Can Access to the Internet Have an Effect on Poverty?

A homeless woman and her children sit outside a restaurant as she waits to receive a handout in Mexico City's historic Zocalo Square December 10, 2008. Picture taken on Dec 10. REUTERS/Henry Romero(MEXICO)

A homeless woman and her children sit outside a restaurant as she waits to receive a handout in Mexico City’s historic Zocalo Square December 10, 2008. Picture taken on Dec 10. REUTERS/Henry Romero (MEXICO)

This article presupposes that if you give people the tools then they will learn to fix their own problems, close to home, without intervention. The old adage goes, “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” If you have no tools, your problems don’t look like nails. They more closely resemble a terrifying, unconquerable monster. The only thing needed by most people to accomplish a task is accurate information; knowledge about the subject. In this article I explore the concept of using the Internet to overcome archaic methods, developing new methods of education, and I invite you to infer what kind of change can come to the world if we find a way to give free access to the wealth of information the web can provide to those who are farthest removed from it. It’s the 21st century, a depraved new world… and I think that we can do something about it, starting with poverty.

Poverty is a serious social concern in every corner of the world in the 21st Century. Many turn a blind eye to the problem but the simple truth is that those in poverty represent a majority demographic of the global population. That is to that wherever one may travel, it is easily observable that most citizens of our planetary society live below conditions that we would consider horrendous, unsanitary, and even medieval. It had long been said that education is the key to solving the world’s problems. It is not a miracle drug that cures disease, it is not a new energy source, and it is not actually even education that will solve the problems created by poverty.

The real solution is providing access to information, to education, to new ideas and inventions that inspire these people in poverty around the world to change their own environment. It is those most affected by these conditions who will be the most motivated to make a difference in changing daily life for the better for those around them. In a world where bills are paid online, jobs are applied to online, medications and groceries are ordered online, and free access to information are available online even in the remotest areas of the world, it becomes clear that access to the Internet is the key to including these places in the world were poverty is rampant in the global change that needs to be made.

Some think that this is a fool’s errand. The opinion that those in poverty will do nothing with access to technology and information online is rapidly being deteriorated by studies and experiments around the planet. In Africa, the problem of shoddy connectivity and government blackouts of the Internet inspired some, with collusion by Juliana Rotich and Kenyan Journalists, to first create an open source program, Ushahidi, which means “witness,” in Swahili. The intent was to create a network of maps around Kenya that indicated at first areas of violence and conflict, but eventually came to include areas of the country that had medical needs, were hosting an election, and other public situations. The open source platform could be accessed and updated by anyone with access to a smart phone or computer that linked with the Internet. Eventually this program came to be used in Haiti after the tragic earthquake in 2010 to allow people to post their locations and needs, bringing help and care to many. Also, this software has more recently been used in Japan after the Tsunami for much of the same reasons.

Sugata Mitra, Professor @ Newcastle University, UK, "A hole in the wall" Project.

Sugata Mitra, Professor @ Newcastle University, UK, “A hole in the wall” Project.

Juliana Rotich, Executive Director of Ushahidi and other members of the board have developed a new device known as the BRCK, essentially a backup generator for the Internet. How it works is to create a cloud of information that can still be manipulated even if the Internet and electricity “go down.” With 4GB of on-board storage, swappable SIM chips for travel, a rugged design made to stand up to the environment in Africa, and a host of other fairly incredible features like surge protection, an 8 hour internal battery with the ability to charge other devices, as well as Wi-Fi connectivity and access, this soon-to-be-released device is a game changer for areas of the world with similar connectivity problems to Africa such as India, the Middle-east, South and Central America, and many areas of Asia. It would make Internet blackouts a thing of the past, creating the ability to share information, even when those in power do not wish it. (Rotich, TEDGlobal).

Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of the MIT Media Lab, is currently conducting an experiment. The project, which examines the ability of those with access (and no instructions) to modern technology to learn how to use it and teach themselves new ways to employ it, is known as the “One Laptop per Child Initiative,” delivered 40 tablet computers to children living in two

remote villages in Ethiopia. The kids were given no instructions how to use the devices or what they were to do with them, they didn’t even open the boxes. The idea is simple, sit back and watch what they do. Within a short amount of time, the kids had powered on the devices, found programs inside with taught them letters and phrases, even learning “the alphabet song.” Furthermore, the children found out how to turn on the web camera in the device and connect with the other tablets, a feature disabled by the manufacturer. In essence, “They hacked Android,” according to Negroponte. In short, these children living in a Third World poverty stricken nation taught themselves the basics of another language and hacked the software in a computer (Davis, WIRED).

Sugata Mitra of the United Kingdom’s Newcastle University also conducted a simple experiment of this nature in India, which became known as the “hole in a wall,” experiment. Quite simply, Mitra installed a computer with limited information and Internet access in a wall in a decrepit building in a village in India. Within a short time, 70 children had crowded around and began to browse themselves (Mitra, Another experiment with similar criteria was created, this time with CD’s containing different types of information. The factor he chose to keep the same was that the language on the computer was not Hindi, or any other Indian language, but English. When Mitra returned later he found the kids who were using the device had taught themselves approximately 200 English words in order to communicate about the device, with which there were able to explain their understanding of the device to Mitra in broken, mispronounced English and their own native tongue (Davis, WIRED). This suggests that not only did they teach themselves new information about technology; they managed to educate themselves about computer hardware, software, and learn the basics of a foreign language in order to facilitate their own learning.

Perhaps a bit closer to home, in Mexico, a new method of academic instruction is being experimented with by Sergio Juarez Correa. Inspired by Sugata Mitra, Juarez Correa decided to take on the educational system by changing the way he approached teaching. The school sits next to a reeking garbage dump in Matamoros, a border town overrun by crime and poverty. He felt that the “old-world,” style of education, a product of the industrial age focused on the wrong method of teaching, an endless regurgitation of the same knowledge, of memorization of the same information in different ways, all to be rigorously tested on a students ability to recall unrelated, often redundant, outdated information on the fly during a test, instead of testing a students ability to think on their own.

Children in Ethiopia explore a tablet computer.

Children in Ethiopia explore a tablet computer.

Juarez Correa’s idea was to allow the students more freedom in learning. In one experiment, he borrowed pesos from the school cafeteria after leaving a simple equation on the board. “1=1.00”, along with two others, “1/2=?” & “1/4=?” He asked the students to consider the equations while he went to get the coins. Upon returning, the teacher placed a small pile of coins on each group table and watched as the students began to debate on what one half and one quarter meant. Rather than explaining, he sat and observed how in a short time, the students collectively agreed through discourse that ½ meant one half, and was equivalent to the representation of “0.5”. During this experiment he noted that one student had already written down the correct equivalent numbers to the equations, even before the students began to talk about it (Davis, WIRED).

This young student is Paloma Noyola Bueno, a 12 year-old at the time. Eventually, student came to demonstrate that her innate knowledge of mathematics was on the level of genius. Later in the school year, annual testing came around to the school, which the class had to participate in. Not only did Juarez Correa’s class become the highest in the school, they were the highest in the country rated in the 99.99 percentile of performance in mathematics and language, which the school and class had done poorly in years prior. Furthermore, this young lady, Paloma, had the highest score of the students in her class, making her the best math student in the country (Davis, WIRED). While it was not access to the Internet for the students that made the difference in this case, it was access to the Internet by the teacher that allowed them to experience a new method of educating by a man that was tired of the old style, knowing that it was antiquated and ready for a modern facelift.

A report in 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Council by Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression declared Internet Access to be a “fundamental enabler of human rights,” a right that allows people to stay informed about online services, financial information, government programs, news, elections, and other aspects of life required in the 21st century ( Since education is also considered once of these needs, it would stand to reason that they be tied together. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, only 35% of the global population has Internet Access. In countries like Tunisia, that used Twitter to help overthrow a corrupt government, low-income households would need to pay 30-40% of their monthly income to afford broadband access, the global standard. In Yemen, it is closer to 50% of the monthly household income for the poor (The World Bank). In Djibouti, it is more than twice the average monthly income for the poor. Programs such as EnergyOn and Connect2Compete are attempting to connect 30 million people per year here in the United States, where an estimated 100 million still have no Internet access. Since 80% of the Fortune 500 companies only take online applications, it is becoming more and more difficult to get a decent job (Smith, Huffington Post). These programs can help to dramatically increase the chance to dig oneself out of poverty be finding new jobs, new information, continue education, find financial solutions, and learn about what’s going on in the rest of the world and here at home in the United States.

