How Access to Information Can Tackle Poverty and Pollution

02/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the Spring of 2007 I had the opportunity to spend a month working with my good friend and colleague T.H. Culhane, the founder of Solar CITIES, an NGO that builds solar water heaters and biogas generators in the slums of Cairo, Egypt. What is most innovative about what Solar CITIES does is that they build the systems almost entirely out of recycled materials and garbage--things like discarded butter tins, plastic barrels and metal. At the same time, they are building a cottage industry, training local residents to design and build affordable renewable energy systems. It is one of the first green job training programs in Egypt, and the only one focusing on slum communities.

T.H. is one of those rare social entrepreneurs whose boundless energy, commitment and intelligence inspires everyone around him and attracts attention to his cause. Yet to me the most striking aspect of the trip was noticing the way in which T.H. leveraged his access to information (he is also a PhD candidate in urban planning at UCLA) to enable Cairenes to see the benefits of his systems, and then to come up with better, more efficient designs themselves. Carrying his iPod around like an instrument for social change, instead of merely a toy for the privileged, he would show videos and drawings of solar thermal systems to carpenters, plumbers and community leaders. Eager to benefit their communities, these individuals quickly saw the upsides of solar hot water. After all, most Cairenes currently heat their home in a way that is dangerous (due to fumes and the possibility of explosion) and expensive, whereas solar hot water is reliable, silent and clean (and if fossil fuels weren't massively subsidized in Egypt, it would also be the cheapest form of energy in "The City of the Sun"). They immediately began coming up with innovations--finding more durable and affordable materials, refining and even refuting the designs of so-called experts, and inventing brand new manufacturing techniques.

What I realized, then, is that the poor need access to information far more urgently than they need handouts and subsidies. Still, that's a risky statement to make, as many will argue that given a choice between, say, a cell phone and a meal, the vast majority of poor people will choose the meal. However, a fascinating NY Times article from last year titled 'Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?,' argues that, given precisely that choice, most will choose the phone. The article cites a study by the World Resources Institute, a "Washington-based environmental research group [which] published a report with the International Finance Corporation entitled "The Next Four Billion." The fascinating study "looked at, among other things, how poor people living in developing countries spent their money" and found that:

even very poor families invested a significant amount of money in the I.C.T. category -- information-communication technology, which, according to Al Hammond, the study's principal author, can include money spent on computers or land-line phones, but in this segment of the population that's almost never the case. What they're buying, he says, are cellphones and airtime, usually in the form of prepaid cards. Even more telling is the finding that as a family's income grows -- from $1 per day to $4, for example -- their spending on I.C.T. increases faster than spending in any other category, including health, education and housing. "It's really quite striking," Hammond says. "What people are voting for with their pocketbooks, as soon as they have more money and even before their basic needs are met, is telecommunications."

What these revolutionary findings say to me is that our notions of how to "help the poor" and address environmental problems in developing countries-- as well as in the lower-income communities of the developed world--are dead wrong. If people value access to information and connectivity as much as the study indicates, then what we should be providing is precisely that: access to internet, mobile phone infrastructure, and low-cost computing platforms (such as the $100 laptop). With these technologies people can take control of their lives, and find their own innovative solutions to poverty and pollution.

This is very much in line with what I saw in Cairo. Had an environmental NGO come into the slums and told the people to stop throwing garbage in the streets and build solar water heaters because it's good for the environment, no one would have listened. That kind of top-down approach doesn't work because it fails to speak to what matters to the people in the community. T.H., on the other hand, was able to rally people to the cause because he gave them the resources and information they needed to do it themselves. They weren't heating their water with kerosene and stove top water heaters because they didn't know it was dangerous and unhealthy, but rather because they weren't aware of alternatives.

In much the same way, there are opportunities all over the world for information technology to enable people to help themselves and their environment. Grameen Bank famously got into the mobile phone business, and is now one of the largest carriers in Bangladesh. Rural Bangladeshi farmers use their phones to find out what their goods are selling for in the market so that they can make the long trip only when they will get a good price. Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in microcredit in 2006, has long argued that access to credit should be a fundamental human right. Why? Because he has shown over the last 30 years that a small, affordable loan unleashes the entrepreneurial power of the poor, and starts them on a path toward financial stability.

It seems to me that access to information should also be a fundamental human right. In a world where billions struggle to find a meal while hundreds of millions struggle not to eat too much, and where billions are forced to cook and heat their water with dangerous and dirty fuels, while hundreds of millions more cook the planet by cooking and heating and getting around with dangerous and dirty fuels, information may be the only way to begin to close that astoundingly unjust gap. After all, isn't one of the signs of a democracy a free press? Imagine if the governments of repressive regimes were unable to block access to the internet--would not their people, with the knowledge of the rights they are being denied--reject such rule? I believe they would, and I see no reason why, given access to the right tools, the world's poor couldn't solve poverty and pollution for themselves.

Finally, given the extent to which the developed world is awash in information technology, I think it's time to design our gadgets with social justice in mind. Already, there are green iPhone and Facebook applications. Google Earth can be used to track environmental degradation. The $100 laptop is opening up new worlds to more and more children. But more can be done. As the great exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Design for the other 90%, showed, most of the world's designers spend their time innovating for the fraction of the world's population that can afford their designs. Instead, it is time to turn our attention toward innovating for the good of people and the planet. Every product, every piece of software should have built in it the capability to be used as a tool for the common good.

It is hard to fathom what life is like without the tools we take for granted. The unbelievable technological advancement enjoyed by wealthy countries is unprecedented in human history. But technology has always been the driving force behind social change, from stone tools to better irrigation techniques to gunpowder. Yet today the missing link to creating a more equitable world is not a lack of technologies that can foster it, but a lack of access to information about, and financing for, those technologies in the places that most urgently need them.

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NY Times