Today is Blog Action Day, an annual event that rallies blogs around the world to post about a common cause. This year's issue up for discussion is poverty, so we wanted to take a look at the relationship between access to information and social and economic development. The right information at the right time in the hands of people has enormous power. As someone who works for Google, I see evidence of this everyday as people search and find information they need to create knowledge, grow their business, or access essential services. But that applies primarily to the rich world, where economies are built on knowledge and presume access to information. What about the poor and developing countries where people are offline more than online? How do they benefit from the power of information?
In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, rates of economic growth over the last decade have exceeded 5% every year. Despite this trend, poverty in many countries has remained constant. In Kenya, for example, the official poverty rate was 48% in 1981. According to the Kenya Poverty and Inequality Assessment released by the World Bank this year, 17 million Kenyans or 47% of the population were unable to meet the costs of food sufficient to fulfill basic daily caloric requirements. The vast majority of these people live in rural areas and have even less access to the information that impacts their daily life. Data on water quality, education and health budgets, and agricultural prices are nearly impossible to access.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year on providing basic public services like primary education, health, water, and sanitation to poor communities, poverty in much of Sub-Saharan Africa persists. Where does this money go, who gets it, and what are the results of the resources invested? That’s where we find a big black hole of information and a lack of basic accountability. How do inputs (dollars spent) turn into outputs (schools, clinics, and wells), and, more importantly, how do outputs translate into results (literate and healthy children, clean water, etc.)?
We simply don’t know the answers to most of these basic questions. But what if we could? What if a mother could find out how much money was budgeted for her daughter's school each year and how much of it was received? What if she and other parents could report how often teachers are absent from school or whether health clinics have the medicines they are supposed to carry? What if citizens could access and report on basic information to determine value for money as tax payers?
The work of SODNET in Kenya is illustrative. They are developing a simple budget-tracking tool that allows citizens to track the allocation, use, and ultimate result of government funds earmarked for infrastructure projects in their districts. The tool is intended to create transparency in the use of tax revenues and answer the simple question: Are resources reaching their intended beneficiaries? Using tools like maps, they are able to overlay information that begins to tell a compelling story.
Google.org’s role, through our partners in East Africa and India, is to support, catalyze, and widely disseminate this kind of information to public, private, and civil society stakeholders that can use it to see more clearly what’s working, what’s broken and what are potential solutions. Leveraging platforms like Google Earth and Google Maps can help organizations disseminate their content widely and let people see and understand what was once invisible. Once information is visible, widely known, and easy to understand, we are betting that governments and citizens will pay more attention to leakages in the service delivery pipeline and feel empowered to propose solutions.
You can’t change what you can’t see. The power to know plus the power to act on what you know is the surest way to achieve positive social change from the bottom up. And when we consider the magnitude of resources invested in delivering public services each year, a 10% improvement globally would exceed the value of all foreign aid. We believe that is a bet worth making.