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The power of technology

India is a country of contrasts and paradox. It is rapidly becoming a major global economic power and yet continues to have a huge amount of poverty.

Stunted development 

In 2010, India’s economy will grow by over 9%. Yet the forthcoming 2010 Global Hunger Index, co-published by the International Food Policy Research Institute and Concern Worldwide, will show that in 2005-06, 43% of Indian children were underweight and 48% were suffering from stunted growth. 

These numbers mean that India alone is home to over 40% of the world’s underweight children.

Safety net 

My recent trip to India highlighted another distinctive aspect of Indian life. It has put in place a number of social welfare schemes, providing a safety net for India’s poorest people. 

The key projects include a public scheme which distributes essential commodities (rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene) through a network of Fairtrade Shops. There is a pension scheme for people over 60 and the Mahatma Ghandi National Rural Employment Scheme. This guarantees people 100 days of employment. 

Problems 

These schemes work well in some states; less well in others. One frequently encountered problem is that poor people aren’t aware of the benefits they are entitled to. In other cases, benefits don’t reach them because of corrupt officials.

Tracking entitlements 

In Keonjhar, one of the tribal districts of Orissa, Concern is supporting partner organisations by providing information and communications technology. This is being used to help people track their entitlements under the various schemes. 

More accountability 

A database has been developed using census and other data. Each month, reports are generated comparing the number of people eligible for the schemes with the number actually benefitting. These reports are shared with local communities and with government officials. The reports mean that marginalised people are empowered to claim their entitlements, putting pressure on local officials to be more accountable.

I found this highly relevant to Concern’s work and it could be relevant in other countries too. It increases accountability and uses technology as an enabler and accelerator of development.

Disruption and change

Information and communications technology is a “disruptive technology”: it has the potential to change how economic and social development can be achieved.  

Concern is using technology in a number of innovative ways, from cash transfers to microfinance to data collection for conservation farming. We are continually seeking to learn lessons so that we can work more effectively. I expect to write more about this in the coming months.