Enabling Development: When can Technology be Effective?

Speech by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

November 13, 2017

Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development

Opening remarks


  • Thank you very much. It gives me great pleasure to be here tonight and I am truly honoured to have been invited to speak at the launch of this extraordinary new Center on Global Poverty and Development. I for one am excited by the possibilities that it brings. Building on Stanford’s academic excellence and expertise, this center represents precisely the kind of multidisciplinary approach that we need to tackle the growing challenges in the fight against poverty; bringing together researchers, policymakers and business leaders in an innovative model for real-world impact.
  • In fact, in coming here tonight, it occurred to me that having spent most of my life between Africa and Washington DC, as a former Managing Director for the World Bank and as Finance Minister for Nigeria – twice – you could even argue that I, myself, am the product of this kind of multi windowed, multidisciplinary approach. So, it is one I approve of very much…
  • All jokes aside, this kind of collaborative, joined-up thinking will become increasingly important in the coming years as we attempt to achieve the ambitious targets laid out by the Sustainable Development Goals. Partly because of the sheer scale of ambition of these 17 global goals, which set out the challenges of the 21st Century and beyond, with equally ambitious targets for all nations to meet to address these challenges.
  • But also, this kind of thinking is important because the fight against poverty is likely to become more difficult with each passing year. The easy gains have been made what remains will be a hard fought fight. We are already living in a time of global uncertainty; with the largest number of displaced people since World War II, driven by a period of increased conflict and growing pressure from climate change. Rising inequality within and between nations is a strong concern. We are witnessing an unprecedented turn against multilateralism and all the cooperation the whole community has built up in these past 70 years. A fortress mentality is emerging in some countries. And now, these global trends, together with population growth, urbanisation and human migration, are changing the global development landscape in ways that conspire to make our work increasingly more difficult.
  • This is why we will need to work together and be smarter about how we do things. Finding solutions is not enough, they have to be the right solutions for the right settings, because in development, so often it is the context that determines the difference between success and failure. Or as Albert Einstein once put it: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”


  • To explain this further I’d like to talk about it in the context of technology, which in my opinion is another essential ingredient to the success of the SDGs. To me it seems clear that we cannot get to these global goals under “development as usual”, that we will need some serious innovations along the way. Technology can deliver that and be part of the solution as an enabler, provided we are smart about how we apply it. However, historically that has not always been the case.
  • As I have said elsewhere, despite the potential benefits technology can offer, in the past it has often had a negative impact on the lives of poor people. Since the industrial revolution, if it wasn’t putting people out of work, technology was endangering them through hazardous working environments or long-term exposure to pollutants.
  • Today in many ways it seems no different, with many of the biggest problems in development either triggered by technology or exacerbated by it. Climate change brought about through industrialization is driving people from their homes, while mobile phones and the internet have delivered pictures of a better lifestyle to the poorest corners of the globe. That doesn’t make mobile phones a bad technology, on the contrary, as we shall see from this talk which is so much about mobile phone technology, they have a very positive impact on the lives of poor people. Nevertheless, they have also helped make the world smaller, enough for millions of people to risk death in the hope of improving their lives.
  • And who could blame them! Even in remote rural villages the 24-hour news cycle is feeding an endless stream of hope. People, young and old, see a different lifestyle to their own, they see what others have – stability, safety and economic opportunity – and they see what they do not have. They see the inequality and the harsh reality of their own lives. Nobody wants to live in poverty, and so, with nothing left to lose except what little remains of their dreams, in their millions they leave. By whatever means possible, often putting their fate in the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers, they risk their lives in hope of a better life, climbing aboard airless trucks, to be smuggled like livestock across borders into Europe and America, or I unstable overcrowded death boats across the Mediterranean. It is utterly tragic.
  • The solution has to be to remove the forces that are driving people from their homes and to find ways to make their lives better where they live. This is not just true for migration but for development in general. And just as technology has played a role in creating these issues, it now needs to be part of the solution, helping to mitigate hunger, improve access to education and health and ultimately lifting people, communities and countries out of poverty.
  • Some of this will come through big breakthroughs moonshot ideas, but in most cases solutions will be found in existing technologies either being applied in novel ways or finding a perhaps small but impactful niche. Either way the common denominator will be technologies that are able to solve real world problems in low resource settings, rather than just those that were successful in wealthy countries.
  • For example, at the turn of the century the whole of Africa had fewer fixed-line telephones than your average large American city. Yet within just a few years mobile phone technology came in and quickly overtook fixed-line telephones. Today there are now around 750 million unique mobile subscribers within Africa’s population of 1.2 billion. In Nigeria we have gone from 450,000 landlines in 2000 to 139 million active mobile users today in a population of 190 million people. A pretty remarkable increase. Why? Because of the simple fact that it was a more suitable technology, requiring infrastructure that was far easier and cheaper to build, so coverage rapidly increased.[1] In development, this kind of leapfrogging can have a dramatic impact on the lives of millions.


