15 - 16 November 2006, United Nations, New York



16:40-18:00, Conference Room 2

Moderator: Mr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Assistant-Secretary General for Economic Development, DESA
Prof. Nicholas Negroponte
, Founder, One Laptop per Child
Prof. Iqbal Quadir, Founder Director, Program in Developmental Entrepreneurship, MIT
Mr. Patrick Mulvany, Senior Policy Adviser, Practical Action

Session organized by DESA

While traditional approaches to poverty eradication have met with some success, technological innovations have given rise to new challenges and new forms of inequality that can perpetuate and exacerbate poverty. Such challenges call for innovative approaches to address poverty and the global divide in access to technology. Rapidly changing technology also presents new opportunities and means to address global poverty. This session will focus on the innovative use of technology to combat poverty.

One relatively new cleavage contributing to persistent poverty is the digital divide, the widening gap between the wealthy and poor in terms of access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) that are quickly becoming essential for human capital and economic development. The ‘global divide’ in access to ICT’s refers to the disparity in access to the internet, e-mail and telephones between countries. The divide is deep: according to the International Telecommunication Union in 2004, less than 3 out of every 100 Africans use the Internet, compared with an average of 1 out of every 2 inhabitants of the G8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US). Also, the 14% of the world’s population that lives in the G8 countries accounts for 34% of the world’s total mobile phone users. ITU estimates that some 800’000 villages – representing around one billion people worldwide – still lack connection to any kind of information and communication technology.

Access to ICT is becoming increasingly important in efforts to eradicate poverty. ICT has the potential to level the playing field in many areas of inequality vital to poverty eradication. It can facilitate the delivery of basic social services such as education and health information. The internet has the potential to provide the same library resources to children in rural areas of poor countries as students at elite schools in Europe or the US. The internet and other ICT’s can open up distance learning opportunities as well as provide a means for pooling of knowledge and expertise in areas such as health or agriculture. ICT allows users to share and access information more rapidly and for less cost than traditional means and contributes to increased productivity and economic development. Technology empowers the poor and should therefore be considered a central component of a rights-based approach to poverty eradication. This is why the global divide along with other cross national disparities in technology access and use should be addressed to successfully eradicate poverty.

One Laptop per Child (OLPC), founded by Nicholas Negroponte, aims to provide inexpensive durable laptop computers to millions of children in developing countries. The laptops will provide children with access to the internet and will enhance education and ultimately raise the standard of living for poor children world wide. Putting the XO  laptop into the hands of children in developing countries is in essence putting textbooks, maps, libraries, news and other media that is often missing from impoverished children’s lives. The increase of internet and computer use will also contribute to the opening of closed societies. The project contributes to building an inclusive information society.

Prof. Iqbal Quadir is the Founder and Director of MIT’s Program in Developmental Entrepreneurship which focuses on design and implementation of commercially sustainable products and services for low-income communities around the world. He is also the founder of GrameenPhone. The Village Phone Program of GrameenPhone is a unique initiative which provides access to telecommunications facilities in remote rural areas where no such service was available before and empowers the poor by connecting them to basic services and facilitating entrepreneurship. The Program enables mostly poor village women to own a Village Phone subscription and retail the phone service to her fellow villagers while providing them with a good income-earning opportunity. It is administered by Grameen Telecom in cooperation with Grameen Bank, the internationally renowned micro-credit lending institution which was together with its founder Muhammad Yunus awarded the Nobel peace prize this year for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. According to the International Telecommunications Union, the addition of each new telephone in a developing country like Bangladesh, adds USD 2,500 to the country’s GDP.

Practical Action, represented on today’s panel by Mr. Patrick Mulvany, Senior Policy Adviser, aims to demonstrate and advocate the sustainable use of technology to reduce poverty in developing countries. They help poor communities respond to the challenges of new technologies, helping them to access simple effective technologies that can change lives forever. Practical Action works directly in four regions of the developing world – Latin America, East Africa, Southern Africa and South Asia, with particular concentration on Peru, Kenya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. In these countries, Practical Action works with poor communities to develop appropriate technologies in food production, agroprocessing, energy, transport, small enterprise development, shelter and disaster mitigation. Practical Action is also actively involved in seeking practical answers to 'information poverty' by testing out how new information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be used by small-scale producers to improve their livelihoods.

Innovative approaches to poverty eradication are essential to complement the success of more traditional approaches and to address the new challenges to poverty eradication that an increasingly technology-dependent world presents.