Although this year had welcome news about poverty rates falling across the globe, almost two and a half billion people still get by on less than $2 a day. Innovative solutions for tackling global poverty are needed as much as ever. Here are five development innovations to watch in 2013:
1) Cash Transfers
Cash transfers are among the most effective ways to reduce poverty in a sustainable fashion. There is growing evidence that beneficiaries of the transfers continue to experience increased consumption long after the transfer has occurred. More than thirty governments around the world have implemented conditional cash transfer programs tied to such positive behaviors as improving children’s healthcare and education. Now, some organizations are bringing the cash transfer model to philanthropy. Earlier this year, I wrote about GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that distributes money to poor families in Kenya primarily through mobile phones. Families can use the money however they choose, and GiveDirectly tracks their decisions. So far, the data support the premise that poor people know best how to spend what little money they get to improve their lives. Generally, recipients made high return investments, such as replacing a thatched roof with a long-lasting metal one. GiveDirectly has a low overhead cost (only about 7 percent in fees and administration), and if the organization proves its model of cash transfers to be effective and scalable, it could upend traditional philanthropy.
The philosophy behind Information and Communication Technologies for Governance (ICT4Gov) is that increased civic participation leads to better governance, and the rapid spread of new technologies, in particular mobile phones, is a great enabler of civic participation. For instance, if citizens can provide feedback to government about service delivery, and even rate the quality of specific programs, then government will have more information to prioritize services and should be more accountable to citizens. Increasingly ubiquitous cell phones make that whole interactive process possible, even in places with little infrastructure. A primary focus of the World Bank Institute’s ICT4Gov initiative has been participatory budgeting—a process that allows citizens to vote on how a certain percentage of a government’s budget will be put to use. One such project is in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country known more for conflict than innovative governance. Participatory budgeting has given South Kivu communities the chance to voice their development needs, and the government has responded. Apparently, tax collection rates in South Kivu have gone up as people have come to believe that their government can actually deliver valuable services—perhaps part of the solution to increasing tax collection in developing countries, where tax collection rates are notably low. Watch for more on participatory governance in 2013.
3) A Broadband Revolution for Africa
More of Africa is finally getting high speed Internet. Soon, many more people on that continent can say goodbye to spending eighteen hours to email a sixty-page document. Two new underwater cables running down the west coast of Africa will provide the kind of Internet access that other countries have long enjoyed. This May, the West Africa Cable System (WACS) went live, running from the United Kingdom to South Africa and providing some ten African countries, including Angola, Namibia, and Cameroon, options for high-speed broadband Internet. Another cable, the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) will span France to South Africa, connecting around twenty African countries; the launch event for the first phase is today .
On Africa’s east coast, countries like Kenya have already benefited from higher speed Internet; as Harvard professor Calestous Juma told Voice of America, “Think of it as the equivalent of roads. When you build a road somewhere, you open up not just new possibilities, but it is a signal of hope to the people that there is actually a future.” Kenya smartly seems to be planning to boost its Internet capacity even more by eventually adding another cable. Of course, to take full advantage of this new connectivity will require significant investments in physical infrastructure, particularly in remote areas and landlocked countries such as Mali and Niger. Still, this expansion of broadband Internet in Africa will hugely accelerate many innovations pertaining to health, education, and agriculture already gaining traction, and spur significant commercial benefits. Watch for new developments in these areas in 2013 as the broadband revolution spreads.
The poorest of the poor suffer the most when an unexpected event with financial ramifications occurs, like the death of the breadwinner or the family home burning down. But traditional insurance providers have not sought out the poor as clients. Now, microinsurance programs are giving the poor the opportunity to increase their resiliency to financial disaster. The organization MicroEnsure has had particular success with life insurance in Ghana, signing up a million customers over 14 months, 85 percent of them new to insurance. They’ve achieved this success by linking life insurance to mobile phone payment plans: the more a carrier’s airtime is used (in this case, the carrier Tigo in Ghana), the more life insurance one gets for oneself or for family members. Since 2009, the number of poor people insured by microinsurance has grown from 135 million to 500 million globally. Figuring out how to move from relatively simple life insurance to more complex health insurance for the world’s poorest is an even bigger challenge, but innovators like MicroEnsure are plugging away at it. Watch for continued momentum for microinsurance in 2013.
5) Family Planning
Okay, family planning is in no way a new innovation for development–the benefits of family planning for maternal and child health and the economic well-being of families have long been known. But despite the clear benefits of and demand for family planning around the world (some 220 million women want to avoid pregnancy but do not have access to modern contraceptives), it still meets a lot of resistance. Just this week, the Philippine Congress passed legislation to make it easier for poor women to access birth control, a measure that has been stalled for a decade due to opposition from the Catholic Church. Some members of congress (bizarrely linking family planning with a communist conspiracy) and church leaders vow to continue fighting family planning in the Philippines.
After losing ground on family planning efforts in recent decades, advocates are now making a renewed effort to expand access. This past July, the London Family Planning Summit raised $4.6 billion to extend access to contraception to some 120 million women by 2020. Also, the Gates Foundation launched There is No Controversy in Contraceptives, a website where people could submit stories of how access to contraceptives has allowed them to plan for healthier lives for themselves and their children. Watch for more momentum behind family planning in 2013 as proponents marshal resources and advocacy to save tens of thousands of mothers’ lives each year.