Using Technology to Fight Poverty

I recently returned from a three week stay in Ghana, West Africa, where I trained several non-profit organizations how to build websites. Over and over again I was reminded how much we in the West take our wealth for granted.

The federal minimum wage in the United States is $5.15 per hour which, while nice pocket change for a high school student, is not enough to keep a family above the poverty line. However, someone making $5.15 would live quite nicely in Ghana where the minimum wage is $.18 per hour and the per capita Gross National Income (GNI) for Ghana is $320 compared to $37,610 for the US (according to the World Bank, 2003).

Before my trip to Africa, whenever I saw figures like the ones given above, I always reasoned that goods are cheaper in countries like Ghana. Shouldn’t it all just even out?

The short answer is no. The long answer is that it’s because life in Ghana is further complicated by the following factors not present in the U.S.:

  • Unemployment is around 20% and under-employment is suspected to be higher. After six months without a job, $.18 an hour must feel like winning the lottery.
  • Inflation is around 14%, which means each paycheck buys less and less and any money you manage to save becomes worthless within a few years.
  • Although many Ghanaians survive on $.18 per hour, which covers the expense of one meal a day and a few other basic needs, no one earning that wage is in a position to participate in the global economy.

These are all major problems in dire need of a solution, but it’s the third point that hit me the hardest.

Teaching in Ghana My Kingdom for a Book!
One of the employees at the IT facility where I lead website training asked how he could learn ASP and PHP (a couple of common web programming languages). He wants to learn web development so he can move to the UK in search of a better life. Since there is very little computer work in Ghana, someone who acquires technical skills quickly leaves the country in search of opportunity. Can you say brain drain?

In any case, since classroom learning is expensive and since I’ve always been more of a “teach yourself” type of person, I recommended two books to get him started. He looked at me sheepishly and told me that technical books are really expensive. This struck me as odd because I had talked to a guy from the UK just two days earlier and he mentioned a bookstore with technical books at around 70% off cover price, so a $50 book was only $15. Feeling well-informed I began to tell him, but the instant the words came out of my mouth I noticed a look on his face and realized that this is an outrageous amount of money for him. Luckily, I quickly righted the ship, adding “…but I realize that is still very expensive.”

15 bucks. The guy works 40 hours a week at an IT training facility and can’t afford a $15 computer book. He’s not starving. He’s not living in a mud hut on the side of the road scraping to feed his family. But $15 is probably a week’s salary for him, maybe more. At 83 times the minimum wage this book would cost $427 in the U.S., and the book was actually an old edition (from 2001), which as most of us know is almost worthless in the world of computer programming. If he wanted a current edition he would have to pay three times that if he could find it at all.

Does this seem wrong to anyone else?

The other items that proved to be cost prohibitive were a domain name and web hosting. It had never occurred to me that these expenses could be barriers to creating a website, since in the states it’s time and expertise that stand in the way. I won’t go into the detailed calculations, but at $8.95 for a domain name and $4 a month for hosting, it’s virtually impossible for the average Ghanaian to participate in the global economy.

This is, of course, not the worst of it. Ghana has its share of destitute poor; people who live in huts made of dried mud or sleep under overhangs in urban markets, people who have never had enough to eat, people who have no concept of what it means to not be poor and who live every day with their family’s survival hanging in the balance.
Women on Beach
Why Should We Care?
The big question is why should we care about someone else’s problem? It’s not our issue, right? Isn’t it just survival of the fittest? Here are a few reasons to get you thinking:

If you believe in God, Allah, Buddha, or even good old fashioned karma, you know your responsibility to your fellow human being. All of the major religions preach a similar message; if someone is in need we should go out of our way to help them.

If religion is not for you, how about morality? One of the main themes of Weaving the Web, the book by Tim Berners-Lee, co-inventor of the World Wide Web, is that computer scientists have a moral responsibility as well as a technical one. Does it seem right that millions die every year from simple causes such as lack of food, clean water, and preventable diseases? These are people just like you or I dying slow, painful, and preventable deaths.

