Saturday, February 07, 2009

Poverty and Technology

Responding to an enquiry regarding technologies that will address the issues of global justice and poverty:

I want to first say that while these technologies can play a role, the primary resolution to the issues of global justice and poverty are social and political, not technological. If we are serious about reducing and eliminating injustice and poverty, we will turn our attention first to those measures that perpetuate injustice and poverty: trade imbalances and trade policies, the IMF and global debt, policies that prohibit the establishment of social services and relief (eg., World Bank policies that direct nations to reduce spending on social services), the arms trade, exploitation of resources, patent (especially food and medical patents) and copyright, and the like. Technology will solve none of these problems, and yet, these problems are the primary causes of poverty and injustice worldwide.

That said, the primary role technology will play is to increase capacity. We see this especially in nations such as India, where technology has enabled the population to contribute to the world economy as producers of knowledge, information and services. Communication technologies help previously isolated regions - such as my own own province in Canada - to offer services such as call centres and help services. We in new Brunswick, like the people of India, have also used these ICTs to create new products and services - for example, e-learning applications.

ICTs are an equalizer. They effectively share the means of production with a wider population, lowering the barrier to entry, and enabling people to educate themselves and create, with minimal investment, a productive capacity. There remain challenges to less developed economies - ICTs have to exist, for example, and connectivity (which continues to be outrageously expensive in places like Africa) needs to be in place. But once installed, the infrastructure almost immediately begins to produce knowledge and wealth.

But again - let me stress - these technologies are not replacements for global social and economic policies that promote justice and equity. There is an analogy in the field of education. Because an education is so important to a person's material well-being, it has been suggested that offering education to poor people will alleviate their poverty. But this is not the case; education is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. People in poverty require a wide range of supports, including health and social services, transportation assistance, daycare and children's support, mentoring and counseling, housing and clothing, and education. But it has become far too common to see proposed educational approaches to end poverty instead of the wider range of measures actually required. This is unfortunate, for it not only discredits education, it perpetuates the condition the programs are (allegedly) intended to solve.

Similarly with technology. Simply sending technology to less developed nations will not relieve those of us in the wealthier worlf the responsibility of adopting fairer and trade and economic policies. Technology does not get us off the hook: we still have to address poverty and social justice.