  • We have also seen this in agriculture. Fifty years ago, the cross-breeding of a high-yield strain of rice from Indonesia with a short and sturdier variety from China, resulted in IR8, a new breed that helped trigger the Green Revolution in India, a period of increased agricultural productivity that ended decades of famine in the region. This new breed could produce almost ten times the yield of traditional breeds, but was shorter and less prone to tipping than other high yield crops.[2],[3] An elegant solution tailored to a real-world development problem.
  • But while these kinds of “moon-shot” projects can have an extraordinary impact, simple but effective uses of existing technologies also enable incredible progress. Let me give you examples, the first one from my experience in Nigeria.
  • In Nigeria and all over Africa, for instance, much has been made of the New Rice for Africa, or Nerica, another high yield hybrid strain, engineered to be pest resistant and more tolerant of drought and infertile soils compared to most traditional Asian varieties, making it more suitable to conditions in Africa. But the cultivation and success of Nerica, and other headline grabbing high yield crop varieties, can often be dependent upon other factors. First, farmers have to have access to the new high yielding varieties along with the fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs necessary to support the higher yields.
  • In my home country, Nigeria, for years farmers could not get the fertilizer they needed because government subsidized fertilizer was often diverted through corrupt middle men and women. It is estimated that over the 30 year period that the government ran the program, over naira 776 billion ($4.8 billion) was lost to corruption. But then in 2011, the availability and ownership of, mobile phones by farmers allowed my cabinet colleague Dr Akinwumi Adesina, the Minister of Agriculture at the time and now president of the African Development Bank, to introduce an innovative system for access to inputs that cut out the middle man. The e-Wallet sent electronic vouchers directly to the mobile phones of farmers, who could then use them to purchase fertilizer and other inputs directly from dealers in the village, who in turn could then “cash in” the vouchers at the bank.
  • The impact was dramatic. The percentage of farmers getting subsidized fertilizer increased from 11 per cent to at least 71 per cent. Productivity went up; for example, rice yields doubled from 2 to 4mt per hectare, overall output increased and over Naira 26 billion or an annual savings of $162 million dollars was realized by cutting out corrupt middle men. The program was already targeting women farmers but in 2013, to support this success and further empower women farmers, in my role as Finance Minister, I also created additional incentives in the budget through a gender based budgeting pilot that encouraged the Minister of Agriculture to include more women in the scheme. Until this point 263,000 women farmers were receiving seed and fertilizer subsidies. With additional budget incentives, that rose to 1.4 million by 2014, a 536 % increase! All this through the enabling technology of mobile phones and a payment application adapted to local conditions.


