Tag Archive: poverty

A Game Plan For Technology Companies To Actually Help Save The World

Smartphones, computers and social media platforms have become indispensable parts of modern life, but the technology companies that make them and write their software are under siege. In any given week, Facebook or Google or Amazon does something to erode public trust in them. Now could be a moment for the industry to make good on Bill Gates’s promise of technology to do good, by “unlocking the innate compassion we have for our fellow human beings” and improving the world – or Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of building a “new social infrastructure to create the world we want for generations to come.”

Around the globe, countries and societies are falling behind on reducing social inequalities and meeting goals for economic development and environmental sustainability. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is issuing increasingly dire warnings about the effects climate change will have on human life on Earth – the beginnings of which are already unfolding.

I lead a major research initiative called The Digital Planet at the Fletcher School at Tufts where we study how technology is changing lives and livelihoods around the world. Here is an outline of how technology giants or nimble startups could help make Gates’s and Zuckerberg’s promises a reality.

Identify a big hairy problem

There is a long list of global problems to combat, including hunger, drought, poverty, bad health, polluted water and poor sanitation. One that’s connected to all the others is the recent bombshell news that climate change is accelerating: Over the next 20 years, Earth’s atmosphere will reach average temperatures as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. Consequently, extreme weather and natural disasters, food shortages, inundated coastlines and the near-elimination of coral reefs will likely happen even sooner than previously anticipated.

The scope of climate change gives companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon excellent opportunities to find specific approaches that would have meaningful effects.

Trace the root causes

There are, of course, many elements driving climate change. Consider the agriculture sector, which produces one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Farms emit the largest share and could benefit from a range of technologies, such as data analytics and artificial intelligence. As a bonus, innovating in agriculture could help feed more people.

Identify how technology can make a big difference

Technological tools could help farmers collect and use data to manage their crops more precisely in ways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions – such as using less fertilizer and plowing and planting fields more efficiently. Specifically, better data on soil and plant health could help farmers know where they need to increase or decrease irrigation or pesticide and fertilizer use. These practices save farmers money and increase farms’ productivity, generating more food with less waste.

Recognize how you can make money from it

If companies are to get involved, there needs to be an opportunity to earn money – and the more, the better.

One estimate suggests that making changes in farming and food practices that enhance productivity, promote sustainable methods and reduce waste could produce commercial opportunities and new savings worth US$2.3 trillion overall worldwide annually.

Our research team, in work that is ongoing, has estimated that of that $2.3 trillion a year, $250 billion could come from the application of artificial intelligence and other analytics for precision farming alone – $195 billion of which would be in the developing world, with $45.6 billion in South Asia and $13.4 billion in East Africa. Other estimates for the effects of AI and analytics are less specific, but still within the same range – between $164 billion and $486 billion annually. There is indeed money to be made by technology companies interested in developing climate-friendly, productivity-improving interventions in agriculture.

Innovate to overcome the many barriers to change

Before the commercial value can be unlocked, however, there are many barriers to consider. Many rural areas, even in the developed world, don’t have affordable high-speed internet connections and, particularly in the developing world, the farming community is not as technology savvy as other professions. Further, farming practices have been handed down through generations and the idea of using data to make modifications to such long-held beliefs and methods can be countercultural.

In addition, there are many practical realities: 83 percent of the world’s cultivated land is fed only by rain, with no irrigation systems to make use of better data. Beyond that, in most parts of the world, seeds and fertilizer are not high-quality, lowering crop efficiency. Further, a lot of farms’ output is wasted because of lack of refrigeration and slow transportation from fields to consumers.

With all those obstacles, it is understandable that investments in data-driven agriculture dropped 39 percent from 2015 to 2016.

There are groups still working, though. FarmBeats is a Microsoft project that combines low-cost sensors in the ground with drones that both create aerial maps and act as wireless data relay points. Nigeria’s Zenvus and India’s Aibono analyze soil data. Kenya’s FarmDrive develops credit scores for people without formal bank accounts or standard borrowing histories by using alternative data, like mobile phone and social media activity, together with local agricultural and economic information. Ghana’s Farmerline tells farmers about weather forecasts, market information and financial tips.

These are creative efforts to solve deep and complex problems, but clearly there is room for large, well-resourced technology companies to step in, make a difference with big ideas, deep pockets and global support.

Invest in partnerships

Technology entrepreneurs will need to develop business models and organizational structures that are better at collaborating with local agricultural communities and businesses, to navigate personal and political relationships as well as regulations and government programs. Technology will not, on its own, be some sort of silver bullet that will unlock prosperity.

Changing technology companies into agents for widespread global good will not be easy – and it can be done in areas beyond agricultural innovation, too.

There has been no shortage of talk about these ideas: 50 CEOs met with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss socially positive technologies; World Economic Forum events around the world discuss societal benefits of a Fourth Industrial Revolution; and some companies, such as Ericsson and SAP, are already committed to fulfilling United Nations goals for global sustainability.

We still have a long way to go. There is still a chance for technology companies to move fast and fix things by truly helping save the world – but sea levels are rising, so the time is now.The Conversation

Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Basic income for all could lift millions out of poverty – and change how we think about inequality

The idea of a basic income for every person has been popping up regularly in recent years.

Economists, think tanks, activists and politicians from different stripes have toyed with the idea of governments giving every citizen or resident a minimum income off which to live. This cash transfer could either replace or supplement existing welfare payments.

