This essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest.
If you're seeing this in summer 2022, we'll be posting many submissions in a short period. If you want to stop seeing them so often, apply a filter for the appropriate tag!
The United Nations Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD) suggests that “ensuring easy and affordable access by developing countries to appropriate technologies is critical in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” (https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/presspb2021d8_en.pdf)
I have chosen to focus on an “open access” interpretation of this goal and have highlighted 4 subfields below, with each discussed in turn. I believe that “Open Access Technology for the Developing World” (OATDW) can have high impacts both on the macroscale through increasing GDP of developing nations and on the personal scale by contributing directly to greater life satisfaction of their populations.
Increasing GDP in the developing world is widely seen as a highly effective if not the most effective means of delivering improvements in global well being. Many developing nations still rely on agriculture, resource extraction and tourism as their main revenue sources and have missed out on or are playing catch up in producing value from the tech industry. Providing support for developing nations to grow their tech sectors and use of technology should; increase GDP, improve life outcomes by sharing many of the labour saving devices and applications we take for granted in the west, raise incomes and efficiencies across all sectors that can take advantage of technological progress, improve educational outcomes and the desirability of gaining higher education and provide the means to manufacture locally life saving, labour saving or health improving technologies e.g. cheap water filters, clean burning stoves etc.
In terms of neglectedness, there are existing actors working across the different sub-fields identified below, so the role of Open Philanthropy (OP) would be to further investigate the most effective current actors and to support them or identify opportunities for new philanthropic entrepreneurs who could achieve these goals more effectively. I have made no effort to estimate the current funding across these subfields and leave that to OP should they choose. I do believe there is room for further funding across these areas. Nations in the Developing world have the largest skill deficiencies across business, technology, and data science, with 90% ranking in the lagging or emerging categories as identified by a 2019 survey from Coursera. (https://hbr.org/2019/05/ranking-countries-and-industries-by-tech-data-and-business-skills)
Addressing this shortfall that continues to exist despite large investments is as much a matter of better targeting interventions as it is in directing more funds to this cause area. Helping to identify these crucial levers is work that could benefit from the expertise of OP
Tractability f this issue requires research beyond my abilities One way to approach this question is through asking how much does increasing GDP improve life outcomes? Some statistics quoted by the OECD relevant to this question include:
- a 10 per cent increase in GDP is associated with a reduction in infant mortality of between five and seven per cent
- a 10 per cent increase in per capita income is associated with an 11 per cent increase in education expenditure, an 11.4 per cent increase in health expenditure and a 12.7 per cent increase in tax revenue. A sustained two per cent increase in per capita growth would bring forward the date at which a typical low-income country could domestically finance recommended health expenditure rate ($40 per capita) by 33 years.
(https://www.oecd.org/derec/unitedkingdom/40700982.pdf - secondary source)
The question then becomes how much could increased access to technology for the poor through open access initiatives be expected to increase GDP? I do not have the expertise required to make an evaluation of the dollar impact of these interventions, though I suspect they may not reach the 1000x bar set by OP.
On the other hand massive profits have been generated in the tech sector which is a large employer in the Western World, so a lucky development in this sector could have major ramifications for Developing Nations that invented, perfected or developed for local markets a new technology or technological service. It is also worth considering that beyond simply raising GDP, easy access to information, blueprints and the means to construct appropriate technologies will have impacts on life satisfaction beyond merely raising GDP, through for instance increasing/improving leisure time and reducing the burden of work.
Despite my suspicion that investing in OATDW may not reach the 1000x bar, still I believe that drawing attention to this cause area is a good use of the hours that I have spent putting this submission together. At the very least I have increased my understanding of this issue and identified an area where I would be happy to invest some of my own charitable giving with more research into the most effective actors in this space.
Areas to investigate
I would suggest 4 subfields within this cause area that could benefit from further philanthropic investment:
- Increasing access to mobile phones for women in the developing world
- Funding, supporting or establishing a network of small scale community supported manufacturing workshops in suitable developing nations
- Increasing access to scientific knowledge by supporting the open knowledge movement for developing nations
- Contributing to or developing independently from the UN initiative a database of open access technologies that was intuitive, multilingual and mobile friendly and promoting such.
Increasing access to mobile phones for women in the developing world
Increasing ownership of internet enabled phones for women in the developing world could produce positive outcomes through access to such services as: improved weather forecasts and access to up to date market prices for agricultural goods, access and awareness of health services, increased connection to family and friends, access to online banking services etc.. (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1909326117)
The impact of increasing women’s access to the internet has been estimated as adding $13bn-$18bn to annual gross domestic product in developing countries by one Intel study. (https://www.ft.com/content/37d2485c-0547-11ea-a958-5e9b7282cbd - secondary source only)
Some EA adjacent organisations such as the one acre fund already provide microloans for appropriate technologies and increasing such programs to include mobile phones and possibly solar chargers could be easily scalable. (https://oneacrefund.org/blog/mobile-tech-next-big-thing-smallholder-farming/).
There is reason to believe that by supporting, for example, the One Acre Fund to extend its loans for technology program to include mobile phones, solar chargers for female stakeholders currently in their programs or who could be enrolled, there would be positive impacts on many tangential areas such as educational outcomes for children, child mortality, long term health and income. Simple training in their use, particularly for useful applications and websites would make sense as an adjunct activity. I have suggested One Acre fund because I am familiar with their work and they already offer loans for technology, there have been major announcements by other organisations involved in this space previously as for example discussed in this (dated) article (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/cell-phones-can-help-lift-100-million-women-out-of-poverty_n_560e8551e4b0768127019660)
Providing free or subsidised phone plans which can be relatively cheap in the developing world could also be an option, with preference given to female applicants, and again could be included with the One Acre Fund’s current technology offerings. Some form of corporate sponsorship could be possible here, with large telcos incentivised to give some target number of free data away to the most vulnerable communities, as per the above link.
