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Editor’s Note: Let’s make sure tech doesn’t leave the poorest behind

Breakthrough or bust? Tech’s two-edged sword cuts both ways

By Gavin Allen,Executive Editor-in-Chief

The statistics are as shaming as they are grim.

Seven hundred million people globally live in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than US$2.15 a day. More than half live in sub-Saharan Africa and children are twice as likely as adults to be victims. 

By 2030, according to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 1, we’ll have stamped out extreme poverty. In reality, says The World Bank, progress has stalled badly and about 600 million will still be caught in the extreme poverty trap.

Little wonder that guests for this edition of Transform, which looks at the impact of digital technology in tackling global poverty and inequity, are united in their skepticism of SDG1’s chances of meeting its own deadline. 

But ICT at least offers hope, they say… if it’s delivered universally.

“Advanced digital technologies will play a breakthrough role in raising productivity in every sector of the economy, and hence can be key in accelerating the end of poverty,” claims the celebrated economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs.

But he adds a note of caution: “If the digital divide widens, ICT can also exacerbate inequalities and leave the weaker, poorer, less educated parts of society even further behind.”

That double-edged sword is also highlighted by Otaviano Canuto, a former vice-president of The World Bank and deputy finance minister in Brazil. ICT, he says, has the potential to increase productivity, but – without the right regulatory framework – the potential to misinform and exclude, too.

Acting in harmony will be key: “A major function of the World Bank is to play a hummingbird role. Hummingbirds pollinate flowers, and these multilateral institutions can also pollinate with knowledge,” he says. 

For the CEO of the Metaverse Institute, Christina Yan Zhang, the stumbling block is as much about adoption as universality: if people lack the skills to understand the tech, then they can’t reap its benefits. 

“Everything needs to be more personalized, regionalized, to cater to the needs of different countries and different industries,” she says. “Rather than trying to build everything from scratch, it all needs to be incorporated properly.”

Also in this edition:

  • Huawei’s rotating chairman highlights the role of private companies, global cooperation and pooled experience in “making the whole greater than the sum of its parts” and accelerating progress.
  • UNESCO’s chair in science and education for African food systems reveals why poor people experience more shocks and are less able to protect themselves from them.
  • An Indian telecoms entrepreneur points to the limitations of government intervention and the role that individuals must play in helping themselves.
  • A professor and data economist flags the pivotal importance of “informational capabilities” in making people, not tech, the primary focus of policies.   
  • And the founder of the Digital Poverty Alliance explains why connecting the 3 billion unconnected makes economic as well as moral sense: “The more you can enable customers to engage with you, the better your business will be.”

Hummingbirds, swords, shocks and skills: the challenges in solving global poverty are plenty. But the prize is a great one – not just for the sake of the poorest in the world, but in the long-term interests of all of us.

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