Empowering the Disconnected

Mark Zuckerberg's plan to connect the world by reducing the cost of access, creating more efficient mobile phones and storing data more efficiently and Google's Loon project which would anchor balloons in the low atmosphere where they could reflect WiFi signals across the world are being met with mixed reactions.

Some see these proposals as a way to make information available to those in unserved regions at an affordable cost. Others, like Bill Gates Jr., have been less enthusiastic, saying that there are more pressing immediate problems, such as ending malaria and other diseases of poverty.

After viewing efforts to improve the quality of life for those who live in remote places under poverty conditions for more years than I care to remember, I am optimistic about efforts like the proposals by Zuckerberg and Google.

I've seen small inputs that make short-term conditions measurably better. Wells bring fresh water and protect the underground table if they are properly installed and maintained. Volunteer medical teams make a difference in the lives of those with no other access to health care, but these teams come and go. They don't change the health care delivery system to make it more comprehensive, affordable or accessible.

Small gardens provide food for families and, in some locations, for local markets. This is good, even lifesaving. Gardens provide nutritious food for local consumption at affordable prices, which can lead to better health.

But local markets cannot even begin to address the issue of global food conglomerates influencing cost, controlling imports and tweaking seeds through genetic manipulation. All of this is done at a scale beyond the influence of local people, sometimes even beyond the abilities of national governments.

In my years of reporting on development and observing various schemes, I've seen more failures than successes, and heard more dreams than I've seen actual change take place. It makes me wonder about how these well-meaning efforts can achieve the scope and scale necessary to buck the global influence that benefits multinational corporations.

One hopeful sign I've observed, however, is the introduction of digital technology. Wireless technology has allowed countries to leapfrog over cumbersome hard-wire technology and move more quickly toward communications systems that serve more people; and mobile phones make it possible for people to communicate more easily than ever before. Perhaps you have to have experienced what it was like in Africa, for example, before this new technology appeared to appreciate what a change this is.

Before, it was difficult and expensive to communicate with relatives in distant places, even if they lived in the same country. Landline telephone calls required expensive fees, scheduling at a government-run telephone center, and often required an operator to connect a caller in one African city to another through a connection in Paris or London. The communication system was designed to support colonial administration of the colonies, not to help callers in Africa communicate with each other.

That has changed rapidly with the coming of mobile phone technology and today Africa is one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world.

I believe the introduction of this new technology, coupled with the access to information that it makes possible, will prove to be one of the most important changes in development progress in my lifetime.

Access to information is an important step to empowerment. It removes the veil of mystery about market prices for food in regional markets, for example. It can connect people with reliable sources of information about health as when a hospital provides information to community health workers about diagnosis and treatment of common diseases, injuries and birthing complications.

When people have reliable, actionable information, they become empowered. Zuckerberg's and Google's plans have the potential for more people to access more information upon which they can act in their own behalf to get better prices for their commodities, better health care and useful educational content. This information has been inaccessible to them until now.

Lest I sound overly idealistic, I know the dark side of this potentially good end as well. The Internet is fraught with misinformation, manipulation, exploitation and commercialization that corrodes our quality of life.

It's subject to the manipulation of corporate control by pricing, technology and content. It's subject to government control as in China. And I'm painfully aware that the Arab Spring has stalled in the face of guns and brute force.

We are learning to use it with these imperfections, and who would give up our connectivity because of them?

I've seen people use this new technology for development in places that had no access to information and communication technology before, and what I've seen makes me hopeful that this new day will result in more progress than regress.

These technologies make it possible for more voices to be heard and more ideas to be tested. They open the conversation to more variety, and they can be empowering as a result.

It is this inherent quality that has the potential for systemic change at a scale that small development schemes cannot achieve. Small scale development will continue to be a valuable tool in the quest to improve quality of life - but not the only tool.

Zuckerberg and Google are proposing audacious and grand schemes. But mobile technology is already a game changer. Moving connectivity into the atmosphere and making it less costly is a worthy vision. Making it global seems more than a worthwhile next step.