In the near future when I drive up to a village in Africa, although the roads may be bumpy and dusty, I will see a woman using a tablet PC powered by the latest renewable energy source and connected to the internet giving her information on sustainable and locally proven farming techniques and providing immediate access to market prices for her products. The same tablet will be used by her children to download the latest curricula and other educational content to help them with their homework. This is a vision of Technology and Development that Dr. Raj Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) painted last week during an inspiring talk in Seattle.
Organized by Global Washington, the theme of the panel discussion was Technology’s Impact on Global Development. Attended by over 400 people at St. Mark’s Cathedral – a wonderful venue in the Capital Hill neighborhood – panelists included Congressmen Jim McDermott, Congressmen Adam Smith, Professor Prema Arasu from Washington State University, Dr. Chris Elias with PATH, and myself. Moderated by Sylvia Matthews Burwell from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a recurring theme was how do we continue to support global development activities in the current economic climate?
The panelists shared thoughts on the importance of global aid and development and posited that technology does have a role to play to drive effective adoption and spur new innovations. There was broad agreement that we must find new ways of working on the development of innovative models to reach the poor as we continue to figure out the best way to achieve the vision that Dr. Shah so vividly painted. Clearly we all also understood that technology is not a panacea, noting that while a woman in the most remote village may have a cell phone to make a call, if there is no one at the other end to take the call and provide the needed services, the phone becomes useless. This was the point Dr. Elias made to highlight the importance of effective delivery systems combined with content, services and other infrastructure that are local in nature and support local development.
We at Microsoft believe in the power of technology to drive social innovation and change and we have seen this demonstrated in many ways around the world. However we also recognize that unless we have local solutions to local problems no amount of technology will truly benefit the poor. Therefore we work in partnership with effective local organizations, global NGOs and development agencies such as USAID to ensure we have the right partnership model to drive local innovation with the power to scale outside of the immediate local context.
As much as we should be cautious of technology playing too dominant a role in solutions we also should not be afraid of technology and must put processes in place that help drive local innovation. To bring about meaningful and long lasting change that lifts people out of poverty and addresses the fundamental factors that lead new generations into poverty, we have to rethink our approach to go beyond investing in transactional efforts to those that can become transformational. This will mean taking risks and learning from failures and I personally applaud the new approaches proposed by USAID to truly assess the impact of their programs and share successes as well as failures. As Congressmen Jim McDermott reminded us in his concluding remarks; it is easy to see a glass half empty – but when you see the glass half full, you focus on the potential to fill up that glass. Right now we must collectively invest in realizing this potential and appropriate recognize the positive impact of technology in that effort.