  • Let me now turn to education. Like in agriculture, there have been major advances in education technology popularly known as Ed-Tech. The ubiquitousness of laptops, and internet based learning have in some senses created a mini revolution. You have the massive open online courses or MOOCs that have increased access to top quality education and I know that you all in Stanford are active in this. But this is not really what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about the low-key, relatively unsophisticated technology enablers that can make such a huge difference in education in developing countries.
  • Now you know we have some problems in this sector. I am part of the Global Education Commission chaired by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Our work shows that 263 million children and young people are out of school globally and of those in school, many are not actually learning. If present trends continue, by 2030, just 4 out of 10 children of school age in low and middle income countries will be on track to gain basic secondary level skills. Out of school children and poor learning outcomes are due to many problems not least conflict and poverty. The World Bank in its new 2017 World Development Report on Learning notes that “teachers are the most important factor affecting learning in schools. They go on to say that, in the United States, students with great teachers advance 1.5 grade levels or more over a single school year compared with just 0.5 grade level for those with an ineffective teacher.”
  • Yet in developing countries, teacher absenteeism is a big problem. There are a number of factors that can contribute to this but a key factor is incentives. How teachers are rewarded including importantly how they receive their pay checks. In Liberia, teachers in rural areas have to physically travel to a bank to collect their salary. This can, in some cases, involve a 10 hour ride and cost on average 15% of their total salary. It also means days lost from the classroom. Absenteeism on the order of 2 days a week in 75% of the teachers was found to be tied to the collection of salary. A joint project by USAID and the government of Liberia brought in a simple enabling technology to solve the problem – mobile phones. Like the agriculture example, salaries were paid via mobile phones and could be cashed in immediately with local agents eliminating the need to travel. The innovation eliminated the absenteeism from the classroom and reduced the cost of receiving pay checks by 84%.[4]
  • Similarly, where other factors are the cause of teacher absenteeism, phones and cameras have been found to be effective ways to encourage teacher attendance. In some cases this involves the pupils taking time-stamped photos of the teachers in class. In India, according to a study by Dufflo and others, when used in combination with additional financial incentives, absenteeism was halved, from 42 per cent to 21 per cent.[5]
  • In both cases, these are not high-tech solutions or major breakthroughs. They are simple examples of existing technology becoming an enabler. Applied in novel ways mobile phones and cameras had a big impact, to the great benefit of the learning experiences of the children affected.


  • One last example involving mobile phones, takes advantage of how pervasive the technology has become to help solve a major development issue. In global health, an ongoing challenge is to find ways to keep vaccines cold. Most vaccines need to be refrigerated to remain safe and effective. In the poorest parts of the world, the electricity required to power refrigerators is often either unavailable or unreliable.
  • In my country Nigeria, we struggle with power. In 2014 Nigeria’s per capita electricity consumption was about 144kwh per capita compared to South Africa at 4,228kwh and the US at 12,986kwh per capita. In these circumstances vaccine storage is a daily challenge.
  • One approach that has been explored in the past tried to take inspiration from the private sector. The logic being that if you can get an ice-cold Coca-Cola or Pepsi pretty much anywhere in the world, then shouldn’t it be possible to piggyback off the same logistical infrastructure to keep vaccines cold? As it turns out, no you can’t. The flaw in this great plan was that with Coca-Cola you only need a refrigerator, or ice, at the point of sale, but vaccines need a continuous cold-chain. As soon as that chain is broken then the clock starts ticking in terms of how long you have before the vaccine must be used.
  • So now a more effective approach is being explored that takes advantage of the fact that mobile phones are almost ubiquitous. With nearly 7 billion being used globally, a vast network of cell towers now ensures it is possible to get a signal almost anywhere where people live.
  • So, given this and the fact that mobile phone companies have every incentive to keep their towers powered, an organisation called Energize the Chain had the great idea to co-locate cold-chain refrigerators at those sites. Since 2013 they have installed around 350 remotely monitored vaccine refrigerators at cell-tower sites across Zimbabwe and Ghana, focusing on regions with poor cold-chain equipment performance.
  • This not only provides a reliable source of power to the refrigerators, but it also draws on the fact that they are communication towers, using their connectivity to enable continuous monitoring of the internal temperature of the fridges. So, it is possible to tell, for example, when a door has been left open.
  • The potential impact of this kind of innovation on improving immunization is huge. This is one reason why Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, an organization originally co-founded by and whose Board was Chaired by Nelson Mandela, a position I now humbly hold, is partnering with the private sector to invest millions into this kind of enabling technology. From new kinds of cooling systems to data analytics, the aim is to simultaneously encourage the scaling-up of promising technology platforms while stimulating innovation within cold-chain equipment markets. Doing so should help Gavi bridge the immunisation gaps that exist, increasing coverage and equity, with the goal of helping Gavi achieve its target of vaccinating 300 million more children between 2015 and 2020, preventing 5-6 million deaths in the process. Gavi is a unique alliance that has delivered amazing results in its 16 years of experience having vaccinated 640 million children and saved 9 million lives.
  • Besides improving vaccine delivery, cold-chain innovation has a broader role to play in global health and the success of reaching SDGs. Because improving the infrastructure that enables better access to vaccines for hard to reach communities, can also create better access to other vital health interventions, such as nutrition, maternal health, protection against malaria and deworming. In a very real sense building strong immunisation systems creates a platform which we can build upon to help us work towards the SDG target of universal health coverage or UHC.


