While Silicon Valley obsesses over which social app Facebook will acquire for billions with the next spin of the wheel, an unsung fleet of entrepreneurs and philanthropists are doggedly working to empower the developing world. Chelsea Clinton took the stage at South By Southwest 2014 to highlight the tech industry’s vast potential for social good on a global scale.
“Throughout the 20th century, individuals who wanted to engage in philanthropy had limited ways to do so,” said Clinton, former first daughter and current vice chair of her family’s philanthropic powerhouse, the Clinton Foundation. “Technology has disrupted the very nature of how we can improve the world by empowering individuals to make a difference,” she said. “Giving, volunteering and contributing all have been democratized like never before.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s not all glamorous work. Clinton said the word “diarrhea” roughly ten times in her hour on stage, noting that the fatal epidemic of childhood diarrhea makes her “really, really angry.” At the intersection of technology and social good, the stakes couldn’t be higher nor the time more right.
Thinking Outside The Snowglobe
Many challenges in what Clinton calls the “development space” (think “developing world,” not “software developer”) would likely never occur to those head down chasing exorbitant rounds of venture capital for the next Big Big Thing. Take, for instance, Sproxil, a service that lets citizens of Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and India authenticate medications through simple text messaging.
Sproxil tackles a challenge with a human price of 700,000 quiet deaths each year, largely due to counterfeit antimalarial and tuberculosis drugs. Other segments of development tech are better known. Kiva, a microfinance non-profit, lets ordinary folks lend small amounts of money to create opportunities and ameliorate poverty in 73 countries around the world. M-PESA, a small value payments and store of value service, went viral providing banking to Kenyans with even the most basic mobile phones.
Toppling The Silos
Clinton stresses that while “first” may be best in Silicon Valley, best is actually best in development tech. Creating an efficient, thoughtfully conceived tool—one that’s affordable, easy to distribute and meets the particular needs of a developing zone—is far more critical than being first out of the gate. With a shared end goal of global good, second and third are just fine.
Most of us take cultural privileges like regulated pharmaceuticals, loan institutions and ready access to basic banking for granted. But in the developing world, these tools are powerful beyond imagination. Getting them right is important. To move forward, a shared spirit of collaboration—rather than a hyper-competitive silo mentality—proves crucial.
Yet another huge challenge in the field of development tech is a dearth of data, which makes it hard to just to get a handle on the task at hand—never mind tracking its progress. “It’s hard to standardize data that doesn’t exist,” Clinton said.
While developed nations are quantifying the minutiae of their morning runs and TV habits, over in the Congo, two-thirds of births aren’t ever recorded. Robust, big, aggregated data is a steep obstacle in countries that still struggle to meet far more basic needs than quantifying their own problems.
Political corruption in many of these development zones is systemic, which makes international aid efforts tricky. Easy, transparent technology systems that track “where the money goes” is yet another layer to tackle.
“Technology has the potential to revolutionize the way development measures, reports and analyzes the success and failures of its work,” Clinton said. “I know that the work we’re doing [at the Clinton Foundation] has impact because we’re obsessed with tracking data and results.”
These are tough problems, but they’re certainly not impossible to solve. The biggest problem of all? The fact that the tech community hasn’t yet disrupted what disrupts so many lives in the developing world.
Lead image by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite