The Social Good Summit in New York City was an opportunity for leaders from around the globe to discuss the role of technology and new media on social good initiatives around the world. After each panel discussion, speakers answered the question: “What kind of world do I want to live in by the year 2030?”
As a hopeful, well-informed skeptic, I relish the opportunity to hear powerful people talk about poverty and environmentalism. Anyone working in either field will tell you that a nauseatingly large number of the public and private initiatives to combat these issues ultimately do more harm than good, whilst gaining public favour for their accomplishments. It is our job as readers, consumers, voters, and global citizens to think critically and ask questions before making up our minds or giving our support. Climate issues are human issues and it is becoming near impossible to distinguish between humanitarian concerns and environmental concerns. In the words of Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International: “Maybe we should call this whole thing 'climate justice'”.
If ‘knowledge is power’ then every one of us has the potential to be stronger and more impactful than ever. With technology and social media, diplomacy and participation in this world have gone from ‘the cathedral to the bizarre,’ where information sharing is no longer linear and hierarchical but random, multi-directional, and unpredictable. It is no longer only the rich and powerful that are able to have their voices heard; a tweet from a teenage girl in rural Southeast Asia can reach just as many people as a tweet from a corporate executive in New York City. Several countries in the developing world now contain more mobile phones than light bulbs, demonstrating just how important it is to people to be connected and the sacrifices people are willing to take to obtain this connectivity.
Sixteen years ago, it was far easier to remain ignorant to the world’s problems. An image of a starving child was enough to empty the pockets of America’s middle-class, without questioning how or if their meager cash donation was going to make that child’s life better in the long term. With the infinite amount of information that is now at our fingertips, we are becoming more skeptical and more able to understand the feedback loops that perpetuate poverty and environmental devastation. We are now too often numb to such photos, but the awareness is not necessarily improving the public interest. As the result of this technology, we now have ‘no excuse not to know’ about climate injustice, so what can we do with this technology and how can it be a more effective tool for social good?
We must discover ways in which this increased accessibility can be used to improve access to basic human needs such as WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), healthcare and education. Telecommunication has great potential in its ability to optimize existing human rights campaigns such as mass text messages to informing a rural community when the doctor is in town and hotlines that allow individuals to confidentially ask questions about their sexual health. Technology and social networks have also proven to be extremely effective in mobilizing communities, as seen by its use in mass organization such as the uprisings during the Arab Spring.
Thirdly, telecommunications allow rural and marginalized populations to receive education remotely. For example, Jampa is the first person from her remote Tibetan village to attend university - something that was possible because of her ability to access the internet from a small gaming center in her village. In Jampa’s words, “Getting an education for me is the best thing I can to motivate political change.” Her dream for 2030 is that invisible women and young girls are empowered to pursue their dreams, no matter where they live.
There is another untapped potential of technology: to collect usable data to measure the progress of ongoing social good programs. The ability to have ongoing monitoring for these programs can increase efficiency immensely and provide an enormous amount of accountability by allowing end beneficiaries to report directly to those with authoritative power (through qualitative and quantitative data sharing). This data could be anything from stream water discharge rates to Ebola outbreak containment measures. For example, Peter Diamondis of Xprise notes that this type of data has shown that simply getting children in schools is not enough, so Xprise aims to use technology to make sure the children come out literate and numerate. With the finish line of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals approaching in 2015, it is essential that we get a read on what works and what does not and what steps we will take from here to initiate more effective and equitable international agendas. These questions are the real core of discussion for #2030NOW.
Speakers throughout the Summit called attention to the widespread exclusion of women and girls from social programs. As Helen Clark, head of United Nations Development and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, noted: “Many girls don’t even get birth certificates…so how are we going to know if our programs are reaching them?” As poverty has gone down, inequality has gone up; too often the marginalized are women and girls, and the most rural populations. Graca Machel, children’s rights advocate and widow of the late Nelson Mandela, declares that Climate justice is not just about global change. It is about identifying ‘red spots’ and understanding their needs. Recognizing that it is the poorest people who are most reliant on ecosystems, the ability of these individuals to use mobile phones to access social economies gives them a louder voice than ever before. Including women directly improves livelihoods, “A dollar in the hand of a woman is 10 times more likely to be spent on her family than a dollar in the hands of a man,” noted Melinda Gates. Health leaders, politicians, and development experts agree: In 2030 we want to live in a world where we not longer have to talk about women’s rights - we talk about human rights and that includes everyone.
According to Richard Stengal, U.S. diplomat and renowned international journalist/author, today’s movement starts not with ‘a leader who wins the hearts and minds of the people’ but instead, it starts by sparking a conversation that inspires people to get involved. It is less important whether people agree or disagree; the aim is get people to think critically and understand the process. We talk about a global movement but we do not live in a homogeneous world and climate change does not effect us all equally. With conscious and appropriate use of existing technologies and new networks it is possible to see a radical transformation moved forward by the participation of the diverse masses. Yet we must remember that technology is not a replacement for functioning institutions, Ruth Kagia, development expert and Kenyan Presidential advisor, reminds us. "The scale of the problem is growing faster than the solution, so we need to support our governments with creative social programs (that use technology) to reach more people." While it is difficult to present a clear vision of #2030NOW, in the words of Peter Diamandis (borrowed from Abraham Lincoln), “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.”