Technology that isn’t just for the privileged few

Kieran Arasaratnam

Technology that isn’t just for the privileged few

Our solution for making sure the future leaves no one behind



Look back at the last decade and ask yourself: has the digital revolution made us better? Has social media made you a better friend? Are we more connected? Have our apps made us more productive? Has disruption made the world fairer? There is no correct answer, and the likely response for many will be: “it depends”. Because on one hand technology has brought benefits: more convenience, more efficiency, more amusement, while on the other hand it has brought us insecurity in work, less privacy, and new fears about an unknown automated future.  

 

One fact is more clear: the digital revolution has indisputably benefitted those of privilege to a greater degree than those in the developing world. While our quality of life has exponentially improved, the world’s poorest are being left behind. If this trend continues, the failure to adopt and adapt to new technology in emerging economies could exacerbate global economic division whereby just eight people own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people forming the poorest half of the global population. Therefore, moving forward it is indisputable the greatest challenge we face is to ensure the world's poorest communities have an equal stake in the digital future.

 

Technology has been a big focus in the work of economist and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus. In his most recent appearance in London (at a Uinspire Global Leadership event at the Royal Society of Arts), the Nobel Peace Prize laureate described global inequality as a “ticking time bomb”. In his most recent work: “A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Carbon emissions”,  He observes that the more technology advances, the more global corporations compete to serve the wealthiest and the middle classes. “New technology products are never launched in the poor segment of the market and then gradually adapted to higher-level markets. It is always the other way around,” writes Yunus. “The result is a big gap in the technology marketplace – one that billions of people around the world have fallen into.

 

Kieran Arasaratnam, Uinspire Founder with Prof. Muhammad Yunus

 

A similar problem was articulated by Ricardo Hausmann, a Harvard professor and director of the Center for International Development. In a recent article titled: “Making the Future Work for Us,” he notes: “The most important uncertain aspect of new technologies is their diffusion capacity. If they do not diffuse worldwide, they will widen the income divide between countries and regions.” A technology’s so-called “diffusability”, he explained, is measured by the knowledge required to use it. Hausmann says “tools and codes are easy to ship; moving the know-how needed to use them is a different matter.”

 

Kieran Arasaratnam, Uinspire Founder  with  Prof. Ricardo Hausmann

 

Writing for the World Economic Forum this year, author and public speaker Nagy K. Hanna outlined three challenges that come with ensuring developing economies can make the most of the digital revolution. These challenges can be summarised as: the interdependence of technology and the need to build and (change “and” to “the” ) ecosystem required to accommodate innovation; a need for a unified vision at an institutional and public level to facilitate partnerships and effective policy-making; and the fact that every $1 invested  in technology will need four times that amount put into process innovation and training.

 

In short, the lesson is that there is no quick fix, no one size fits all. Hannas adds: “This process is a marathon, not a sprint. It is driven by vision, leadership, innovation, learning, and partnerships among government, business, and civil society.”

 

One area where significant headway has been made in terms of digital development is at the crossroads of entrepreneurship and philanthropy. Samasource, a social enterprise established by Leila Janah in 2008, has been a trailblazer by providing much needed digital training and infrastructure to catalyze change. The company was founded with the mission to tackle poverty by providing work, specifically by outsourcing digital work, to both the poorest parts of the US and developing countries.

 

A large part of Samasource’s success in this endeavor is the in-depth digital training it provides to workers. By teaching people the necessary digital skills needed to earn a living wage, Samasource is helping to build a digital economy in countries like Haiti, India, Kenya, Uganda, Pakistan, Ghana, and South Africa. The core ethos of Samasource – that technology can unlock human talent and help people help themselves – relates back to Muhammad Yunus’ thinking around poverty, self-empowerment and the idea that everyone can be an entrepreneur.

 

I think there's increasing and overwhelmingly convincing data that the way we address this problem of poverty at the root is by getting cash directly into low-income people's hands,” said Janah in an interview with Forbes in September. “I think the most effective way to do that is through giving work rather than through giving handouts.

 

Conversation with Leila Janah, Samasource founder on Giving Work - Reversing Poverty, One Job at a Time

 

As a Tamil and as someone who grew up feeling marginalised and helpless back in war-torn Sri Lanka, the very idea of tackling  poverty through empowerment resonates so deeply with me. So when the opportunity for Uinspire to launch a Digital Academy in Sri Lanka with the support from Samasource arose I backed it 100%; Uinspire is a social enterprise platform I was driven to launch after becoming disillusioned by the limited social impact I had within my banking career.

 

Uinspire’s aim is to develop social projects in Sri Lanka and elsewhere by combining funding, mentorship, volunteering, leadership training, entrepreneurial capital  and crowdfunding activities to empower communities.

 

Based on my own experience, I share the view that the act of giving alone is not a solution to poverty, people have to be given control and the tools to create prosperity for themselves and their community, and technology has a big role to play. So, on the 20th January 2018, Uinspire, with support from Samasource, is launching the Uinspire Digital Academy in Sri Lanka.

 

The academy will run an eight-week digital training course for local underprivileged 18 to 25-year-olds in Jaffna, in the north of Sri Lanka, that will offer the tools needed to attain employment that is both financially rewarding and socially accessible. The course will have a new intake of students every three months with the most successful of these students transitioning into trainer roles for future cohorts. They will be trained to instruct future iterations of the course that will be spread to other parts of the country, ensuring a regenerative ecosystem of digital skill building. Four fintech companies from the UK will also be traveling to Sri Lanka in January to support the course with applied skills and know-how.

 

By offering a hand up and not a hand down the intention is to provide sustainable change. This drive to alleviate poverty through digital training  also carries an additional social mission by prioritising the enrollment of women who would normally be excluded from the digital work due to gender discrimination.

 

Lauren Huber, the head of Uinspire’s digital work initiatives, describes this problem as “the triple bottom line of social impact initiatives.” She says, “it is not enough to credit ourselves with achieving social and financial impact, if we aren’t attempting to solve the huge problem of gender parity that still exists. As a provider of digital work, we have the opportunity to bring thousands of girls into STEM careers in a sustainable way and we take that opportunity very seriously.”

 

By making equal access a priority from the beginning, we hope to empower local women, challenge traditional gender roles, and increase economic participation for the whole. Thadsha Rasalingam who will head up the digital academy knows the struggles of local women only too well.

 

In areas where women's travel can be heavily restricted, the ability to work remotely is a key tool in the push for equality,” she says. “Our hope is that every girl in Sri Lanka to have a voice and to have independence. By having access to digital skills, they are open to a world of opportunity.”         

 

The school represents a first step on the road to ensuring the most underprivileged communities can share in the benefits of new technology and innovation. The journey is long, but a decade from now, Rasalingam hopes that the answer to whether technology has made the world a better place will be a resounding “yes”.