“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This claim, made by acclaimed British science fiction write, Arthur C. Clarke aptly encapsulates the potential benefits that technological advancements bring about and points to an optimistic picture of the endless possibilities of technology in solving many of the world’s problems. One of the more pressing issues that has taken a toll on governments and the public across the globe is that of global poverty. The World Bank estimates that 1.37 billion people live on less than USD1.25 a day, and 2.56 billion live on less than USD2 a day. With the proliferation of technology and its ability to provide greater access to remote areas, cheaper machine, food production, microfinancing and education, technology has seemingly lifted many out of poverty. Yet, it is not without problems such as being too technical to be handled as well as causing wage depression, and even unemployment. It may also be limited by extenuating circumstances, attributed to poor governance and lack of education, making technology a less effective solution to the problem of global poverty. Given the complexity of global poverty, it would be wise to consider a multi-pronged approach in tackling the problem, instead of solely relying on technology to perform its ‘magic’ as described by Arthur C. Clarke.
While people in developed economies tend to have access to shelter, food, and education, the same cannot be said of their counterparts living in developing nations. The emergence of technology like genetically modified crops and information technology have reconstructed the way people in developing countries can step out of their poverty cycle and experience a new lease of life. Food security within impoverished communities has been established with the introduction of the Green Revolution, which refers to the series of research, development and technology transfer initiatives that increased agricultural production around the world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s. This movements saw the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernisation of management techniques, distribution of hybridized leads and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farmers. The highly significant development of new ‘high-yielding’ wheat cultivated was made possible by advances in molecular genetics. These cultivates, together with other agricultural technologies were introduced to man developing countries including Mexico and India, where nearly a quarter of the population was suffering from malnourishment as a result of poverty and rampant food shortage. The crops distributed to them had undergone DNA modification and were able to resist pests and diseases, and to grow at a faster rate, eventually increases the yield, helping to alleviate the problem of global poverty. Nevertheless, this cutting-edge technology has also received its fair share of criticism as it relies on high-cost machines to increase work efficiency, and this is counter-productive in a sense that, compared to manual labour, these machinery are favoured by companies, and the increased competition is driving the less productive, poor farmers out of the agricultural industry. Even if they were to be employed, it is highly unlikely that they would possess the knowledge or have the experience to operate them. Such technological advancements may also breed avarice among the wealthy, as they choose to patent the crops, rendering the poor helpless when they are unable to pay exorbitant prices for the seeds. As such, the poor would find themselves lagging being in terms of development and would not be able to improve their living standards. Hence, it is evident that while technology has the potential to aid the poor by increasing access to basic necessities, it is unfortunately hampered by several other factors, preventing its effects to be maximised.
Apart from ameliorating the dire effects of the hunger problem, technology, in the form of new media has contributed significantly to combating poverty. The recent advent of the Internet has changed the world dramatically. It functions as a platform for people to reach out and connect with others through a variety of media; it removes physical and geographical barriers. This has made it possible to bring together people from various cultures, regardless of where in the world they may be. The colossal influence that the internet and social media platforms has over the world has been tapped on to support for the needy, be it through donations, volunteer or direct provision of supplies. For example, the Singapore Red Cross has its own website and Facebook page which allows netizens to consistently keep tabs on the humanitarian programmes currently and make online donations or to rally charity campaigns. Other non-governmental organisations also make use of Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to increase global awareness on the issue of global poverty and they garner support. There is no doubt that by employing such forms of media platforms, there have been vast improvements in the level of aid provided to the poor, as exemplified in the case of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, where social media platforms were instrumental in engaging various humanitarian organizations in delivering supplies to the nations and providing the funds for restoration projects. The ‘One Laptop per Child’ campaign has also attempted to integrate technology and education, to emphasize people from poorer communities to take greater ownership of their lives by giving them opportunities to learn through a small computer called the ‘XO laptop’. This durable, low-cost gadget is wireless and has a powerful screen that can be read in direct sunlight, making it portable for children who go to school outdoors and for those who live in remote region. Although the plan to promote self-empowered education was promising, on hindsight, there were many doubts that arose regarding the development of the initiative in rural areas. For example, in Peru, over 800,000 low-cost laptops were distributed to children, but the direct benefits were not felt due to a myriad of problems, from ill-prepared rural teachers who were unable to fathom, much less teach, with the machines; software bugs that were not fixed affecting the learning; to the lack of electricity in the rural areas and schools to power the laptops. These concerns mar the alluring prospect that technology could potentially eliminate the problem of poverty, and highlight the importance of addressing the other issues that exist on the fringe of the main issue of poverty, such as providing basic infrastructure reassessing the government.
