Poverty: Is there an app for that?

by Tate Watkins. Tate is a research associate at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Last week the World Bank issued a announced an upcoming event called Random Hacks of Kindness. Tech developers will gather at locations around the world to try to “create open solutions that can save lives and alleviate suffering.” Random Hacks of Kindness began in 2009 as a partnership between the World Bank, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and NASA. Its goal is to “produce practical open source solutions to development problems” by bringing together development experts and software developers.

Initiatives like Random Hacks of Kindness, one example of the wider push to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to solve development problems, have produced useful tools; for instance the SMS service that helped people communicate with family and friends after earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. But billing efforts like these as capable of producing “solutions to development problems” is misguided at best. This level of hype brought to mind recent overpromising headlines, like: “IT can meet Africa’s Millennium Development Goals” and ”Nations Call for ICTs to Tackle Disease.”

After reading about Random Hacks of Kindness, I asked UC Berkeley ICT for development expert Kentaro Toyama what he thought about them. Toyama responded:

Anyone imagining that a day or two of hacking will produce solutions to development problems, even in some small part, is either a technologist drunk on her own self-image who believes that she’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge with technology, or a World Bank officer drunk on his own self-image who believes that he’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge by motivating some technologists. In any case, it seems clear they are the kind of folks who don’t learn from history.

We should be wary of being distracted by technologies that can solve some direct problems but will never be able to solve underlying development problems. If an app gives a mother access to maternal health information, but she doesn’t have access to basic healthcare, how much good will it do her?

Toyama, who blogs humorously as the ICT4D Jester, was more optimistic about the initiative’s ability to build capacity of programmers in developing countries:

[T]o the extent that these events generate excitement around the ability to develop software in developing countries, they are fantastic…Among the things that make a country “developed” is its intrinsic capacity to create, adapt, and master technology.

Similarly, much of what makes a country “developed” is an emergent system that permits and promotes problem solving.

To paraphrase and adapt a point made previously on this blog: Direct solutions to problems (say, aid programs that use ICTs to locate disaster survivors) may be worthwhile as benefiting a lot of people. But a long list of many such solutions is not development. Development is the gradual emergence of a problem-solving system.

No one really believes that there’s an app for development, but we sometimes seem to talk like there is. We should keep sober our expectations about what ICTs can and cannot accomplish, because getting drunk on techno-hype is sure to cloud our understanding of underlying development issues -- like why certain places lack the problem-solving systems that afford mothers access to basic healthcare.