Can Silicon Valley Save the World?

Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur in Foreign Policy: “Not content with dominating IPOs on Wall Street, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are taking their can-do, failure-conquering, technology-enabled tactics to the challenge of global poverty. And why not? If we can look up free Khan Academy math lectures using the cheap, kid-friendly computers handed out by the folks at One Laptop per Child, who needs to worry about the complexities of education reform? With a lamp lit up by an electricity-generating soccer ball in every hut, who needs coal-fired power stations and transmission lines? And if even people in refugee camps can make money transcribing outsourced first-world dental records, who needs manufacturing or the roads and port systems required to export physical goods? No wonder the trendiest subject these days for TED talks is cracking the code on digital-era do-gooding, with 100 recent talks and counting just on the subjects of Africa and development…
But entrepreneurial spirit and even the fanciest of gadgets will only get you so far. All the technological transformation of the last 200 years hasn’t come close to wiping out global poverty. More than half the planet still lives on less than $4 a day, and 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day. And that’s after a decade that saw the biggest drop in extreme poverty ever. What’s more, millions and millions of people still die annually from easily and cheaply preventable or treatable diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia. None of this is for a lack of science; often it isn’t even for lack of money. It is because parents don’t follow simple health practices like washing their hands, government bureaucrats can’t or won’t provide basic water and sanitation programs, and arbitrary immigration restrictions prevent the poor from moving to places with better opportunities.
Sorry, but no iPhone, even one loaded with the coolest apps, is going to change all that….
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE to harness technological innovation, filter the good ideas from the bad, and spread a little of Silicon Valley’s fairy dust on the world’s poorer regions? The answer, according to Harvard economist Michael Kremer, is market discipline and rigorous testing. Kremer is a MacArthur “genius” grant winner whose name pops up in speculation about future Nobel Prize contenders. He thinks that technological fixes can dramatically improve the lives of the global poor, but markets won’t provide the right innovations without support.”