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Poverty: Is there an app for that?

by Tate Watkins. Tate is a research associate at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

Last week the World Bank issued a announced an upcoming event called Random Hacks of Kindness. Tech developers will gather at locations around the world to try to “create open solutions that can save lives and alleviate suffering.” Random Hacks of Kindness began in 2009 as a partnership between the World Bank, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and NASA. Its goal is to “produce practical open source solutions to development problems” by bringing together development experts and software developers.

Initiatives like Random Hacks of Kindness, one example of the wider push to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to solve development problems, have produced useful tools; for instance the SMS service that helped people communicate with family and friends after earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. But billing efforts like these as capable of producing “solutions to development problems” is misguided at best. This level of hype brought to mind recent overpromising headlines, like: “IT can meet Africa’s Millennium Development Goals” and ”Nations Call for ICTs to Tackle Disease.”

After reading about Random Hacks of Kindness, I asked UC Berkeley ICT for development expert Kentaro Toyama what he thought about them. Toyama responded:

Anyone imagining that a day or two of hacking will produce solutions to development problems, even in some small part, is either a technologist drunk on her own self-image who believes that she’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge with technology, or a World Bank officer drunk on his own self-image who believes that he’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge by motivating some technologists. In any case, it seems clear they are the kind of folks who don’t learn from history.

We should be wary of being distracted by technologies that can solve some direct problems but will never be able to solve underlying development problems. If an app gives a mother access to maternal health information, but she doesn’t have access to basic healthcare, how much good will it do her?

Toyama, who blogs humorously as the ICT4D Jester, was more optimistic about the initiative’s ability to build capacity of programmers in developing countries:

[T]o the extent that these events generate excitement around the ability to develop software in developing countries, they are fantastic…Among the things that make a country “developed” is its intrinsic capacity to create, adapt, and master technology.

Similarly, much of what makes a country “developed” is an emergent system that permits and promotes problem solving.

To paraphrase and adapt a point made previously on this blog: Direct solutions to problems (say, aid programs that use ICTs to locate disaster survivors) may be worthwhile as benefiting a lot of people. But a long list of many such solutions is not development. Development is the gradual emergence of a problem-solving system.

No one really believes that there’s an app for development, but we sometimes seem to talk like there is. We should keep sober our expectations about what ICTs can and cannot accomplish, because getting drunk on techno-hype is sure to cloud our understanding of underlying development issues — like why certain places lack the problem-solving systems that afford mothers access to basic healthcare.

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  1. Tony Roberts wrote:

    Tate, thanks for this post. Your sobreity provides a welcome balance to some of the current hype. If we were to believe everything written about mobiles and development recently, then a new age of adundance is imminent.

    Actually we speak the same language; I have twice posted on this subject, also quoting Kentaro Toyama: “Why Apps can’t Transform Society” & “People’s Power: have we got an app for that?”

    Posted May 17, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink
  2. Chike wrote:

    Niall Ferguson said something about the “killer apps” of Western Civilisation.

    On a more serious note, the elephant in the room are the directionless, visionless and generally incompetent set of leaders that Africa is saddled with. The only “killer app” worth developing is an “app” that forces these guys to live up to their responsibilities as leaders.

    That “app” is Civil Society, everything else is a waste of time, money and effort.

    Posted May 17, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Jaume Fortuny wrote:

    Great post Tate. It should also be a reference (like Tony’s posts over apps).

    Let me highlight a phrase of the post that everybody should keep always in mind: Development is the gradual emergence of a problem-solving system.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 2:41 am | Permalink
  4. Alex Jacobs wrote:

    I agree with you about not being swept away in the hype. But mobile phones are coming to beneficiaries near you. If people have easy access to information & each other than that could change things – not solve all the problems – but change the way we work.

