Why Silicon Valley can't end world poverty

A man uses a smartphone as he sits in Union Square on June 5, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been successful in disrupting old business models and bringing innovations to the market. That should make them well-equipped to solve world poverty too, right?

"No," said Charles Kenny in an article he co-authored with Justin Sandefur in Foreign Policy magazine titled "Can Silicon Valley Save the World?" "There’s just a lot more to development than the latest whiz-bang app on your iPhone."

Silicon Valley can sometimes assume that something they would find valuable -- like an Internet connection -- would be seen as equally valuable in developing nations around the world.

"In Peru, farmers were so annoyed that money was being spent on Internet kiosks than on irrigation projects which is actually what they wanted that they burnt down the internet kiosks," Kenny said.

Other ideas fail because they aren’t tested before they’re funded and implement. Kenny remembers the Play Pump -- a carousel attached to a pump that would draw water as kids played on it. But for the pump to be truly effective, it would have needed to be played on for 27 hours a day.

"It’s the kind of idea that has that appeal, it’s kids playing and leading to development," said Kenny, but "we’ve really got to test these ideas out really quite carefully in order to make sure they work properly."

While it’s true that some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been very vocal about their desire to change or save the world, their intentions aren’t always matched by savvy investments. It may have something to do with the ethos of failure in the tech community, something that doesn’t translate to developing nations where "the cost [of failure] is lost lives it’s not just someone with a less cool fitness app."

Kenny points to Microsoft founder Bill Gates as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s made real positive changes because "he’s been really careful to put his money in tested approaches."

But Kenny remains positive: "my hope is that more tech entrepreneurs take that can do spirit and take their money to really use it in effective ways to make a difference."

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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