Technology and Poverty
SoCal developer Rob Walling recently returned from a three week trip to Ghana, West Africa where he spent his time training the people of Ghana how to build websites. He's got a great piece on his site, Using Technology to Fight Poverty, which gives some details about his trip and some insight into the hopes of many of the developers Rob met and the great poverty that affects Ghana and many other nations like it:
One of the employees at the IT facility where I lead website training asked how he could learn ASP and PHP (a couple of common web programming languages). He wants to learn web development so he can move to the UK in search of a better life. Since there is very little computer work in Ghana, someone who acquires technical skills quickly leaves the country in search of opportunity. Can you say brain drain?
In any case, since classroom learning is expensive and since I've always been more of a "teach yourself" type of person, I recommended two books to get him started. He looked at me sheepishly and told me that technical books are really expensive. This struck me as odd because I had talked to a guy from the UK just two days earlier and he mentioned a bookstore with technical books at around 70% off cover price, so a $50 book was only $15. Feeling well-informed I began to tell him, but the instant the words came out of my mouth I noticed a look on his face and realized that this is an outrageous amount of money for him. Luckily, I quickly righted the ship, adding "...but I realize that is still very expensive."
15 bucks. The guy works 40 hours a week at an IT training facility and can't afford a $15 computer book. He's not starving. He's not living in a mud hut on the side of the road scraping to feed his family. But $15 is probably a week's salary for him, maybe more. At 83 times the minimum wage this book would cost $427 in the U.S., and the book was actually an old edition (from 2001), which as most of us know is almost worthless in the world of computer programming. If he wanted a current edition he would have to pay three times that if he could find it at all.
Does this seem wrong to anyone else?
Rob's post goes on to cite numerous facts about the troubles facing Ghana and other impoverished nations, along with why the average Westerner should care. He also includes a variety of ways you can help. Rob's main thesis is that with globalism and the power of the Internet, one ought to utilize technology to help improve the plight of the Ghana citizen:
One possible approach for helping the lower class, who is able to survive day to day but is in dire need of a higher standard of living, would be to take advantage of the global economy through e-commerce.
By setting up an online store through eBay or Yahoo!, a Ghanaian drum-maker could dramatically increase his market of potential buyers while increasing his profit margins. This idea, though not using the internet, has been executed with great success in Central America where Westerners have set up co-ops where craftspeople create products and elect one person to handle the business aspects. Modifying the idea for the internet, one would find a local with computer skills (the coordinator) and put him in charge of maintaining the online store. The remaining craftspeople would be notified when they needed to ship an item via an email, phone call, or a knock on their door. A small cut from each item would go to cover overhead: the cost of visits to an internet cafe, plus the coordinator's wages.
One real-life example is a 12" Djembe drum that sells for $25 in the local marketplace in Ghana runs $90 on eBay. The additional profit on the sale of one drum would cover the cost of internet access, eBay fees, and a large portion, if not all, of the coordinator's salary.
It's an interesting idea, although I wonder how much of that profit margin will see its way to the actual drum makers. (Call me cynical.)
If you're interested in reading more about Rob's travels abroad, check out this entry: Back from Africa: My Glimpse of the Digital Divide.