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November 23, 2005

The "Tepping" Point and The End of Poverty


Extreme poverty can be ended, not in the time of our grandchildren, but our time.

If that doesn't send chills down your spine I'm not sure what will. It's in the introduction of Jeffrey Sachs' revolutionary new book The End of Poverty (Note: I just put up a free video lecture from Sachs here). I'm about 35 pages into this and it's an incredible combination of history and economics lessons and a call to action that we actually have the ability to put an end to extreme poverty including the continent that suffers the worst from its economic situation: Africa.

Helping Africa has long been a personal passion of mine and I fully expect to devote significant chunks of my life to doing what I can to improve the situation over there. It's no doubt a complex and daunting challenge to even make a dent in what often seems to be an overwhelming set of challenges. But I don't think we have a choice. If we believe in equality and justice then I think we must help.

As I was reading The End of Poverty I developed a (very) minor thesis which I'll call The TEPPing Point (apologies to Malcolm Gladwell). What is the TEPPing Point? It's a simple equation:

Technology + Education = Productivity > Progress

The combination of an improved technological infrastructure and increased access to education will lead to higher productivity. At the end of the day higher productivity means higher wages and ultimately economic progress. Sachs offer some illuminating points early in the book when he talks about how just a couple of centuries ago Africa wasn't all that far behind the rest of the world economically. However for the last couple of decades the rest of the world has advanced at a quicker rate leaving Africa in the dust. That's the main reason (I am likely oversimplifying here) behind why we see extreme levels of wealth in North America, Europe and Asia while most people in Africa live on a few dollars a day or less.

Why am I talking about this here on LearnOutLoud? Well, for starters we're doing our best to work on the "E" of the TEPPing Point. We feel that by enabling and encouraging audio and video education both here and abroad that we're doing our part (albeit perhaps a small part at this stage) to raise productivity and economic progress.

Consider this. I formed a bit of this theory while listening to a great interview on the IT Conversations Globeshakers podcast. In it, Tim Zak interviews technologist Ethan Zuckerman and asks the question "Why Should We Care About Africa?" A couple of years ago I would have had no way to access that conversation. Today it's as easy as plugging into an RSS feed and listening to it on my iPod. That's the kind of thing we want to enable on a wide-scale. Globeshaking indeed...

As far as technology is concerned some amazing strides are being made. In the interview Zuckerman talks about the incredible impact that the sub-$100 laptop that Nicholas Negroponte and others at MIT are developing will have (for a collection of links on this click here). He also relayed a story about how parents in Ghana (where Zuckerman has spent a good deal of time) will save money for months so that their children can spend time at cyber cafes in the hopes that the technical skills they'll pick up will help them to have a brighter economic future. (Note: When thinking about things to be thankful for tomorrow perhaps adding easy Internet access is something we should all be adding to our list?)

Indeed, I can feel a TEPPing Point coming. Things are accelerating at such a tremendous rate. If we (I speak collectively here) can bring technology and education to developing and impoverished countries without exploiting those countries in the process then we will change the world. When a kid growing up in Ghana can watch lectures from Stanford on his sub-$100 laptop or listen to foreign language training courses on her sub-$20 iPod then we will change the world. When the quality of a child's education no longer depends on an accident of latitude and longitude then we will change the world.

And I can't think of anything I would rather be thankful for in another decade or two than a world in which no one has to go to bed hungry or die from diseases that are ridiculously easy to prevent.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at LearnOutLoud.com to all of you around the world.