As aforementioned, the quality of the government has to be assessed before tackling the problem of poverty, as the reality is that the existence of corruption within most bureaucracies of developing countries makes the elimination of poverty an intimidating task. A country led by inept leaders generally suffers from greater instability and has poorly developed infrastructure. Under their governance, there is mismanagement of resources, resulting in poor and inadequate public services such as healthcare and education, which are vital aspects for a country’s development. In addition, even if technology were to assist in providing aid in times of need via social media platforms and the Internet, the donations and resources channelled from developed countries to the developing countries might not directly help the poor who need them the most. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a significant proportion of food, medical, and monetary aid failed to reach the victims of the disaster as the Indonesian military looted the essential supplies to sell them in the black market at inflated prices, while the government pocketed the money. The ineffectiveness of technology in eradicating poverty is further reiterated here, what aid offered to poorer countries can be siphoned by the leaders to improve their wealth and status. Therefore, apart from technology, a call for action is certainly required in this instance, to exterminate corruption and put in place proper policies to ensure that aid is rendered to the poor, lest the impoverished be mired further in poverty.
Next, international alliance and collective will play a major role in improving the current state of poverty. Various governmental and non-governmental organisations at national and community levels can work in tandem to tackle some of the major issues faced by the poor, such as healthcare concerns, and the lack of basic education, as these will eventually go a long way in assisting them to secure jobs, equipped with skills and also in the pink of health. Furthermore, by providing the poor with basic necessities, they would be able to utilize technology appropriately and to its fullest capabilities. UNICEF has been building national capacities for primarily healthcare. Around 270 million children, just over 14% of all children in developing countries have no access to healthcare services. As such, a global leader in vaccine supply, UNICEF purchases and helps distribute vaccines to over 40% of children in developing countries. It has also provided oral rehydration salts for 10 cents per packet to children suffering from dehydration. This two-pronged approach in engaging government aid families is still adopted by UNICEF today, reducing child mortality for those under 5, by almost 50% to date. Initiates to promote education have also been taken as they are key signifiers of positive economic development. The MacArthur Foundation, the Mastercard Foundation and the Human Dignity Foundation are collaborating through partnership in strengthening Innovative Practice in secondary education, issuing a second call for proposals to support lifelong learning opportunities and life skills for underserved youth between the ages of 12 and 19 in East Africa, Nigeria, and India. It is an indisputable fact that in the long run, education would serve well in providing people with better economic opportunities, higher agricultural productivity and cultural thinking skills to help them revenge their current plight and escape the straitjacket of poverty. Clearly, such measures would stand poverty-stricken people in good stead and enhance their quality of life, making it far more effective solution to the problem of global poverty.
With all of the above in mind, it must be noted that ever since its use to prominence in the early 20thcentury, technology has been a key aspect in our day-to-day lives, strengthening communications, and bringing work productivity to levels unparalleled in the last century. While technological developments have indeed contributed to mitigating poverty to some extent, the presence of other factors such as corrupt governments and lack of basic education and infrastructure impedes its progress in making a profound difference in the lives of the poor. As such, technology alone cannot be the only solution to the problem of global poverty, because if the root causes of poverty are not addressed, technology can and will only play second fiddle to the battle of poverty. What the poor require is not the complete removal of technology from their lives, nor is it the bombardment of technology in their society. They need to be exposed to technology at a gradual pace, along with other complementary external aid and reform actions, such as increased education and communication in the government. Essentially, a more calibrated approach towards tackling the problem would produce a desired outcome in the decades to come.