If morality isn’t convincing, there’s also the United Nations, which has something called International Human Rights Law spelled out in their charter. This law names food, housing, education, health, work, social security and a share in the benefits of social progress as some of the basic human rights.

Something else that makes it difficult to wash our hands of the situation, particularly in Africa, is that our ancestors (for those of us of European descent) colonized and exploited most of the African nations to the point of ruin. This makes it difficult to say that it’s happened through the course of nature and that we should just let nature take its course. It’s hard to move past the feeling that we have some responsibility to help right this wrong.
Ghanaian Woman in Front of Cloth
Finally, and perhaps most compelling for those who don’t buy anything I’ve said above, history has shown repeatedly that once the disparity between the haves and the have-nots exceeds a certain threshold, social unrest and ultimately violent uprising results. In the U.S. we were insulated from this violence until the attacks of September 11, which many estimate will be the first of many attacks we will see in our lifetime as this gap continues to widen. As Vinnia Jauhari and Edson Kenji Kondo said in their paper Technology and Poverty – Some Insights from India, “If the entire social fabric decays, then what good are the scientific achievements and material wealth if the very survival of life becomes questionable?”

This begs the question: How can technology, specifically high-tech and the internet, be used to fight poverty?

Destitute Poverty
Poverty can be relative or absolute; relative poverty is in relation to the rest of the economy, be it national or global, while absolute poverty is in relation to the basic human needs. Destitute poverty is at the bottom of both scales.

For destitute poverty, providing food, clean water, shelter, and medical care are the most critical needs. There are many organizations that provide these services to the poor, and they help remedy a dire need in the world. But once these needs are met, the person’s information poverty must be addressed.

It’s been shown that TV helps people in destitute poverty to see what it’s like not to be poor. With the proper training can you imagine what someone in this situation could learn on the internet about farming, birth control, food and water, disease, and their government? How about the advances that could be made in linking citizens with government services, and keeping government officials accountable for their actions. One of the first things that happens during a coup is the seizure of the national media, typically the radio and newspaper, so the new leader can control the flow of information to the people. It would be much more difficult to control the internet.

The amazing part is that the technology is within reach: a company called SpeakEasy has a pilot project in Seattle where they provide broadband, wireless internet access over an area of 10 square miles, and San Francisco is embarking on a free or low cost campaign to blanket the city with wireless internet, a total of 49 square miles. How long until all you need is a laptop and a solar panel to have cheap (or free, if Google has its way) broadband nearly anywhere in the world?

The Lower Class
The lower class are people who are underemployed or employed, but don’t make enough to support their day to day needs. Although not destitute, this population could utilize additional money to be properly nourished, tend to medical needs, receive education, and have a consistent supply of clean water. One possible approach for helping the lower class, who is able to survive day to day but is in dire need of a higher standard of living, would be to take advantage of the global economy through e-commerce.

DrumsBy setting up an online store through eBay or Yahoo!, a Ghanaian drum-maker could dramatically increase his market of potential buyers while increasing his profit margins. This idea, though not using the internet, has been executed with great success in Central America where Westerners have set up co-ops where craftspeople create products and elect one person to handle the business aspects. Modifying the idea for the internet, one would find a local with computer skills (the coordinator) and put him in charge of maintaining the online store. The remaining craftspeople would be notified when they needed to ship an item via an email, phone call, or a knock on their door. A small cut from each item would go to cover overhead: the cost of visits to an internet cafe, plus the coordinator’s wages.

One real-life example is a 12″ Djembe drum that sells for $25 in the local marketplace in Ghana runs $90 on eBay. The additional profit on the sale of one drum would cover the cost of internet access, eBay fees, and a large portion, if not all, of the coordinator’s salary.

The Middle Class
To help the middle class, the population that lives well on an absolute scale but poorly on a relative scale, Ghana needs a way to participate in the global economy.