    Current trends suggest that NGOs may soon be setting up Facebook pages for their beneficiaries as well as supporters. That would transform relationships on the ground.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink
  5. Jay Ulfelder wrote:

    I agree with this post’s core point, that there are no “silver bullet” solutions to poverty and lagging development, in ICT or elsewhere. Who could coherently claim otherwise?
    That said, I think the post also contradicts itself in spirit by poking fun at Random Hacks of Kindness (with which I have no association). PR hype aside, isn’t this exactly the kind of decentralized tinkering at the margins that, when combined with other small changes at the margins in the private and public sectors, might eventually help in some tiny way to accelerate growth? So what if most or even all of the work produced by the program fails? That would be par for the course in private-sector entrepreneurship, so why should we expect aid-driven efforts to fare better? Meanwhile, as the author says, some programmers may improve their skills, and new social and professional networks may form–both changes which could make marginal differences in the long run.
    I think it’s reasonable to make fun of the PR, but we should be careful to distinguish the hype from the intended (and even unintended) consequences of specific programs.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink
  6. Jaume Fortuny wrote:


    I would like that cell phones, Facebook or any other device could change the way we work. But I think that technological tools can’t change things for being there. The real change should be a change of strategy to a true bottom-up approach.

    When the tools serve the real needs of the people and the people exploit the advantages provided by tools to grow and develop, then will probably be starting to solve the problems. By themselves.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  7. Plenty of app developers in Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere in the developing world. Unless they are brought into this process, it may be yet another Northern ego-trip.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  8. Marje wrote:

    We also forget that in “developed world” there are huge communities of diasporas from “less developed world”. IDRC who is funding ICT4D projects among others has been to my mind granting funds to African diaspora in U.S and Canada, exactly with the idea that they act as bridge back to their mother countries, agents for change. The link being conducted through ICTs.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  9. JR wrote:

    I think that your skepticism regarding these types of tools may be justified, but the development of IT, and tools that make information more abundant and transparent generally, are, indeed, motors for development. See for a great resource. Note that these programs are open source, the power of a growing community of open source developers is impressive.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  10. Regarding ICT4D: I believe Bill Gates would achieve much more for ending global poverty by licensing Microsoft software as open source (even just doing that with old versions) than with all he’s doing at Gates Foundation

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  11. Bonnie Koenig wrote:

    A thought provoking post and series of comments. Unfortunately part of the challenge of a 24/7 news cycle with ‘sound bites’ that have now evolved into short tweets and posts is that it makes it too easy to look at any one ‘app’, technology or phrase as a catch-all. But as most readers of this blog know development is complex and holistic. It is a puzzle with a lot of moving parts that need to be modified and sustained over time, and consider a whole range of tools. In some cases apps may be part of this puzzle, in other cases not. But all of these tools are only tools and only part of a complex puzzle. It is important for us to keep reminding people of that. Thanks for helping with that goal!

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  12. in the field of technology for development, the technology is the easy part. as erica kochi has said many times: no amount of technology alone will fix a broken national healthcare system. however, using technology in smart, humble and localized ways can change the way we do our work. it can make our work, as development professionals faster, easier and better and allow for focus on some of the world’s most pressing problems.

    it’s fair to criticize something like rhok for the way they bill themselves, perhaps, but those doing development work *clearly* need to learn how to interface effectively, efficiently and authentically with the voluntary technical communities that exist in the world. and those voluntary technical communities need to be built and supported *in* the countries where problems are the most pressing.

    the argument: “rhok’s tagline is too hyperbolic *therefore* we might all get distracted by (drunk on) technology” doesn’t put much faith in peoples’ ability to filter. the better argument is: “we should clearly learn how to integrate new technology into our work to see new opportunities and to do our jobs better.” the ballpoint pen was “new technology” relatively recently. it’s a pain to fill out household survey forms without one.

    here is a good piece of thinking about this subject:

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  13. @unickf To be fair to Tate & Toyama, I don’t think the argument here is as you described (“rhok’s tagline is too hyperbolic *therefore* we might all get distracted by (drunk on) technology”).

    They’re not suggesting that we’re drunk on technology. They are suggesting that we are drunk on our own self-image as powerful: specifically, as possessing the power to “make a difference” in long-term complex problems by holding a hacking event for a few days (or a series of them).

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  14. Mark wrote:


    Interesting Article. While I appreciate Kentaro’s attempt at realism with his colorful paragraph but he mark by a mile. The objective of the hackathons or Apps challenges is not to “solve” development challenges but to create a culture of thinking of development within a mesurable and logical framework just like we approach technical problems.


    Posted May 19, 2011 at 4:52 am | Permalink
  15. Mr. Econotarian wrote:

    Perhaps an App that helps a pro-economic freedom rebel group organize to defeat a socialist government?

    Insurgentbook? Partisaner? GuerillaSpace?

    Posted May 26, 2011 at 2:49 am | Permalink

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