Editor’s Picks

Pathways for Prosperity Questions Digital Solutions

By Cait Etherington
June 10, 2019

In early June, the Pathways for Prosperity Commission, based in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, released a new report examining the impact of digital solutions on both health and education. The Commission is made up of heavyweights from the worlds of technology and philanthropy. Key members of the Commission include Belinda Gates of the Bill and Belinda Gates Foundation, Indonesia’s Mister of Finance Sri Mulynai Indrawati, Dr. Shant Devarajan who serves as the Senior Director of Development Economics at the World Bank, and several senior-level researchers from MIT and Oxford.

The findings of Positive Disruption: Heath and Education in a Digital Age aren’t entirely pessimistic, but the report does raise serious questions about the extent to which digital technologies, including mobile technologies, are working to bring about positive change in the world’s emerging economies. The report also makes several key recommendations.

Key Findings

The study’s main finding is that digital technologies hold great potential, but they should not be viewed as a stand-alone remedy to any health or education problem.

The report offers a powerful example from the health care sector to underscore the potential dangers of relying solely on technological solutions. Many people in emerging economies now have access to state-of-the-art health diagnostics. As a result, it is becoming increasingly easy to diagnose cases of contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis. However, if people don’t return to a clinic to receive medication following a positive diagnosis, the disease will continue to spread. This is not to say diagnostics don’t matter, but the example does underscore an important point. In addition to bringing technological innovations to communities, you need to build the infrastructure required to support long-term solutions.

In a blog post about the new study published on the World Economic Forum website on May 31, one of the study’s authors, Oxford Professor of Economics, Dr. Stefan Dercon, explained “It’s dangerous to see the success of new technologies as inevitable.” He further notes that in many developing countries, this assumption has prompted some people to become overly excited about the promise of new technologies.  To underscore his point, Dercon offers a familiar example—programs that provide every child in a school with a laptop but simultaneously fail to train teachers to use the laptops productively in the classroom. These investments, Dercon emphasizes, not only deplete the budgets of cash-strapped regions but also risk generating misinformation about the value of digital solutions.

The Pathways for Prosperity Commission’s Recommendations

To this end, the report offers four key principles to guide the scaling of digital projects in health and education.

The first principle focuses on analysis. In other words, before adopting a new technology, ask whether or not it will be useful in the short- and long-term. If a specific technological innovation will be costly and drain resources from other essential needs (e.g., food and clean water), it might not be worth the investment.

The second principle focuses on encouraging decision makers to focus on content, data, and potential connections rather than hardware. If hardware—for example, fifty digital tablets—are sitting on a shelf and not generating content, data, and connections, they are of little value at all.

The third principle emphasizes that data is only useful when put to good use. In this case, the bottom line is simple—don’t collect data just because it’s possible. Collect data to build more effective systems and programs and help make smarter decisions.

The final principle focuses on inclusivity. For example, when piloting a digital solution in health or education, don’t just focus on individuals who are easily accessible. Think outside the box and recruit people who may not already be on the radar.

Readers can download Positive Disruption: Heath and Education in a Digital Age from the Pathways for Prosperity website.

Photo by on Unsplash.