (Actually, the Jester even doubts Negroponte’s dollar a week number — note to self: hurry up and get to Myth 8: “Hardware and software are a one-time cost”!)

Glennerster and Gómez-Márquez were both very persuasive in the importance of designing interventions well, so that they work even in hostile environments. Toyama had difficulty responding to this point, although he should have done better considering that he used to make similar remarks himself. Gómez-Márquez, in particular, made an intriguing comment that you could design things so that they work even under adversarial conditions. This sounds fantastic in theory, but in reality, someone somewhere in the system must have the intent to solve the the problem, for any technology to work (this is similar to what computer security people say about computer security). It might be a minister, an NGO leader, a local entrepreneur, a group of mothers, or some combination, but every technology requires positive human capacity behind it to activate.  (In a post-panel conversation, Gómez-Márquez acknowledged this point.) Gómez-Márquez talked about identifying what might be called “champions” in a given environment, and then providing them with the right tools. Toyama would undoubtedly agree with this approach (the Jester agrees, too) — it means that the technology is amplifying the champions’ intent and capacity. ICT4D projects whose stated intent is to identify and amplify champions make perfect sense.

Glennerster brought up the topic of vaccines, which are a theoretical pebble in the Jester’s pointy shoes. Such technologies do pose a partial counterexample to the theory of technology as amplifier, because at the least, they don’t amplify negative intent (unless, the Jester supposes, some of them can turn to poisons when not used as indicated). But, even vaccines are subject to bad institutional capacity, and they are certainly not immune (ha ha — the Jester should be punished for every pun he sheds) to the amplification thesis. In the end, vaccines are regularly and routinely distributed unequally, which is exactly why yellow fever still exists in the developing world, despite the technological existence of reliable vaccines. Disproportionately, it’s poorer countries that continue to have these problems and it’s usually because the vaccine supply chain is not in order.

Of course, none of this says that we shouldn’t develop the technology — the Jester so far hasn’t suggested that PCs or mobile phones should be uninvented. (Not yet, anyway!)

Finally, the Jester came away with new appreciation for Negroponte’s persuasiveness, if not his logic. Although Negroponte lost his cool at times (and perhaps did more to hurt his own cause than to advance it), he does genuinely appear to believe 100% in the power of laptops alone to radically transform children’s education for the better. And possibly as a result, his tone, if not his rational argument, is incredibly seductive. The Jester found himself nodding along hypnotized, while Negroponte compared laptops to vaccines and suggested that nothing that required experimental evaluation was worth doing.

These last points will be addressed in the Jester’s next post. The Jester passed on commenting on Negroponte in a previous post, but it seems necessary.  Negroponte’s salesmanship requires repeat doses of a rational antidote!

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4 Responses to “Ideas Matter: Can Technology Solve Global Poverty?”

  1. Pratyush Kumar Says:

    Hi there Dear Jester (DJ of broken records!)

    The random winds of the Internet technology brought me on to your page. And after a good two hours of reading, in spite of my curious intent to always try and disagree, I must confess that I mostly agree with you. But I wouldn’t let your Jestering get away with just that. So here it is:

    1. Without any formal understanding of this field, I hazard this insinuation: Would it not suit your Jestering to show, with evidence-numbers, comments or results-that ICT4D can fail, spectacularly fail. I understand the intent required to perform such an experiment. But, if the outcome is as disruptive and counter-intuitive as you promise it is, then I had rather believe such experiments are worth it!

    2. You mostly talk of ICT and not just any T (Though its only T that figures in your title track!) I see a rainbow of different Ts out there: rice cutters, vaccines, cold storage, mobile phones, space technology, etc. Certainly, smoe of those other Ts must exist as pebbles in your shoes. Your guns are mostly aimed at (I guess the toys of most ICT4Ders) mobiles and PCs. It appears to me that there is a pyramid of sorts of technology (yes, yes, like the Maslow’s thing), and every populace cuts in at some point of this hierarchy. Maybe it behoves your Jestering to actually draw up such a hierarchy, and to then size up the role of ICT.

    3. Finally, let me take a dig at the title track itself. “T magnifies I and C”. Yes, T is no religion, it cannot tranform baddies to goodies. But how then is I ever modified? People change, and do so by ‘knowing’ things. How would M.L.King have been what he was had he not know about one M.K.Gandhi, on the opposite side of the world. Clearly, clearly, (IC)T enables sharing and creating knowledge, both good and bad. So, at this point I am not sure about the word magnifies in your statement, I am only convinced about ‘modifies’. I do agree that saying it the way you say it, works out for certain technologies, exmaples. But the blanket statement seems hard to buy.

    Right ho!

    • Jester Says:

      Ho, a bold challenger! The Jester thanks you, Pratyush Kumar, for jumping into the fray.

      1. Spectacular failures of ICT4D — Documenting failure requires no careful experimentation, since all that is required is a failed instance. Of these, there are literally no end to examples. Telecenters as a class are failures on the whole (though, to be sure, there are also many that are doing good things). nLogue, Drishtee, for example, were darlings of the telecenter movement in 2005, but today, they barely mention telecenters (or “rural kiosks”) on their websites.

      The Jester believes, however, that the mobile phone will prove to be the spectacular counterexample. Mobile phones will make a lot of people in developing countries richer, to be sure, but the benefits will accrue entirely to people in the industry. Typical mobile phone users, meanwhile, will see comparatively little, if they gain at all.

      2. ICT versus plain T: The Jester believes that technology on the whole is simply a magnifier of human intent and capacity. Different technologies, though, magnify different capacities. ICTs tend to magnify information-, knowledge-, and social-network-based capacities, and so they particularly require a decent education or a relevant social network. Other technologies (such as motorized vehicles) might amplify physical capacity which most people have. A few technologies (though relatively rare) have a diode-like ability to amplify only intent of one polarity.

      3. How is intent modified? The Jester disagrees with the idea that intent is fundamentally modified by information or knowledge. Whatever MLK learned form MKG, it was not the what of his intent, it was the how. MLK had within him the intent for black emancipation in America through loving means (he was a minister), well before he encountered Gandhi. Gandhi, however, showed the way to society-changing non-violent resistance. No doubt many black Americans had heard of Gandhi, but only MLK took it and did something with it. So, again, it must have been MLK that was different. None of this is to argue against information technology — MLK probably read books by MKG’s, and that was instrumental in how MLK led his movement. But, the core intent was aleady there, likely due to MLK’s natural temperament, upbringing, education, and historical context.

      As to how it changes, both intent and capacity come through a process of maturation, of personality development, of growth as a human being. It is slow, it is indirect, and it is meandering. But, there is no shortcut.

      The Jester

      • Jim Forster Says:

        Jester,

        I agree with you very much, although not this bit. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you?

        > Mobile phones will make a lot of people in developing countries richer,
        > to be sure, but the benefits will accrue entirely to people in the industry.

        My opinion is that people, even poor people, spend money on mobile phones because they do get benefits. The benefits may be more personal and social than financial, but still that matters. Or they may be efficiency gains: one phone or sms can save an hour or a day traveling to talk to someone. But the bottom line is that people make that choice, not a government, not a company, not an ngo. OK, maybe they are affected by Mastercard-quality ads, but that’s true of most consumer products.

        — Jim

  2. Wayan @ OLPC News Says:

    You might have found this of value before your talk and certainly will be of value if you respond to Negroponte:

    His assorted talks, transcribed: http://www.olpctalks.com/nicholas_negroponte/
    Figures on OLPC costs: http://www.olpcnews.com/sales_talk/price/

    Yes, he is certainly an amazing marketer. I am in awe of his message delivery if not always the message he delivers.

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