A child using an XO laptop in Oceania. (Photo: Gretawire/Fox News Insider

A child using an XO laptop in Oceania. (Photo: Gretawire/Fox News Insider

In a world moving faster and faster, people all around the globe are still getting left behind. It is a crazy assumption to think that bigger and better schools, testing, or government assistance is going to improve quality of life in the long run. Those things are stopgaps, plugs in the dam, a band-aid to a gunshot wound. A new school still has crowded classrooms, tired teachers, and dwindling elective activities such as music, art, and physical education. The Internet is free of crowding, free of boring antique information, and free of discrimination based on income, location, gender, or education level. The wealth of free knowledge available online has been proven to change people’s lives in the most fundamental ways; self-instruction of foreign language, or programming, and even social connectivity to the rest of the world, are all available online. That experience of connection to the globe, to the people in it, also helps to remind those with access that they are truly not alone, that the world is getting closer together rather than further apart, that we all are interconnected, and that doing good things for your neighbors, for your young people, and for those who have the least among us are global imperatives, not passing local fads. Free access to the Internet will help to solve the world’s problems of poverty, as the burro in an old Mexican adage shared by Sergio Juarez Correa.

Simply, a burro falls into a well and is unable to escape. The farmer decides that since the well is dry anyway, and there is no way to help the donkey, he should fill in the well and put the donkey out of its misery. At first the burro screams, but then goes silent. Near completion, assuming the burro suffocated on the dirt he’d been shoveling in, the farmer is stunned when the donkey leaps free of the well. Instead of lying down and dying, the burro shook off the dirt and stomped it down, slowly but surely building his path to freedom. So, every shovel of dirt heaped onto the poor and indigent is another to be stomped down and used as a stairway to freedom. Much as the burro, the poor have a chance to find a way out without our assistance so long as access to knowledge cannot be stripped from them or kept from them. That should be our mission.


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Global Libraries: Strategy Overview”. n.d. Web. March 31, 2014.

Davis, Joshua. “Free Thinkers”. Wired Magazine. November 2013. Pages 156-163, 198. Print.

Mitra, Sugata. “Kids can teach themselves”. LIFT 2007. Feb 2007. Web video. March 31, 2014.

Rotich, Juliana. “Meet BRCK, Internet access built for Africa”. TEDGlobal. June 2013. Web video. March 30, 2014.

Schwartz, Katrina. “Internet Access for All: A New Program Targets Low-Income Students”. KQED. Mind/Shift, How will we learn. March 21, 2013. Web. March 30, 2014.

Smith, Gerry. “Without Internet, Urban Poor Fear Being Left Behind in Digital Age”. Huffington Post. March 1, 2012. Web. March 29th, 2014.

Vangelova, Luba. “To Advance Education, First We Must Reimagine Society”. KQED. Mind/Shift, How will we learn. April 1, 2014. Web. April 1 2014.

World Bank, The. “Access to High Speed Internet is Key to Job Creation and Social Inclusion in the Arab World”. February 6, 2014. Web. March 31, 2014.

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Rob Zimmerman

Veteran. Futurist. Writer. Humorist. Since Chuck Livid and I both plan to rule the world, it seems only right that we start as allies on a small media blog. Until then, I hope to publish entertaining articles and reviews, spreading information and comedy through the interwebs. Have a nice day. Do not, under any circumstances, forget to tip the waiter. Ever.

One comment

  • Good on! I’m in favor of giving out knowledge free, streaming. “Build it and they will come,” more like unlock it and folks will thrive! Your writing….well done.

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