Technology for the Poor

July 14, 2005

A technology conference yesterday in England was host to a speaker Iqbal Quadir, who has sold about 100,000 cell phones to poor folks in Bangladesh. These are people who otherwise would have no digital communications, and Quadir feels that their new phones are empowering them more than the development strategies of the last 60 years.

The approach is eloquently summed up on Ethan Zuckerman's blog as a bottom-up approach to economic development. Here's a bit from his recent post:

Iqbal points to a top-down approach favored by the World Bank and others and notes that it puts power into the hands of authority, not into the hands of people. The US didn't develop this way - technological empowerment from below led to success in developed nations. Technology can amplify voices, make it possible for individuals to have a voice that gets heard by central authorities.

I love it.

But I always find it disturbing that his bottom line is productivity — the extent to which their communication means that they are participating in the market.

I write this in spite of,the obvious fact that the real goal of progressive ICT is the empowerment of people, ie, the elimination of poverty. So there is always an element of market-think undergirding the need for communication.

But by understanding people's lives in terms of an economic equation, there's some unquantifiable (romantic, perhaps) aspect of communications-based development that is lost. Because, after all, if we were all well fed and clothed, we'd still be suffering without the ability to communicate.