The Key is in your Pocket

by Mihir Khubchandani

They complain that our music is noisy, that our clothes are too casual, and our technology too complicated. Day by day, the gap between Generation X and we, the kids of the millennium, or Millennials, seems to grow wider and wider. A common fear is that as the new generation comes of age and begins making decisions, the world will see a drastic change at the hands of a “me, me, me!” generation.  As that crossroad nears, however, it appears that this is the opposite of what will happen. Due to our dexterity and heavy reliance on technology, we, the millennials, are making much greater strides towards world development than have ever been seen before.

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Fig.1 Millennials have access to some of the greatest modern technology. Photo Courtesy of 451marketing.com

Mom and Dad go out to get a new phone. They bring it home, pull it out of the box (“That box is tiny!”) and search for the power button. Slowly, they start it up (“These phones take over our lives!”). As the laborious process continues, their teenage children are already typing furiously, texting, Tweeting, Facebooking, and sharing (“These kids! They never look up from their screens!”). It is herein that the key to development lies: we not only have access to much more technology than has ever been seen before, but they know how to use it in some of the most efficient ways possible. This has been a driving factor behind notion that to develop a spread of technology is needed, and worked as the backbone for some of the most innovative schemes today. The small items that we carry around in our pockets – mobile phones, credit cards, tablets, etc. – are the keys to unlocking great progress in world development, as they improve the efficiency, reach and cost of many of the newest poverty alleviation strategies.

One widely successful example is the use of mobile phones for the provision of financial services, especially in remote areas of developing countries such as India. Our previous post from October 2012 discussed how the spread of this simple technology by forward-thinking minds makes it easy to locate, communicate, and even transfer money among microfinance institutions and individuals. Similarly, mobile phones are used to dissipate valuable information to agricultural workers in Uganda, allowing them to prepare for adverse weather and improve their livelihood by applying better informed decisions.

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Fig.2 Mobile facilities are helping increase accessibility of microfinance. Photo Courtesy of Radio Netherlands Worldwide (rnw.nl)

More specifically to microfinance, ideas such as the implementation of ATMs to help widen the reach of microfinance, and the concept of cash-less payments are slowly gaining momentum. By increasing the available technology, a significant barrier to microfinance, proximity, becomes easier to tackle; allowing the services to benefit more people in areas where previously too few borrowers would live, or access was difficult. At the same time, to the borrower, the financial services become much easier to use, and in many cases come right to the door step of the borrower through payment cards (pre-loaded debit cards). This means wider penetration of microfinance services, enabling more borrowers to benefit.

This is not to say that prior generations would not have thought of these innovations and worked towards spreading technology to developing regions. Gen-X made some great strides in developing cutting edge technology, without which many of our generation’s innovations would not be possible. Pioneers from the older generation such as Bill Gates did help push the world forward, and into the hands of the people who grew up with their inventions, the millennials.  However, it is undoubtedly true that today’s modern generation has the newest toys, and relies upon them the most. Not only that, technology development now happens much more rapidly and gadgets are scooped up faster than ever before. We love our gizmos, and might therefore be more likely to be the ones who push them out to the rest of the world. A recent Huffington Post article outlined that in 2011 75% of millennials donated financially to a non-profit in 2011, according to World Vision and the Millennial Impact Report 2012. This is a record figure, showing that millennials are willing to share their resources and donate. This shows that a majority of millennials are willing to share their resources, at least financially and probably technologically too.

There are significant barriers to these great advantages, starting from simple issues of affordability and encompassing problems such as a lack of trust in technology, poor understanding of how the devices are to be used, and the risk of the items not being used to their fullest potential. However technologically savvy our generation gets, these issues will continue to pose a problem. But, to some extent, this is a self-healing trap: as we continue to roll out gadgets, they will continue to penetrate homes, allowing trust, literacy and utility to follow at a slower pace. Rather than an insurmountable disadvantage, Gen-Y faces a barrier to development that they can work towards chipping away.

When discussing development, economists often say that they are looking for the “Big Push”. Typically, they are never certain on what exactly that push is, and have spent decades grappling for just that. Yet it appears that for the first time, we hold the “Big Push”, in our pockets. The technology that we are armed with, from plastic money to mobile phones, has already pulled the world forward in great strides. Therefore, this generation that truly understands the potential of its technology, will be the key in providing the “Big Push” to developing nations.

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