Home / Opinion / Using technology to fight poverty

More than a billion people around the world have emerged out of extreme poverty over the past two decades thanks to the surge in growth rates in countries such as China after they embraced free-market policies. Last week, billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates made a stunning claim in the latest edition of their annual letter: the lives of people living in poor countries will improve at a faster pace over the next 15 years than ever before in human history. The Gates couple believes that the next round of progress against poverty will be driven by new technologies, especially in health, farming, financial inclusion and education. India has long-standing disadvantages in all four areas.

It is a view that should resonate with the Narendra Modi government. On Friday, Modi surprised many when he addressed the 18th National Conference on e-governance through Twitter. He reiterated his government’s commitment to Digital India, an initiative for transforming India into a digitally empowered society. He stressed on the need to embrace the “mobile first" approach in e-governance. The traditional model of administration and service delivery depends heavily on bureaucratic red tape and has been saddled with massive corruption. The thrust towards the use of technology as a means of improving governance could not have come at a better time.

India has a lot to gain by embracing technological solutions in the four areas that the Gates have mentioned.

Indian agriculture has been in trouble since the early 1990s. Productivity has remained largely stagnant despite a lot of talk about a second green revolution. Technology in the shape of genetically modified crops can provide Indian farmers with the necessary productivity boost required to make agriculture more profitable.

One key challenge in technology diffusion is the lack of adequate agricultural extension services. Mobile phones can fill the gap. The success of Kisan Call Centres which provide farmers with necessary information is enough proof. They can be easily scaled up. Currently, there is a huge unmet demand if one goes by the data on calls that could not be answered for the lack of personnel at the call centres.

There are two more areas where technology can swiftly deliver long delayed reforms—financial inclusion and education. The prime minister has made financial inclusion a cornerstone of his tenure. The push for bank accounts through the Jan Dhan Yojana is a good start. But for it to be successful, the government must promote mobile banking. The case study of bKash in Bangladesh is pertinent in this regard. bKash is the fastest growing financial services company in Bangladesh and within four years of its launch it now processes roughly 2 million transactions per day, with a total value of nearly $1 billion each month. The lesson: mobile banking can profitably serve the poor, even in the rural areas, just as the brick-and-mortar banks served the wealthy.

Lastly, education, where the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) released last month by non-governmental organization (NGO) Pratham again highlighted India’s continuing abysmal performance in learning outcomes. Truth be told, India’s policymakers have never focused on outcomes. Under the circumstances, talks about linking curriculum to career choices, does not even arise. The thrust continues to be on failed ideas institutionalized in the Right to Education Act. But the world over, however, the focus has shifted to leveraging mobiles and other handheld devices to bring schools to students instead of the other way round. A key benefit of such a model is the improvement in the education of the girl child and bridging the gender gap in education and nutrition. Research has shown that if a girl is educated, her children are twice as likely to live past the age of 5, and her daughters are twice as likely to go to school themselves.

But technological optimism needs to be tempered by two major concerns. First, development interventions work only when they are accompanied by behavioural changes in society. The ongoing question of how to get people to use modern toilets is a case in point. Second, it is still not clear who will take new technologies to the poor. The state will have a role to play but the government should also encourage private entrepreneurs to innovate and build profitable business models.

How can India achieve a technology revolution? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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