Technology and Poverty

I'm taking a class on the discourse of development and technology during the Fall 2018 semester. Here are some weekly reflections on the assigned readings - I'm posting them because I enjoy thinking about these issues. Note that they're strong opinions loosely held and I still have a lot to learn. For more work-related content, feel free to check out my Medium!

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In Think Again, Again, Banerjee and Duflo describe the convolution of aid-giving: some believe that foreign aid can help poorer communities get out of the “poverty trap”; conversely, some view it as an unnecessary handout that does more harm than good [1]. They then proceed to raise questions that are fundamental to the philosophy of aid-giving, such as: does poverty trap even exist? What happens to the people and the economy once the aid is cut off?

Further, monetary aid isn’t a blanket solution. Take food security for example: they are often pricier in poorer neighborhoods due to the lack of access to bulk discount stores [2]. How helpful is financial aid in this context, if it neglects infrastructural issues? Does buying in bulk make financial sense for smaller households? It seems as though whenever the discussions are almost leading to an ah-ha moment, we are yet again pushed back by the current of cultural and socioeconomic constraints.

Voices of the Poor by Narayan et al. takes a deeper dive on these contexts and perspectives [3]. Their discussion on the multidimensionality of poverty was especially intriguing. It reminds me of one of my undergraduate courses where we talked about intersectionality all semester long [4]. Briefly, the idea is that every individual has a unique combination of multiple identities; when we only look at an individual based on one single identity, that leaves certain narratives out of the picture. This serves as an important reminder: different genders won’t experience the same constraints; the same development actions or discourse can then affect subgroups of a community very differently. Perhaps this is well illustrated by Lamia Karim’s critique of Grameen Bank, when its financing options for women neglected the contexts that constrained women from making decisions for themselves [5].

To sum it up, my biggest takeaway from the reading this week is the importance of paying attention to identity politics, socioeconomic factors, and infrastructural issues at large - without a deeper understanding of these contexts, we cannot serve well.

[1] Think Again, Again by Banerjee & Duflo
[2] The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by Prahalad
[3] Voices of the Poor by Narayan et al
[4] Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color by Crenshaw
[5] The Grameen Bank, NGOs, and Neoliberalism in Bangladesh by Karim


Past events seem to have a way of disguising and redelivering themselves under contemporary ideologies - ideologies that we take for granted - history then repeats itself.

The reading this week helped me reflect on the relationship between competing discourses and our tendency to patronize those who live by different systems. The practice of marginalizing and disqualifying “non-Western knowledge systems” is both historically rooted and relevant today [1]. It happened as early as the Western expansion, when the idea of “civilization” was glorified and forced onto those who hadn’t yet adopted the Western ways of thinking [2]. It happened again during the World War II, when we rushed to disseminate capitalism, rejecting other ways of living and thinking [3]. Now, it’s happening with our eagerness to regard certain countries as “less-developed” and to act as “trustees” on their behalf [4].

The development discourse then seems inseparable from politics; Thomas further points out that “growth is almost always achieved at the cost of inequity.” In this sense, we really have to think about: who gets a say? Who gets to decide which “system” of living to follow? At whose expense? The participatory design framework is highly relevant here [5]. Friedman’s argument, then, falls short, when he states that “if politics and terrorism do not get in the way - could usher in an amazing era of prosperity and innovation.” Politics will be in the way.

On a separate but related note, I enjoyed reading about the different measures of development, especially on human-needs centred development. While working a corporate internship this summer, I mainly saw development through the lens of economic and industry growth. It also made me realize that there is no simple “bottom-line” for the development discourse, because there are so many angles and perspectives we need to consider - they can complicate the matter, but perhaps for the better, so we can approach the practice more thoughtfully.

[1] Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World by Escobar
[2] American Progress by Gast
[3] Inaugural speech by Truman
[4] Poverty and Development: Into the 21st Century by Allen & Thomas
[5] Participatory Design: Principles and Practices edited by Schuler & Namioka

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