One of the good things about participating in the meetings of the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development is seeing the amazing impact our industry has on the daily lives of literally billions of people. While everybody — including us — is talking about healthcare, education and the great applications that are becoming available in these sectors, the real revolution is taking place at a much lower level.
If one looks in particular at those who live below the extreme poverty line of $1.25 per day then e-health and e-education are certainly not the first applications that reach these people. The most fundamental change happens when people get access to communications — thus extending their network beyond neighbours, who are probably living below the poverty line as well, and so are unable to do much to lift the community out of its misery. In the 1990s Broadband Commissioner Muhammad Yunus through his Grameen Bank initiative showed that a simple mobile phone (2G) in a Bangladesh village, and, by extension, in any other village operating below the poverty line, can lift the local economy by 20%. This technology gives access to data, and people can make calls to find out what is the best market to go to today to sell the fish they just caught, or find out what the market price is for their wheat (not just the price that their middleman is quoting).
Access to facts is liberating people, and with facts they can start improving their lives. Once people know something, it cannot be taken away from them and therefore will create a lasting change. People will use that knowledge, data and information to make social and economic improvements.
On a larger scale the same thing happens when access is obtained to facts that go beyond what the local politicians are providing, or hiding. The Arab Spring is a good example here. While its end result is not yet clear there is no way back once people have the facts; again, this is a very liberating experience and will ultimately lead to improving people's lives and lifestyles.
Another of the Broadband Commissioners, Dr Mohamed Ibrahim, the founder of Celtel in Africa, is a staunch supporter of the movement 'one.org'. This grassroots, non-political organisation is concentrating on eradicating extreme poverty and statistics are showing that this could be possible before 2030.
Extreme poverty has already declined and this trend is accelerating. In 1990 43% of the global population fell into the category of extreme poverty; by 2000 this had dropped to 33%; and by 2010 it had dropped further, to 21%. Interestingly, the fastest acceleration of this trend is taking place in most of the poorest countries in Africa.
Rock star and activist Bono stated in a recent TED presentation that the major obstacles to this process of acceleration are inertia, loss of momentum and corruption. The silver lining here, especially in relation to the latter, is that again technology is a driving force for change. With access to communications and facts it becomes much easier to expose corruption. Technology makes it easier to create a more transparent society and, while corruption will never be stamped out altogether, extreme corruption will be greatly reduced.
It is great to work with the Broadband Commission to develop projects and programs, using our technologies, to ensure that the social and economic processes accelerate these positive developments, creating greater equality. The high ranking of those involved makes it possible to get these messages across at the highest levels of government and the highest level governance of the international organisations addressing these issues.
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