  • Another way in which enabling technology can play an important role is in instituting transparency in government affairs and in fighting corruption. Currently around US$ 9.5 trillion is spent on government procurement worldwide each year – the equivalent of 15 per cent of global GDP. Fifty-seven percent of cases investigated under the OECD, anti-bribery convention are on procurement.
  • Given that a sizeable chunk of government procurement is believed to be lost to corruption, preventing this illicit activity would not only leave more resources to finance health, education, women’s empowerment and other good investments for the SDGs, but it would also help restore trust in governments across the world. Through initiatives like the Open Government Partnership and the Development Gateway there are now efforts to develop technology platforms capable of monitoring procurement processes and preventing corruption. Development Gateway in particular has developed an open contracting platform – a tool for tracking and monitoring for corruption in procurement.


  • I have talked about several successful technology enablers to development. You notice the tendency we humans have to dwell on success and talk little about failures. In life, failures can be very instructive. I got quite excited the other day whilst driving in D.C. when I heard a programme on NPR talking about technology failures. They talked of a Project X Team at Google where the job is to do “moon-shot” projects where people are paid to dare, to take risks even if the projects fail. What a wonderful idea that people should be paid to experiment and fail. What a great way to learn!
  • According to the World Economic Forum we are on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Where steam once led to mechanization, electricity to mass production, and IT to automation, this fourth revolution will fuse technologies to achieve something new which blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological.
  • This, together with Facebook and Silicon Valley’s mission to get everyone who wants one to have an online presence, suggests that technology will become increasingly more ubiquitous and available to all.
  • Precisely what form this will take is far from clear. As quantum physicist Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future”. But what we can do is learn from our failures. So, before I finish I would like to give one or two examples of where or how technology can be less successful – maybe not fail but not work quite as well as expected and what we can learn from it.
  • The first example goes some way to explain why Amazon, or any form of e-commerce requiring clear logistics has been slow to take off in parts of Africa. In my country a couple of the economic companies that started off with high hopes have struggled. In so many of our cities and rural areas, the streets have no names and houses no numbers, making addresses meaningless. Just try ordering something to be delivered to Plot 155, former Plot 20 Adjanaku, off Adelabu, behind Kingsway opposite shell petrol station! First you wonder why the plot is now 155, if this is actually correct, then you wonder what Adjanaku and Adelabu are? Are they streets, boulevards, localities or what? Certainly it is not so easy for GPS to pick up such an address. So the logistics side of an ecommerce deal becomes so tough and slows things down.
  • The second example of failure comes down to underestimating human nature. I’ve already mentioned the challenges of vaccine cold-chains. One innovation aimed at solving the problem of keeping vaccines cold in places where there is limited or intermittent power, was the solar-powered fridge. The earliest of these devices were cleverly designed to contain a battery, which would charge during the day so that fridge could keep running through the night. Nothing wrong with that you might think. Except that they started to find that the batteries would go missing or get run down to power other devices. People will always be people!
  • Fortunately, engineers figured out how to get around this. The latest generation of solar direct drive refrigerators have no battery to steal or drain. Instead the energy is stored thermally within the cooling system itself, a bit like an “ice battery”.
