Silicon Valley's Solution to Ending World Poverty


California's startup tycoons are becoming increasingly involved in efforts to address global poverty. While the newest feel-good initiatives from Silicon Valley have been met with limited gains and are far from eliminating global poverty, these innovative approaches may be exactly what our generation needs to reinvigorate international development efforts and save lives around the world. 

Crossover between the technology industry and international development efforts is nothing new. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has worked since 1994 on million-dollar initiatives to eradicate diseases and help the world's poor. But just as the New York Times recently highlighted a high-profile "save the world" field trip taken by a star-studded list of millionaire tech moguls, an unprecedented number of poverty-conquering startups are popping up in Silicon Valley. Backed by millions of dollars to finance their poverty-busting ambitions, the world should take note.

Google's chairman Eric Schmidt, for example, has made major strides in global development goals by creating digital maps of African city streets and helping form the "Think/Do Tank," Google Ideas, that aims to connect the world's 5 billion people without internet access to turbocharge development. Academic programs have also entered the arena with new efforts in research promising to tackle global development problems. Financier Bob King has donated $150 million to Stanford's Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, which "aims to transform the lives of people in poverty on a massive scale through entrepreneurship and innovation." 

Smaller-scale startups are also emerging with big dreams to save the world. Palo Alto's Nuru International, for example, announced a yearly budget of $3 millionto become "the first self-sustaining, self-scaling, integrated development model to end extreme poverty in remote, rural areas, in our lifetime." A new startup CommCare recently received $1 million to experiment with a new "mobile-health" app that aims to bring medicine to rural India through mobile phones. And the One Laptop Per Child initiative funded by Google, NewsCorp and eBay promises to put laptops in the hands of every child across the globe.

But many of these organizations boast lofty, too-good-to-be-true missions that merit a healthy degree of skepticism. Despite centuries of major technological transformations and recent drops in poverty over the last decade, more than half the planet still lives on less than $4 a day. Over 2 billion people even live on less than $2 a day. All the technological innovation and Silicon Valley smarts in the world won't be able to conquer the political, economic, and environmental problems that contribute to poverty around the world.

Additionally, there have been significant glitches — and even failures — in the tech industry's approach to addressing these serious life-and-death problems. The famous sOckket energy-harnessing soccer ball, for example, was an innovation met with significant fanfare from backers like the Clinton Global Initiative, which has been criticized for offering a high-cost, low-efficiency solution to pressing energy problems for the world's poor.

Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur write in Foreign Affairs this month that the Silicon Valley approach to poverty reduction may be harmful to the integrity of development goals."We've taken tech entrepreneurs' high tolerance for failure and penchant for hyping harebrained schemes to an arena where the market test is considerably diluted," they warn. "Ideas get funding from Kickstarter and philanthropies on the basis of their appeal to donors and philanthropists in the West rather than consumers in Africa."

While these critics have a point, this skepticism should not be enough to discourage wealthy, innovative new players to enter the international development arena. Technology still offers remarkable potential for improving the lives of the world's poor. A recent World Bank report, for example, found that a 10% increase in broadband internet access correlates to a 1.38% GDP growth in low and middle income countries. If the benefits of the technology industry can be harnessed in the best-informed ways to approach today's global problems, the potential for major development outcomes could be ground-breaking.

Both pessimists and optimists about the newest feel-good startups will surely agree: Silicon Valley cannot single-handedly save the world. But if anyone is poised to tackle the globe's most pressing problems, Silicon Valley's tech-savvy, entrepreneurial-minded stars may be just the right people to take a crack at some of the most challenging dilemmas facing the world's poor.