Reading the indictment of Silicon Valley’s quixotic assault on poverty in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, I flashed back to an experience I had 18 months ago. I was huddled in a shadowy stall in a Ugandan crafts market, waiting for a pause in the sudden storm that was churning the ground outside into swift brown rivers. As the vendor’s two tiny daughters squatted beside me I entertained them with Talking Carl, a ridiculous app that my own aggressively first-world daughter had downloaded to my iPhone. The girls pressed their fingers to the screen, squealing and laughing. I wanted to leave it with them. Such a gesture, I thought, would be helping.
A few days later, I wandered through the parched, barely-there villages clustered around the Kyaka II refugee settlement. There were people, but scarcely any movement. Considering how they lived, what would be the point of moving, I wondered. Here, my iPhone would be a sick joke.
The Foreign Policy article, written by Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur, cocks a cynical eyebrow at the Valley’s crusade to eradicate world suffering through technology. Karma-courting entrepreneurs are training their unbridled energy and optimism on impoverished populations, with little to show for it, the authors contend. “The tech gurus, like so many evangelists of earlier eras, are wildly overoptimistic about what their gadgets can accomplish in the world’s poorest places,” the article states. Soccket, a $99 soccer ball that can power a light after 30 minutes of kicking, and PlayPumps, which use power generated by kids spinning a merry-go-round to deliver water at four times the cost of a regular pump, are among the barrel-fish they take shots at.
I won’t defend those particular projects. Nor will I argue that information technology (as opposed to heavy-duty engineering, hospital and school construction, and culture-sensitive training) is some kind of panacea. I’m sure those entrepreneurs called out in the article would never argue that. It’s just that IT is what they know and how they think. I suspect we can all agree that the Internet and its progeny make developing-world initiatives easier--just as they make initiatives of all kinds easier.
In their article, Kenny and Sandefur mock two techno-utopian manifestos--“Abundance: The Future Is Better than You Think” and “The New Digital Age” for waxing messianic about digital innovation. There is a different book about the transformative power of innovation they might like better. That would be E.F. Schumacher’s “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered,” published in 1973. Schumacher, an Oxford-educated economist, popularized the idea of “appropriate technology:” small-scale, low-tech innovation designed and produced by people--chiefly those living in constrained circumstances--who would be using it. The model stands as an alternative to the high-tech mass-production of the industrialized world.
I spent that week in Uganda observing appropriate technology in action with one of its most vocal practitioners and proponents. Moses Kizza Musaazi, a professor of electrical engineering and an entrepreneur, is founder of Technology for Tomorrow (T4) whose goal, its website states, is to “emancipate the [poor] from the near begging circumstances to being self-sustaining and economically advantaged.” Moses showed me homes and schools built with the simple interlocking bricks he invented to replace traditional clay bricks, whose firing is denuding Uganda’s forests. He showed me rust- and vermin-proof granaries made from those same bricks and used to feed schoolchildren and villagers. At the Kyaka camp, we toured a rudimentary factory where refugees fabricated sanitary pads out of papyrus. T4T sells the pads chiefly to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The factory jobs are coveted in an area where most employment is a short step up from scavenging.
If the founders of Soccket visited Moses in his university office during one of the city’s many blackouts, they would see how he has rigged cheap lights from China to run off a car battery at very low cost. He might lead the folks from PlayPumps to the back of the building where he has constructed an enormous tank from the interlocking bricks. The tank collects rainwater that sluices off the roof; a cheap pump and gravity channel the water inside so Moses and his staff can flush their toilets.
Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs are right to place their faith in technology. However they may want to reconsider its definition. Schumacher’s book is available on Amazon. Moses is always happy to have visitors.