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.


  1. Would put at the head of that list of things which perpetuate global justice and poverty: (non) democratic and (non) electoral structures which favour the status quo and elites.

    Have worked long and hard on poverty issues with other women in poverty. What we all recognized quickly was that until the voices of those pushed to the margins are accorded the same respect as the voices of people in power, nothing fundamental will change.

  2. Good post. And jobs have to be well paying or they just keep people "working poor."

  3. I like what you wrote a lot, but it sort of begs for a quibble on the definition of technology. I think you mean tools more than technology.

    It is odd how revolutionary it seems to speak about justice--or how it is so for large numbers of listeners to hear or read such discussions. Quite odd.

    I tend to think people play a sort of pollyanneish game with this-- acting as if it is somehow retro-60s, kooky or inappropriate to bring up justice in the terms you do. The only word I can come to when thinking about is...Odd...odd that it isn't more widely covered and discussed. It seems absurd like a topic suitable only to graduate school or something.

    Who is the education and justice blogger at the fore?

  4. I share your views on the issues and solutions. I think some of the issues could more effectively solved by using a collaborative approach amongst nations, society and communities. Education is one part of the solution, but social welfare, equity, economy and political infrastrure (democracy) are far more important in stabilising the country and supporting any growth and development. It takes a year to grow crops, tens of years to grow people, and many tens of years to grow the economy, and reduce and eliminate poverty. China is a good example too in illustrating the importance of having a will towards the "4 modernisation" since 1979. Technology and education is now moving forward hand in hand in China and India, though there are still roadblocks in countries like Africa due to the lack of infrastructure and weak connections. It also requires collaboration amongst World Nations to develop common visions (like the Climate Change Agreement) and World Bank to relieve those countries in their debts...
    Stephen, it's wonderful to share this important theme on poverty and technolgoy

  5. "But once installed, the infrastructure almost immediately begins to produce knowledge and wealth."

    Does anyone know of any good quantitative studies regarding this, regarding what sort of bang for your buck you get with, say, investments in internet infrastructure?

    "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."

    Even though this is meant as a partial list, I thing "access to credit at a reasonable rate" is worth highlighting.

    Thanks for this insightful post on such an important issue! Tragically, these issues will only be harder to address here in the states as our economy sinks and we become even more self-obsessed.

  6. Great post and comments. Apologies but not entirely coherent about what I want to say - something around use of technologies in the developed world and how media can be used to influence decision making (and possibly financial markets) Yeah I'm not saying anything new, especially to people like yourself, but I've recently been spending some time looking at reporting and discussion of financial issues and just the volume and increasingly tools to help visualize the volume. They can help connect people and ideas (duh!), but also any vipers with overly selfish and greedy motives lurking out there will find their nests getting smaller and more easily exposed than have been previously. So I guess I'm really saying what you've already said about people educating themselves and the role of technology in that.

    And the bit around how we are able to access, choose and use technologies - what financial and political decisions have already been made regarding the type and deployment of technologies that people use in order to discuss and act on these issues in the developed world; and when we do use these technologies to discuss and act on issues, how well we can communicate using our chosen technologies, what messages are we intentionally / unintentionally passing onto others, how technologies are used by media / politicians / civil government / businesses to capture and track what we are doing and potentially influence their decision making - as you said technology does not get us off the hook.

  7. hi all,

    A great post and adding to some papers and articles I have been reading lately (two references below).

    Social justice should be put on top of the global agenda. For this I think not the Worldbank should push this point on the agenda, but non-economical people. The Worldbank is too intertwined with profit capital. And because capital rules the world, chances are slim that those institutions will want to change towards a more just world.
    I also am a believer in sustainable technology and knowledge exchange produced at local level and shared internationally though.

    references that I found interesting on this point:

    Rumble, G. (2007). Social justice, economics and distance education. Open Learning, 22(2), 167-176.

    Cooper, T. (2007). Response to Greville Rumble. Open Learning, 22(2), 177-182.

  8. "[W]hile these technologies can play a role, the primary resolution to the issues of global justice and poverty are social and political, not technological." Sure. But social and political solutions include people getting involved. And most people don't like to get involved with poverty. It's much easier to come up with some kind of technological "solution" to poverty than actually come up with something more "human". Thanks for nice article.

  9. Ironically, the Rumble reference is available to me only if I pay $30 plus fees and taxes for the privilege.

    The Cooper response appears simply to be unavailable online.

    I tire of academics who profess some sort of ethic of openness and sharing while at the same time blindly and unthinkingly contributing to its exact opposite.


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