Is technology the solution to the problem of global poverty?

Author: Chirin Soh
School: Raffles Institution
Year Written: 2019
Grade: N.A.

Bill Gates once said, “We are changing the world with technology”. Technology brings about endless possibilities from driverless cars to designer babies. Scientists are developing drugs that eradicate diseases, saving millions of lives. Startups are inventing new apps that are transforming traditional business structures. Technology is promising to be a solution for all problems including global poverty, affecting more than 3 million people in the world. Many people in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Niger, Liberia are trapped in vicious poverty cycles which begins when one is born into a poor family and deprived of opportunities. Technology presents a way out by delivering opportunities for livelihood and education, as well as solving problems of healthcare and sanitation that commonly plague the poor. However, technology has its limitations of not being accessible by all and being exploited by companies.

Technology creates new jobs and increases the income of people, offering a way out of poverty. One such way is by improved agricultural technology. Most of the 1.4 billion people in poverty and living under USD1.25 a day rely on agriculture for their livelihood. Precision agriculture is changing the way farmers manage their crops and is being adopted at a growing rate. Farmers have access to high-quality inputs, data about crop health and yield, and crucial weather information. This allowed efficient use of resources and increased yield by up to 70%. It has successfully decreased the percentage of people living on less than $1.9 a day from 53.2% to 34.6% from 2006 to 2013. Biotechnology is also a solution to enhance the quality of produce with disease free and nutritionally enhanced varieties of crops. This has enabled India’s many rural farmers to optimise their available resources and ensure farmer’s economic well-being despite climate change threatening crop production. Over 90% of India’s cotton growing area is under BT cotton, a genetically modified crop with higher yields and reduced pesticide use. It has doubled incomes of cotton farmers and improved food security for those in poverty stricken countries.

Furthermore, technology provides communication platforms to connect those in poverty to the larger economy. Whatsapp messages reach out to farmers in India, educating them on better harvesting methods and connecting them to national and international markets. They become micro-entrepreneurs and can build agribusinesses to drive crop growth. In China, rural producers are also using Wechat and other ecommerce platforms to sell goods beyond their original distribution areas, earning more income. Fishermen in the Indian state of Kerala can communicate better with customers using mobile phones and this, on average, increased their profits by up to 8%. The connectivity that technology brings about also gave rise to the Gig economy. Its rise increased employed people and provided opportunities to earn an income. Over 70% of firms in India uses Gig workers. Go-Jek has increased income of Indonesia’s drivers by an average of 44%. Technology will continue to spur innovation and create more jobs for more people to fill.

Technology also improves healthcare and sanitation in poverty-stricken countries. They are serious problems in these countries. Over 784 million people in the world have no access to clean water and an average of 1400 people die of diarrhea caused by drinking unclean water. Technology has provided a solution with solar-powered water pumps. It is used in India to use locally sourced equipment to pump 3000 litres of clean and safe water to villagers everyday. A water filter known as the “tea bag” also stands out as a promising solution as it costs less than half of one cent to produce one “tea bag” and it can withstand multiple uses. It purifies up to 1 litre of water and the South African Bureau of Standards has completed its testing and deemed it safe and effective.The World Health Organisations estimates that around 2 billion people have gained access to safe drinkable water since 1990. Those living in rural areas also have less access to healthcare, such as medical equipment and professionals. In disease prevention, technology can be used to spread the word. The residents can gain information about prevention and symptoms of common diseases, improving their standard of living. The Ghanaian project targets pregnant women and delivers weekly automated messages about healthy fetal development. This has made real differences in the health of both mother and baby. Applications are also now available to provide diagnostics and even treatment. 34 villages in the Henan province benefited from an all-in-one diagnostic station. This application runs eleven kinds of tests and uploads the results to a data system for online consultation. Villagers no longer need to travel long distances just to see a doctor and receive medical treatment. Other examples are Shimba Technologies and Eye Netra. Shima Technologies in Kenya can check symptoms, provide first aid information and alert doctors if necessary. Eye netra can diagnose near and far-sightedness, as well as astigmation. It prescribes corrective lenses and saves people  trips to the doctors. Scientists are also researching cures to fight diseases that commonly affect those in poverty regions. A vaccine is being developed to fight a strain of Pneumococcus bacteria, which causes pneumonia and meningitis, prevalent in poor countries. Five western countries and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have pledge $1.5 billion to the developing, manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine. 156 million doses have been distributed in 2017 and its efforts are projected to save 635000 lives.

Technology is also providing education access to many in poverty. Education is often hailed as the universal leveller. It equips people with skills that allow them to break out of the poverty cycle. Previously, people in rural areas faced difficulty in getting access to quality education due to untrained teachers and limited resources. Digital classrooms are the new technology that solves this problem. Solar-powered computers and projectors are allowing students to participate in real life interactive lessons with quality teachers. A tech start-up from Shenzhen providing this digital classroom says it has grown to 300000 students in just on year. VIPKid, another company, launched Rural Education programme in 2017 to bring online education to 10000 classrooms by live streaming. Making Ghanaian Girls Great is also another project that uses new technology to provide young girls in Ghana access to education impossible in the past. The Post estimates that 55 million rural students across China will have access to education. 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all children left school with basic reading skills.

However, greedy corporations may exploit technology to their ruthless pursuit of economic gain instead of to solve poverty. Monsanta extracted huge profits from agriculture in recent years via royalties while farmers cultivating cash crops like Bt cotton have been compelled to spend beyond their means to purchase seeds and chemical inputs. This caused severe economic distress and drove about 27000 farmers to siucide since the mid to late nineties. Technology has not been put to use and worsened the problem of global poverty. In addition, the Gig economy is also largely based on exploitation and has not actually helped in alleviating poverty. For instance, ride-sharing companies such as Uber can avoid paying certain taxes, benefits, overtime, or minimum wages to their drivers by classifying them as independent contractors instead of employees. The firms also incorporate psychological tricks into their apps, like those used by video game designers, to keep their drivers on the road longer. A study by Public Region Research Institute showed  that about half of Californians working in the gig economy are struggling with poverty.

There is also unequal access to technology, limiting its effectiveness as a solution to global poverty. Desite mobile phones reaching an astonishing three-quarters of the world, for some living in poverty, e.g. Tasmania, it could cost them at least two months of their salary. In Guinea-Bissau, people are also paying a staggering sum of $81 for just 500MB of data. Technology is unable to alleviate poverty if acquiring this technology pushes people into it. Poorer countries also lack the technology and information of developed countries. This digital divide only makes it harder for them to catch up, and worsens the gap between the rich and the poor.

In conclusion, technology is a useful tool that mankind can use to improve the plight of the poor. It has much potential to be a solution to global poverty. However, governments should work at developing a partnership between developed and developing nations to provide the poor access to the benefits that these technologies bring and thus alleviate poverty.

Leave a Comment