Of the four subfields I estimate that this would be the most expensive to make progress on, unless corporate sponsorship could be found or extended.
Funding, supporting or establishing a network of hackerspaces in suitable developing nations
Hackerspaces and mens sheds are becoming more common throughout the developed world. Encouraging the expansion of such programs into or supporting similar initiatives in the developed world can contribute to increased incomes, opportunities for youth and support of entrepreneurial mindset and improved educational attainment. Linking such local organisations to open access technology databases that exist or might be developed seems to be a sensible goal. Encouraging established hackerspaces in the developed world to “adopt” a sister organisation in a developing nation could increase the transfer of knowledge and should come with minimal cost. Some research will be necessary to determine where the best locations for such “spaces” are, for instance large population centres that still have good access to agricultural industries and populations who can leverage the skills and tools to increase efficiencies in small scale agricultural enterprises for example.
Organisations working in this area who could be supported through funding, promotion or technical advice and assistance include:
Ihub Africa: https://ihub.africa
However I have no background with these particular organisations and they are only examples sourced from this article at Engineering for Change (https://www.engineeringforchange.org/news/what-would-hackerspaces-for-engineers-look-like-in-africa/). In this article it is mentioned that hackerspaces for the developing world would need to focus more on items like grinders, lathes, welders etc. and less on information technology.
An organisation which has a more prominent reputation is the FabLab network, which already has a presence in many developing nations and could be supported to extend its locations and to tailor them more to the sort of industries and applications relevant to poorer communities. (https://www.ft.com/content/37d2485c-0547-11ea-a958-5e9b7282cbd1).
Estimating the dollar value of such initiatives is beyond my ability but it seems likely costs of this initiative will be the second most expensive amongst the four subfields . However if in alignment with the goal of increasing technology access for women in the developing world, some thought went into addressing gender equity issues which have been brought up in relation to hackerspace culture, then synergies between empowering youth, women and small scale producers, craftspeople and entrepreneurs could be found, and it seems that if increasing uptake of open access technologies was desirable, then community spaces like these would be the obvious means of promoting such use.
Increasing access to scientific knowledge by supporting the open knowledge movement for developing nations
Open Access knowledge is currently a supported cause area in the developed world and several initiatives exist to increase access for the developed world. However I believe there is scope to further support these initiatives. Increasing social pressure on established journals to extend their support of the developing nation with free access in these areas and on those national domains could take place through OP networks and supporters. Winning in this area could be a matter of increasing visibility of the cause, through encouraging the scientific community to take this up as an issue du jour. Leveraging expertise in how issues propagate through social networks could be a cost effective way of influencing major publishers to increase their support of the developing world in this way. Related efforts include extending IP licences to companies in the developing world to manufacture appropriate technologies as has occurred for instance with Covid-19 vaccines and other medicines for minimal or no fee, so further support for these types of initiatives is welcome.
One Organisation working successfully in this area which could be supported through funding, consulting to and promotion of their work through the Open Philanthropy and EA networks is The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) (https://www.inasp.info). Supporting INASP to continue negotiating with publishers across disciplines to provide researchers and libraries in developing countries with the journals, books and databases that they need at affordable prices is one way OP could achieve their goal of improving life outcomes in the developing world.
Contributing to or developing independently from the UN initiative a database of open access technologies that was intuitive, multilingual and mobile friendly and promoting such
There are many open access technologies and databases that already exist, but without advanced search skills and knowledge they can be hard to find and access, and different technologies are scattered across multiple sites. The UNCTAD have proposed simplifying the collation of such resources, but such a project may be better off being undertaken by the entrepreneurial sector rather than UN bureaucracy. Supporting software developers and communities to undertake such a project makes sense, considering that many EA adjacent actors are already well versed in the tech sector, have the skills necessary to develop such an application and may be aware of many of the open access technology resources that currently exist. However, to avoid duplicating efforts it may be worth considering supporting the UN effort, and OP might be able to promote through its networks the possibility of consulting on such a project to tech savvy individuals who are sympathetic to the EA cause or garnering commercial support from EA adjacent tech companies. I do believe that EA adjacent actors may have a distinct advantage in developing a user-friendly application over the UN bureaucracy.
Of course such a database is only useful if people in the developing world are aware of its existence, so promoting this resource would be crucial. Universities in the developing world are an obvious starting point but so are industry and trade bodies in the developing world, mercantile associations, education departments etc. Some effort in researching ways to spread knowledge of the existence of this database can be quickly actioned through a concerted communications campaign.
UNCTAD also suggests that “the database should be operated by a non-profit entity from an international and highly trusted organisation”, so OP's contribution could be to help identify an appropriate NFP and to help in negotiations and set-up for this organisation. Perhaps OP could host such a database, though I recognize it is not within the core mission of OP.
Questions to consider:
Whilst I believe that more funding to OATDW would almost certainly produce good outcomes, there is much further investigation required.
- Are the four subfields identified here the most impactful and is there room for further funding in them? How comprehensive is this list of subfields? Assuming supporting OATDW would be a productive investment, what other areas are there that could benefit from support?
- How many people could be positively affected by for instance access to technology databases or better access to research journals? How realistic is it to be able to expect to raise awareness of this resource significantly?
- What is the best way to promote the existence of such initiatives to those who would most benefit from them?
- How much uptake of hackerspaces can we expect from women in particular. Is there value in promoting female only spaces?
- If OATWD does impact significantly on GDP how can we ensure that these benefits reach those sectors of the population who would most benefit from a rise in income rather than being (majority) captured by the corporate sector?
- What “market failures” have prevented OATDW from taking off already?