Can Technology End Poverty?

Kentaro Toyama in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_24 Nov. 14 12.07 A ten-year-old boy named Dhyaneshwar looked up for approval after carefully typing the word “Alaska” into a PC.

“Bahut acchaa!” I cheered—“very good.”

It was April, 2004, and I was visiting a “telecenter” in the tiny village of Retawadi, three hours from Mumbai. The small, dirt-floored room, lit only by an open aluminum doorway, was bare except for a desk, a chair, a PC, an inverter, and a large tractor battery, which powered the PC when grid electricity was unavailable. Outside, a humped cow chewed on dry stalks, and a goat bleated feebly.

As I encouraged the boy, I wondered about the tradeoff his parents had made in order to pay for a typing tutor. Their son was learning to write words he’d never use, in a language he didn’t speak. According to the telecenter’s owner, Dhyaneshwar’s parents paid a hundred rupees—about $2.20—a month for a couple hours of lessons each week. That may not sound like much, but in Retawadi, it’s twice as much as full-time tuition in a private school.

Such was my introduction to the young field of ICT4D, or Information and Communication Technologies for Development. The goal of ICT4D is to apply the power of recent technologies—particularly the personal computer, the mobile phone, and the Internet—to alleviate the problems of global poverty. ICT4D sprouted from two intersecting trends: the emergence of an international-development community eager for novel solutions to nearly intractable socioeconomic challenges; and the expansion of a brashly successful technology industry into emerging markets and philanthropy.

More here. [This is the lead article of a forum on the role of information and communication technology in global development, with responses from Nicholas Negroponte, Evgeny Morozov and others.]