Tech sector urged to join poverty fight

15 Apr 2005

Global technology firms should support the campaign against endemic poverty by offering cheap technology to developing countries, a leading economist has said.

Visiting Dublin yesterday, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and director of the UN Millennium Project, said that all types of ICT were needed by the world’s poorest communities. “We need not just software, we need hardware and connectivity right down to ground level – of schools, health clinics and rural areas.”

He noted that impoverished areas often have mobile masts even if they lack other basic infrastructure such as electricity or telephone lines. For this reason he called on some of the biggest names in mobile technology to take the initiative and supply old handsets to these communities for little or no cost. “We need the engagement of private industry. Will Nokia on its own or Nokia and Finland together or will Motorola and the US provide 100,000 mobiles for 100,000 villages?” he asked.

Sachs was giving the keynote address at the global forum of the UN ICT Task Force, which was meeting for the first time in Dublin this week. The group convenes twice yearly to explore how ICT can provide practical, cost-effective solutions to improve education, especially in developing countries.

Stressing as always the need for action ahead of rhetoric, Sachs urged task force members to put in place concrete projects that use communications technology to connect remote communities by the time of its next meeting in September.

“We need country-scale works in progress that say we’re getting villages online so that we’re connecting the poorest places on the planet with the rest of the world,” he commented.

Sachs argued that by being connected, remote rural communities would have access to the knowledge that we take for granted in the west. He also noted that computers available locally would allow aid agencies to measure and record how aid is being used on the ground and so provide them with the data needed to show skeptical donors that the aid is being put to work rather than going into the pockets of corrupt officials.

Sachs, who assumed a full professorship at Harvard University at the age of just 29, is recognised as a leading thinker and strategist on development issues and is special adviser to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He is an articulate commentator on the grinding poverty facing millions of people around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which is ravaged by disease and economic hardship.

Sachs’ new book, An End to Poverty, contains a foreword by U2 frontman Bono, with whom he has toured many developing countries over the past five years.

Other participants at the conference included Jose Antonio Ocampo, under-secretary general for economic and social affairs at the UN and chair of the ICT task force; Ambassador David Gross, US co-ordinator for international communications and information policy; and senior executives from major IT firms including Nokia, Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard.

By Brian Skelly