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How Google and Facebook are helping the underprivileged — or not

Facebook launched a new app last week, but it’s only available in Zambia where only about 11 percent of the population uses the Internet. The app, Internet.org, is an effort to connect “every one of us. Everywhere,” its slogan touts.

And Facebook isn’t alone. It joins Google’s Project Loon, which for the past year has been launching 200-foot, lighter-than-air helium balloons 12 miles above the earth to create a network that provides the Internet in remote areas of Brazil and New Zealand.

These efforts are part of a larger trend by tech giants to bring the Internet to developing parts of the world. For every person in the world who can get on the Internet two cannot. Worldwide, 34 percent of people have access to the Internet, and in countries like Zambia, Internet usage penetrates even less of the population, according to data from Internet World Stats.

Facebook and Google say they are attempting to close the “digital divide,” the disparity between the haves and the have-nots of access and ability to use the Internet. Of course, having the Internet offers considerable benefits for everyone, including people living poverty. That’s why, since the early 1990s, efforts to develop countries have focused on developing technology, hoping to bridge the gap between those who have it and those who don’t.

In 1993 the United Nations launched a special commission on science and technology for development, and The World Bank has an open development and technology alliance. The study of technology in development is an ever-growing field of study for academics and development practitioners.

The tech companies are joining those forces, claiming that an increase in technology, specifically Internet, will lead to a decrease in poverty. In a Facebook-commissioned report, Deloitte, a professional auditing network, reviewed literature on the relationship between technology and developing countries. The report estimated that extending Internet access (up to levels in developed countries) in Africa would add 44 million software development jobs and create entrepreneurial opportunities enough to decrease extreme poverty by 30 percent. And in India, 65 million jobs would be created and poverty would decrease by 28 percent.

Facebook’s report also says they believe by giving people access to health care information, “we could reduce child mortality by 7 percent and save the lives of 2.5 million people,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email.

But some say it isn’t so simple, and scholars are skeptical of claims, like Google’s and Facebook’s, that technology will reduce poverty.

“Any idea that more technology somehow addresses poverty is completely mistaken,” said Kentaro Toyama, a professor at the University of Michigan who researches the relationship between technology and international development. “People don’t get rich by using the Internet, they get rich by providing technologies to use the Internet.”

Can technology reduce poverty?

Google’s Project Loon launched over a remote Brazilian school to provide Internet in the classroom, a huge help to schools like Linoca Gayoso School in Agua Fria, Brazil, said the school’s principal Silvann Pereira.

“It makes no sense that a student in secondary school, almost in high school, has to do what it takes to go to Campo Maior (the nearest big city) to go to a cyber café, or climb trees to get access to the Internet,” said Pereira in a YouTube video. “I need my students to be part of the digital era. This is the only way they’re going to grow, not only as students, but as human beings with the ability to contribute knowledge to their community.”

Internet.org plans to expand to other remote areas in the world, but hasn’t yet announced where.

“We believe there is a clear economic benefit to Internet access, particularly in developing markets, but we know there is a long way to go,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email. “Part of the benefit of delivering Internet access is access to important information that can help solve some of the world’s biggest problems. In fact, in this week’s app launch, there are opportunities for subscribers to receive health tips about disease prevention, hygiene, prenatal health, etc. that they may not have had access to otherwise.

Viswanath Venkatesh, a professor of information systems at the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas said technology can be one way for people living in poverty to increase their income or improve their health.

For the past decade, Venkatesh has helped run a program that provides a computer with Internet in 60 remote villages throughout India. The villages have about 300-400 families, and the program provides a community computer with Internet for every 100 households.

Venkatesh and his colleagues monitored farmers’ villages over several years and found that farmers with the Internet saw an increase in their income compared to farmers in adjacent villages with the same weather conditions. In some villages, Venkatesh said, knowing details like to when to start planting crops and forecasting weather via the Internet has increased farmers’ income by 10 percent in just a year.

These Indian villages also saw improvements in motherhood and infant mortality, though health improvements were less significant than the financial progress seen by farmers. In villages with a tech intervention, the infant and maternal mortality rate dropped by 4 percent since the introduction of the Internet. It is better than the drop in India generally at 1.5 percent over the same time period, said Venkatesh.

More than a digital divide

It’s not enough to just provide the Internet, Venkatesh said, and even with the success he has seen in providing the Internet to these remote villages, he agrees with Toyama that technology alone cannot alleviate poverty.

That’s why in every Internet kiosk is a volunteer staffer, Venkatesh said. Most of the people in the villages are computer illiterate, he said, and having a person there to help them navigate the Internet is key.

But Venkatesh and his colleagues have had a hard time changing behavior, even after with access to the Internet and the vast wealth of information it provides.

For instance, a very small number of women actually visit the Internet kiosks, and the women who do visit them serve as gatekeepers for the rest of the community.

“What we ultimately want is to lead women to buy into this — not the kiosk, but the information that modern medicine is good and self-care practices are good,” Venkatesh said.

In other words, technology is important because that’s how the information gets there, but it’s not an answer in itself, he said.

So changing minds is as important as filling them with information, researchers say.

Toyama has reached the same conclusion. In 2004, he was hired by Microsoft to move to India and research how to use technology to address global poverty.

“After five years of doing that, I came to the conclusion that technology is not the driver of the positive change you want to see in these situations. It can sometimes help and sometimes hurt,” he said.

In the case of schools, for instance, Toyama saw that the real problem wasn’t the lack of technology, but that some schools were better administrated than others. Even in the United States, he said, students who are children of wealthy families who have their own smartphones and laptops with unlimited Internet, are still hiring human tutors. The same is true for medical attention. People may look up their symptoms on WebMD, but eventually, they'll go to a doctor, Toyama says.

“I don’t think we should not do it," Toyama says. “But it ultimately comes down to a question of resources. So many large organizations believe they’re going to solve the world’s problems with a mobile phone app, but is it the best thing we can be doing?”

As Bill Gates told Bloomberg Business Week last year, “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that," he said. "Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution, and connecting up primary-health care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria."

amcdonald@deseretnews.com Twitter | @amymcdonald89