Pilot projects and feasibility studies have been run or are under way in the Netherlands, India, Canada, Finland, France and elsewhere.

Even in the U.S., the idea finds support. Alaska, for example, already divides its oil revenues among its residents.

Most arguments in favor or against basic income have focused on its feasibility, simplicity, promotion of personal independence or effectiveness at reaching those who fall through the cracks of the welfare state.

However, the most important advantage of basic income may not be in its practical application but rather in how it could change the way we think and talk about poverty and inequality.

Benefits of a basic income

Giving every resident an unconditional grant, regardless of whether you are a billionaire or destitute, is a significant departure from our existing welfare state. The latter offers only limited and conditional support when working is not an option.

Support for a basic income comes from very disparate political and ideological circles.

Some libertarians like basic income because it promises a leaner state without a large bureaucracy checking people’s eligibility and policing their behavior. Others see it as enabling entrepreneurialism – the poor helping themselves.

On the left, many see basic income as an opportunity to plug numerous holes in the social safety net or even to free people from “wage slavery.” For feminists, basic income is a successor to the old demand for wages for housework.

Pilot projects suggest that simply giving money to the poor could successfully tackle poverty. In Namibia, poverty, crime and unemployment went down, as school attendance went up. In India, basic income recipients were more likely to start small businesses.

Jobs are no longer sole answer to poverty

When discussing inequality, we usually focus on employment and production. Yet, much of the world’s population has no realistic prospects of employment, and we already produce more than what is sustainable.

Basic income, however, separates survival from employment or production.

Our current answers to poverty and inequality stem from Fordism, the New Deal and Social Democracy. They center on wage labor: get more people into jobs, protect them in the workplace, pay better wages and use taxes on wages to fund a limited system of social security and welfare.

It would seem that to get people out of poverty, you have to get them into jobs. Politicians across the spectrum agree. Is there a politician who does not promise more jobs?

In my own research on labor in Africa, however, I have found that wage labor is only a small part of a larger picture.

In most of the Global South, whole generations are growing up without realistic prospects for employment. We cannot develop the world solely by getting people into jobs, encouraging them to start small businesses or teaching them how to farm (as if they didn’t already know). The painful reality is that most people’s labor is no longer needed by increasingly efficient global chains of production.

In economic speak, a large portion of the world’s population is surplus to the needs of capital. They have no land, no resources and no one to whom they can sell their labor.

South Africa and jobless growth

Thus, to believe that jobs or economic growth is going to address this crisis of global poverty seems naive.

The example of South Africa is telling. In a comparatively rich country where youth unemployment runs at more than 60 percent, pensions, childcare and disability grants are for many households the most important source of income. Yet many slip through the cracks of this limited welfare state.

As a healthy adult male, you stand little chance of either receiving a government benefit or finding decent employment, as economic growth has been largely jobless. For an adult without children, disability is the only access to these crucial grants.

In the early 2000s, a movement emerged in support of a very modest Basic Income Grant (BIG) of 100 rand (less than US$12 in 2002) per month. Significantly, this campaign received the support of the government-appointed Taylor Committee. Its report concluded that a BIG was likely fiscally sustainable and would lift as many as six million people out of poverty. It argued that this result could not be achieved by expanding existing welfare programs. However, the proposal was dismissed by the ANC, which continued to see employment as the only solution to poverty and inequality.

Not surprisingly, basic income campaigns have been prominent in countries with high socioeconomic inequality, like South Africa. These countries have both significant resources and a need for redistribution. In neighboring Namibia, another country with extreme inequality, a similar campaign has received growing support.

Furthermore, as the Club of Rome already realized in 1972, the productivist bias of our usual answers to inequality – grow more, produce more and grow the economy so that people can consume more – is ultimately unsustainable. Surely, in a world already characterized by overproduction and overconsumption, producing and consuming more cannot be the answer. Yet, these seem to be the answers with which we are stuck: grow, grow, grow.

Give a man a fish

To move beyond these defunct politics, we may need to think about distribution rather than production, a point powerfully argued by anthropologist James Ferguson. For Ferguson, giving a man a fish might be more useful than teaching him to fish.

The problem of global inequality is not that we do not produce enough to provide for the world’s population. It is about the distribution of resources. This is why the idea of a basic income is so important: it discards the assumption that in order to get the income you need to survive, you should be employed or at least engaged in productive labor. Assumptions of this kind are untenable when for so many there are no realistic prospects for employment.

This does not mean that basic income is a panacea. There are too many potential problems to list here. Yet, to give just a few examples: those countries whose populations would need it most might be least able to afford such schemes. And, basic income grants that are small enough to be politically acceptable may actually further impoverish the poorest if basic income replaces other grants.

Moreover, if people get money merely because they are citizens or residents of a country – shareholders in the wealth of that country – these claims become very susceptible to nationalist and xenophobic exclusion. Indeed, during recurrent episodes of xenophobic violence in South Africa, many explained their dislike of foreigners by accusing them of receiving welfare grants and public housing that should be going to South Africans.

Despite these problems, it is important to start experimenting with alternatives and to start thinking about distribution rather than production. After all, the welfare system that we have now also resulted from longstanding debates, experiments that were once considered unrealistic, ad hoc improvements and partial victories.

The Conversation

Ralph Callebert, Adjunct Faculty of History, Virginia Tech

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.