13 April 2018

Africa: Will a New Technology Revolution Work for the Poor?

opinion

The coming technological revolution means more - and less - than you might think for the world's poor

What does the coming "Fourth Industrial Revolution" - an economic transformation built on artificial intelligence, robotics and other technological fusion - mean for the world's poor? Both more - and less - than you might think.

Fully 75 percent of the world's poor are not-very-productive rural farmers, many of them in Africa, says Gargee Ghosh, who is studying challenges around the uptake of new technology in things like health, sanitation and agriculture for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Technological advances might give them easy and low-cost access to detailed digital soil maps and better weather information via smartphones, for instance, which alongside new seeds resistant to climate change extremes could improve incomes and food security, she said.

But that connected, productive new world might not be so easily achieved. Women are 14 percent less likely to have a mobile phone, according to the mobile phone industry association, Ghosh said - and women are the ones doing a lot of the farming in Africa. In Asia, women are 40 percent less likely than men to have a phone, she said.

"If you think you're going to reach women with better medical care and farm advice (using mobiles), we have a way to go," she said. And the problem is not a technological one, about the price or design of phones, but rather about policy rules - like needing government-issued identification to get a phone account, and women being less likely to have that.

In terms of getting a tech revolution to work for people, "the accompanying policy ... is almost always as important as the product itself," Ghosh said.

And as rich countries worry about potential job losses to robots and artificial intelligence, plenty of poorer countries don't see the same looming problem - they already have legions of unemployed and may in some ways be uniquely poised to take advantage of the coming changes.

South Africa, for instance, may have the largest youth unemployment rate in the world, said Maryana Iskander, the head of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, which is trying to move young people into work in that country.

There, as in much of Africa, "nobody has an expectation of a straight line from school to a tidy job", she said. "People are used to having to zig-zag in their economic life."

That ability, combined with help now to train people in entrepreneurial skills, could leave South Africa poised to benefit from the economic disruption of a new industrial revolution, said Nicola Galombik of Harambee.

But, again, the idea that near-universal access to mobile phones means clever new tech can easily be pushed out via the devices "is a myth", Iskander said.

Many of the 40,000 young people who have found a first job through Harambee share a mobile phone with two or three other people, and don't have a data plan, only texts and voice calls, she said - and they don't answer calls from out-of-town numbers they don't know.

What also needs a rethink, says Dan Ariely, an expert on behavioural economics and marketing at Duke University, is the assumption that a technological revolution able to reach more deeply and frequently into people's everyday lives will largely be a benefit for the poor.

He worries about what he calls "abusive technologies" - ones that, for instance, might entice people into spending their scarce cash unwisely by making it easier to buy.

"Think about the ability to resist temptation," he said. "Is this technology in the aid of people, or the company that is producing it?" Such technologies "have tremendous capacity to be the most abusive to the most vulnerable", he said.

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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