Broadband can accelerate the end of poverty, says Sachs

Jeff Sachs
Jeff Sachs

(New York) – Expanding access to technology works hand in glove with the end of extreme poverty, the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and beyond, says Jeff Sachs.

The Columbia University economist arrived late to a special round table discussion before taking the stage at the Social Good Summit in New York City. As he did last year, Sachs delivered praise for broadband as he sat alongside Hans Vestberg, the CEO of Swedish tech giant Ericsson.

“It has changed how everything about development is done,” said Sachs to a small group of reporters.

Vestberg agreed with Sachs. He described how Ericsson wants to expand broadband access around the world and feels that it should be a part of the post-2015 discussions.

“What can we do beyond 2015 using technology to fight the biggest challenges we have on earth,” said Vestberg. “Everything from poverty, a no-carbon economy, education and healthcare.”

Sachs is betting on it. His push to mobilize 1 million community health workers in Africa by 2015 will rely on technology. Ensuring that each of the healthworkers has a smartphone increases access for communities, he argued.

“If we have community health workers with a smartphone, one of them reaches 500 people. We don’t have to have everyone with every device, but we can have targeted inclusion on health, education, e-governance and e-business,” he said.

Sachs has partnered with Ericsson through his Millennium Villages Project (MVP) for five years. Previous Ericsson CEO Carl-Henric Svanberg helped to provide a 60 foot wind and solar powered cell tower at the Dertu, Kenya MVP site in 2007. Cell phone purchases increased dramatically after its installation in a region that had no mobile connectivity.

A second report from the UN’s Broadband Commission was issued over the weekend, in advance of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York City. Discussions this week will focus on a strong finish to the MDGs through 2015 and determining what goals should follow.

The State of Broadband 2013: Universalizing Broadband evaluates the level of connectivity, based on four indicators, for each country in the world. A supplementary report from the commission’s working group on gender called attention to the fact that 200 million fewer women than men are online and women are 21% less likely to own a phone than men.

“As the world becomes increasingly digital, simple connectivity is no longer enough. Affordable broadband must be within reach of people, businesses and governments in all corners of the world,” said UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon at an event marking the release of the report.

However the focus on realizing universal broadband access is not a commonly held goal. Center for Global Development Senior Fellow Charles Kenny argued in 2011 that increased access to broadband will do little to accelerate progress towards the MDGs. Given the finite number of resources available to implement programs, broadband access detracts from what little is available.

He argued for government and donors to make policy changes that can support increased connectivity and technology growth, but to stay clear of diverting too much attention or money to the issue.

“If governments want to maximize the benefits of ICT they should focus on using the existing stock of communications infrastructure, not building more in hopes that applications might come,” he wrote.

Kenny questions the claims that increasing broadband access will lead to economic dividends. The studies often cited to make the case for broadband access are flawed, he says. Broadband may lead to large economic gains, but it is by no means the slam dunk that some claim it to be.

Sachs, for his part, says that it is not a trade off.

“This is an incredible gift for development,” he asked when I asked whether broadband was a priority investment. “I know that if we systematically do certain things. If we target the use of this technology. The things can be done are absolutely remarkable.”


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]