Is technology helping the poor?

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Is technology helping the poor?

Technology is political. Dinyar Godrej wants a fairer and more social technology.


Charge your phones here: this man earns money in Katsina City in Nigeria. Many people buy small solar units to generate the power. © Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

In 2002, a group of Indian farmers arrived in Britain. They protested about aid for farming projects. They didn’t ask for more aid. They wanted the government to take back up to $92 million of aid.

This was because businesses designed the aid and they wanted only exports and corporate agriculture.

PV Satheesh was the activist leader of the group: ‘We only want aid if it makes the lives of the people it is for better. If it doesn’t, we prefer not to have it.’

It was a small protest against corporate agribusinesses which want farmers to depend on them.

This idea of agriculture is corporate and anti-social. For too long it has been seen as a technological fix. But it shows that the technology is political. It helps the few powerful people but not the poor.

Today 500 million family farms produce 80 per cent of the world’s food. This is on 70 to 80 per cent of agricultural land. Only one per cent of the family farms are bigger than 50 hectares. 72 per cent are on farms smaller than a hectare. Western agriculture with its big ideas would ruin the small farmers.

Satheesh has been following a different kind of agricultural technology. He started the Deccan Development Society and he has been working with mainly women farmers to help local biodiversity, to help sharing seeds and use of traditional knowledge such as biofertilization, and to help them grow crops that will be better with climate change, and to help them to take control of the market.

Over the past century, 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of crops has been lost as farmers have changed to a small group of crops which grow more. Satheesh works with farmers who are the real leaders.

The right way

Our basic needs - food, water, energy, and health usually depend on technology. But a report by the sustainable technology charity Practical Action says that the rich world enjoys more than its fair share of technology. And when the poor do not have technology, that is why they are poor. There is technology, but it is unfair that only certain groups have it. And as Amber Meikle, who wrote the Practical Action report, says: ‘New technology usually doesn’t affect the lives of poor people.’

The technology the poor need most is often things like water hand-pumps that don’t need electricity. Or clean cook stoves to help the 2.9 billion people still cooking over open fires. This would stop the four million deaths every year from indoor air pollution. Or the brick toilets built in Nepal by the architect Paul Pholeros of Healthabitat. The brick toilets were strong enough for last year’s earthquake. They collect rainwater for hand-washing. They make it easier to use human waste for biogas. And they bring communities together to build them. The Bangladeshi government is using them, too.

Those who give aid want new ideas when people really need old technology. Meikle remembers the idea of a football that people needed to kick around for three hours for energy for a lightbulb. It sounds fun but try kicking a football for three hours every day!

There is another kind of problem. The world’s first 3D lab for printing prosthetics is in South Sudan, a country where just five per cent of people have electricity.

The future of work

Good technology saves labour but it should also make new jobs not lose jobs. For years the rich West has had the idea that we can end work and have more free time. Well, the end of work is coming for many poorer people!

The UNDP’s Human Development Report for 2015 says that now workers need special skills and the right education. But now is the worst time for workers with only ordinary skills, because computers, robots, and digital technology have them.


Getting clean water with the community hand pump in, Mondulkiri province, Cambodia. Sean Sprague/Alamy Stock Photo

Workers have been getting a smaller share of corporate income over the last 15 years and now there are 200,000 more industrial robots. It is possible the US will lose 47 per cent of its jobs because of the use of computers.

So, we were angry about the terrible working conditions for Foxconn workers in China, who helped Apple and Nokia make money. But what will we think when robots do the work?

Digital waste

Digital technologies are some of the most environmentally unsustainable in the world. Digital waste increases by a third every two years. We produce 75 million tons of digital waste – or 10 kilograms per person. But the small number of rich people throws it away.

And we throw away most of it illegally in the Majority World – one in three containers from the EU contains illegal waste. The mines where they find the metals and minerals to produce the latest technology are also mainly in the Majority World. Deaths, child labour, the scarcity of the materials, the environmental harm do not stop the production of the newest technology. In fact, no consumer really needs or uses it.

Companies design a lot of this technology so we throw it away as soon as there is a problem. They do not design it so we can repair it. Smartphones are glued together in ways that ruin them when they are opened. Their batteries are also glued in. Matthias Huiskens works for iFixit, a company that sells repair parts, but also has free internet guides to repair most things. He says we do not look after the materials in the products that we use.

And there are always different ways of doing things – for example, Fairphone has a smartphone which lasts a long time and is easy to repair, and Fairphone thinks ethically about materials and production.


The Fairphone is too expensive for people in the Majority World but there is success with mobile phones in the poorest places in the world.

People who do not have electricity in their homes have mobiles. Of course, most of these are not smartphones and only 40 per cent of the world’s people are online, and only a third of this group has broadband. Rich countries have 80 per cent of internet domain names registered in 2013. Africa has less than one per cent.


Activists from ONGAWA, Engineering for Human Development in front of Spain’s foreign ministry in Madrid, 2014. The placard says: ‘2.5 billion people do not have sanitation’. Juan Medina/Reuters

Information technology can help in many ways. Texting is used successfully for many things from health promotion (alerts for diabetics in Chile) to independent monitoring of elections, starting with the 2007 Sierra Leone elections. Farmers and fishers are using it in many parts of the world to check prices at local markets.

Mobile money accounts have reached people that the banks do not reach – especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Forty per cent of adults in East Africa pay bills using their mobiles.

Telemedicine helps in many African countries where distances are great and it is difficult to see a doctor or go to a hospital. Today there are apps that help check pregnant mothers and eye diseases. But there must be people to give special help to mothers and to people with eye diseases.

Too expensive

Even healthcare for all is still a dream – many poor countries cut public services during the bad times that began in the 1980s. Private healthcare is always something for the rich. Under the IMF and the World Bank, private healthcare was encouraged and people with the greatest needs paid for it.

So single treatments are very attractive with technology. People see vaccines as the most useful. Vaccinate many people against some of the worst diseases and you save money. Food, clean water, sanitation, and healthcare are not so easy.

But the cost of vaccines that the UN recommends for all children has risen 68 times since 2015. Nearly half of this rise is due to the cost of the pneumonia vaccine sold by the big drug companies Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). They developed this vaccine as there were promises to buy enough for the companies to make a profit. Pfizer and GSK have already made $28 billion.

But because of the high prices 75 per cent of the world’s children are not protected against pneumonia, the biggest cause of childhood death. Nearly a million children die from pneumonia each year – one child every 35 seconds.

Today the lowest price for this vaccine is $10 for the very poorest countries. Bill and Melinda Gates helped to agree the price. Bill Gates likes patents. He made his money because of them and he will not want compulsory licensing of this vaccine. Instead, he asks the drug companies to help the poor. An Indian producer is developing a vaccine for $6, but it will not be ready until 2019 at the earliest. The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders is asking for the price to be $5.

So a very important medicine stays in private hands and it is not there for everyone.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).