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The Accessibility of Technology and Developing Economies:
The Digital Citizenship Series

In this installment of our  Digital Citizenship Series, we take a look at how emerging technologies and micro-loans in developing countries are improving conditions for people living off of the grid.

When asked the whimsical question of "What would you do with just one wish?" many of us selflessly respond: "Eliminate poverty." The sentiment is kind-hearted, yet in practice—and without magic genies—attaining that goal has been a tiresome haul for the international community.

However, progress is being made. Along with heroic efforts by philanthropic organizations and staggeringly dedicated aid workers, technology in developing countries has played a very serious role in bringing that wish to reality.

Help From The Masses

When thinking about that "one wish," many people feel frustrated that they can’t do anything to help, short of abandoning their lives for a while and traveling to a developing country.

Enter: micro-fiance. Leveraging the Internet and mobile ability to put anyone in touch, (almost) anywhere in the world, organizations like the Grameen Bank and Kiva have empowered citizens of richer countries with the tools to make direct donations to people in need.

Rather than hoping a donation finds its way to the right place, via government bureaucracy or a shady aid organization, people can now directly give to a woman who wants to purchase a sewing machine so she can make quality goods or a goat farmer so he can buy a spotlight to keep lions away. Kiva provides tools so donors can communicate and "feel" the affect that their giving has had on another person continents away—a feeling not possible 10 years ago.

Light the Way

When the western world hears of "technology," often the image of robots fusing microchips and cyclotrons smashing atomic particles come to mind. But what about one of the earliest modern technologies: man-made light?

Roughly one-fifth of the world’s population lives without electricity. Those without electricity are subject to higher rates of disease and injury (e.g., people can’t see what they’re touching or eating in the dark) and poorer education (e.g., people have less time to read or learn to read). Many homes are lit by kerosene that causes fires and smoke inhalation, not to mention the consistent cost incurrence of buying fuel.

Yet, even with these homes existing off the power grid, they are certainly not out of the sun’s reach. Solar powered LEDs have fallen in cost by over half in the last decade to below $25. For a poor family, that’s still a significant purchase (though it would displace the cost of buying kerosene), but as the technology develops, the prices in these developing countries will continue to fall. That, combined with the good work of philanthropic organizations like Lighting Africa, will mean an increased number of well-lit homes for those who can’t plug in.

Dialing for Information

Even some of the poorest countries in the world have astonishingly high cell phone usage. The long-storied history around mobile phones has watched this technology quickly become a practically ubiquitous technology around the world. Few corners of the planet are without a communication signal of some sort anymore. You could be at a distant, rural market in Cambodia and watch your Jackfruit vendor text a coconut vendor nearby. (Like I did.)

The technology has no doubt caused a powerful change in peer-to-peer communication in developing countries as well as granted new access to medicine and medical information. In 2008, VidaNET, an mHealth-launched project, was initiated so cellular customers could be texted free information that covers not only HIV/AIDS prevention, but also helps those afflicted with this disease manage their medications and treatments. Similar programs are being rolled out across Africa and other areas afflicted by communicable diseases that can be prevented with education.

All information flows to patients to manage a developing country’s health, and it flows from the patients as well. The Global Viral Forecasting initiative is among one of the many groups, asking remote villagers in Africa to text certain phone numbers when they are feeling sick. When a critical mass of texts from one particular area is noticed, aid workers and doctors can move more quickly to stem the spread of a disease.

As processors speed up and chips get cheaper, mobile phone signals get stronger and energy storage gets more efficient, new solutions for lifting developing countries out of poverty will arise. Through these digital advancements, emerging communities will get the hand up—not the hand out—that they’re looking for.