Ghana’s GDP, as with most African nations, is based heavily on agriculture with minimal contribution from manufacturing or industry. This is the result of the industrial revolution never taking hold within Africa’s borders, attributable to the fact that most countries were colonies well into the industrial age.
Ghana Fishermen
This lack of industry results in a scarcity of non-agricultural jobs and means there is a long, uphill climb ahead before sufficient industry is in place to support technical jobs. This is a process that once initiated will take decades. As a result, opening the doors to the global market of technology outsourcing is a good choice for realizing a change in the near term. Outsourcing is a hot topic these days, but I’m not going to discuss the political implications in this article since I’m speaking purely from the perspective of trying to improve peoples’ standard of living.

The main advantage Ghana has over more developed nations is cheap labor. With an investment in their infrastructure to provide more reliable telephone, power and internet capabilities, outsourcing could begin almost immediately. In fact, there are a handful of outsourcing firms in Ghana that handle tasks like data entry and digital imaging services. Other areas that have been successfully outsourced include software/web development, and call centers; since English is the national language the barriers are small.

Speaking on my area of expertise: starting a software firm would require minimal up-front investment (a few computers, a DSL line and a generator) and would reap substantial financial rewards compared to the cost of doing business (or living) in Ghana. One major advantage is that you would have your pick of the best job candidates because you could pay more than the prevailing wage. You’d have to start with simple work since you’d be training as you went; from what I know there aren’t any skilled programmers in Ghana. But starting with the brightest candidates you could find and building an organization of people who are willing to work hard for their money could be lucrative and rewarding. The global economy is favorable to a country with cheap labor who can work through the obstacles in their way and produce a good quality product.

The revenue from even a few large contracts would be significant boost to the GDP and would improve the standard of living of many people.
Ghana Beach
So What Can You Do?
Option 1: If you feel guilt in your stomach like you’ve had some bad tacos, and want to get rid of that icky feeling as quickly as possible, consider giving money or computer hardware to one of the following charities. They use technology to fight poverty around the world, and could put your donations to good use:

  • Computer Aid International – refurbishes, packs and ships donated Pentium computers for re-use in developing countries around the world.
  • WorldWrite – sends quality refurbished PCs to schools and villages in developing nations.
  • Grameen Foundation USA – a nonprofit organization that uses microfinance and innovative technology to fight global poverty and bring opportunities to the world’s poorest people. With tiny loans, financial services and technology, they help the poor, mostly women, start self-sustaining businesses. They’ve helped nearly 1.1 million families in 20 countries.

Option 2: If you think you might want to become more involved, contact one of the following organizations about volunteering your time:

  • Trade Aid – provides improved educational opportunities, from primary education to vocational, management, financial, and entrepreneurial training.
  • The Benetech Initiative – a deliberately non-profit, high-tech company that develops software and other tools to help solve social problems with sustainable enterprise.
  • Grameen Foundation USA – a nonprofit organization that uses microfinance and innovative technology to fight global poverty and bring opportunities to the world’s poorest people. With tiny loans, financial services and technology, they help the poor, mostly women, start self-sustaining businesses. They’ve helped nearly 1.1 million families in 20 countries.

Option 3: If that feeling in your stomach really is from bad tacos and you’re actually inspired after reading this article, I encourage you to contact one of the organizations above to investigate how your skills could assist their efforts and/or think about how your expertise could fit into one of the scenarios I discussed. And while you’re at it, post a comment or send me an email so I know you’re out there.

There’s an old German proverb that reads:

One does evil enough when one does nothing good.

It’s your move.

Photos by Sherry

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#1 P. Scott Cummins on 10.15.05 at 2:09 am

Thanks for this excellent post – which I have linked here regarding encouraging blogging in Africa. Blogging would be my addition to your list, because it is not only effective but also free – and can be done from any CyberCafe’ – but we do need to encourage Blogger (and others) to develop less graphic intensive, low bandwidth products for use in the twisted-pair dial-up internet of the developing world. Give some thought to that, and consider adding your voice to the call for these products. All the best, Scott Cummins Seattle

#2 Adnan Masood on 11.16.05 at 1:45 pm

An article I just read on CNN, interesting prospect. Tackling poverty with technology