  • The One Laptop Per Child project is another classic example. This highly ambitious project aimed to transform education in poor countries by making laptops so accessible, through the development of low-cost, low-power machines, that every child could have one. But despite the initial excitement the project generated, it ultimately foundered in several countries and one no longer hears about it.
  • Technical issues were partly to blame; both teachers and students had very little understanding of how to use the computers, which was particularly a problem when the machines malfunctioned, as laptops so often are inclined to do. Without technical support, too often the computers were rendered useless. Because of this, in some countries such as Uruguay, as many as one in four were out of commission. And even when they did work, too often access to the internet was limited or non-existent.
  • In addition to technical problems, the economics didn’t really work either. The laptops were originally supposed to cost US$ 100 each, yet by the time they were released the price-tag had almost doubled. Meanwhile, once the laptops were launched, the program only took orders from countries for a minimum of a million laptops, putting them out of the reach for many developing countries. Eventually the minimum order was reduced. Still, many investors pulled out and the goal of reaching millions of children was not achieved.
  • The point is that context is key. Airships floating high in the stratosphere beaming mobile broadband to the ground, like giant atmospheric “stratellites”, may seem like one way to get the internet to remote regions, but can those communities afford to pay the premium it will cost? Or similarly on paper, vertical farms may use ten times less water and 100 times less land than conventional farming, by stacking layers of indoor plants on top of each other in green skyscrapers, but if the staple crops people need like rice and grains cannot be successfully grown this way, how useful will it be to reducing global hunger?
  • It is worth remembering that for every technological success there are multiple failures. But we should not let that scare us off in attempting to find solutions. As Mandela once said: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Too often it comes down to a question of perspective, of finding a suitable technological solution to real-world problems, rather than starting with a specific technology and trying to make it fit.

    Framework and conclusion

  • So, with that in mind I would like, if I may, to end by offering some advice to those of you who may be starting out on your journeys, on how best to approach the development problems you will inevitably face.
  • First, I would encourage you to think big but also to think small, to think breakthrough but also to think “enable” as far as technology is concerned.
  • Second, the key to finding technology that works for Development is people. Everything comes back to people and their problems, the incentives or disincentives that surround them in their environment. So it is critical that the innovator understands this.
  • Thirdly, they must also understand and properly frame the problem, studying the context to understand the economic, financial, physical, environmental, as well as social barriers and enhancers to technology.
  • And finally, but most importantly, it’s about getting out there. You cannot solve these problems by sitting behind a desk in Stanford. And again, this often comes back to people. To understand people, you have to spend time among them, get a sense of their tastes, traditions and aspirations. This will enable you to find partners in the community that you will need to help you make it work.
  • And with that remember that it is not always the big breakthroughs or pervasive technologies that have the biggest impact in development. You have the ability and capability to transform lives here in this wonderful new center. Use this opportunity, innovate, and as Jimmy Carter said, “Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.” Thank you very much…



[1] http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/statistics/2017/ITU_Key_2005-2017_ICT_data.xls

[2] https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v514/n7524_supp/full/514S60a.html

[3] http://irri.org/news/media-releases/ir8-world-s-first-high-yielding-rice-turns-50

[4] http://www.bushchicken.com/wp-content/uploads/mSTAR_Liberia_2-pager_MobileMoney.pdf

[5] American Economic Review 2012, 102(4): 1241–1278 http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/aer.102.4.1241