Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

The Knight Ridder Equality Award

Equality Award

Michael Kevane


                A community that practices equality is virtuous to the extent that it concentrates its efforts on improving the well-being of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.  Achieving greater equality among the privileged may well be decent, but what merits recognition, in the view of the judging panel of the Knight Ridder Equality Award, is a focused effort at achieving greater equality for the poor and disabled.

The virtue of equality cannot be promoted naïvely; there are conundrums to equality.  Should wealth, happiness, or opportunity be the object to be equalized?   Does not any mechanism of equalization entail unjust taking of personal property. Recent decades have seen the conundrums resurface following the crumpling of the promised land of Communist utopians.   Most people in developed countries now rather passively accept a notion that achieving greater equality imposes a minimal, rather than maximal, ethical and societal obligation.  The evidence for this is plainly seen in the diminished percent of national incomes of the wealthy countries that go towards redistribution and development in the poorest countries.  Meanwhile, the world continues to see extreme inequality, even if at the margins some progress is being made.

In this breach has stepped a new idea of the social entrepreneur—promoting equality by innovating in the technologies of work, home, and society.  The social entrepreneur, who may be an individual but more likely is the leader of a team of dedicated persons, is determined to alter the course of opportunities in an entirely voluntary way.  The aim is to provoke equality to emerge as the result of the choices of individuals.  Sometimes the choices will be those of the powerful, as when human rights organizations publicize misdeeds, and induce the abusers to feel the pressure of public shame.  Sometimes the choices will be those of the poor, as when they are stimulated to purchase a piece of software that will enable them to accomplish what formerly was impossible.

                In previous years the Equality Award has recognized a wide variety of applicants.  Among these have been projects to bring solar power to remote areas, prosthetic technology for amputees, technologies of electronic translation (to different voice languages and to sign language), organizations that diffused technology to those in need, human rights groups using video and audio technologies to document abuses, and other technologies of access to computers. This year saw 33 organizations and individuals nominated for the Knight Ridder Equality Award.  As in the past, an important category of applicants consisted of persons and organizations developing and offering services for the disabled.  These included text-to-speech software, setting standards for digital content for the blind, and techniques for enabling the deaf to communicate via telephony.  A quite large group of applicants used the Web and sophisticated database software to offer online services.  These included a good number involved in creating and distributing “social software” to remedy the unequalizing effects of lack of participation in the new electronic communities that are emerging around the world.  Many of these technologies and organizations, however, have had only limited impact at the moment, though they hold much promise.  Another large group of applicants sought to introduce technologies that had been developed to equalize access, by the poor and marginalized, to economic and political processes of their societies.  An inexpensive well-digging technique, a small white-light LED lamp, and innovative radio antennas were among these technologies.  Other applicants sought to build up the capacity of organizations that provided services to those marginalized by poverty.

The best applicants, in the view of the judging panel, constituted examples of technology solutions that the judges felt would inspire other inventors and innovators to emulate them.  This year proved to be quite interesting in the judging process, as some of the criteria that had in previous years made choices easier now made choices harder. The judges continued to balance innovations that leveled an unequal situation for large numbers of people by deploying or organizing technology in a new way with innovations that were more traditional “gee-whiz” displays of technical ingenuity.  As in previous years, many fine applicants did not make the final group because the organizations were developing or deploying a technique or process in a way that did not seem sustainable or replicable.  The judges sought, in addition to evidence of profound and inspiring change for a particular group of people or by a particular person or group, evidence that the technology or organization had the capacity to affect the general population in question, whether defined by disability, geography, or income.

The contributions of the Laureates for the Knight Ridder Equality Award are described below.  They are an inspiring mix ranging from scientists working to improve learning by children with disabilities to human rights workers communicating to hundreds of thousands of persons.  The technologies run from mechanical looms to sophisticated software.  The targeted populations span the globe from Brazil 



AMD, Sunnyvale, CA, U.S.

                People in developed countries are thoroughly convinced of the amazing improvements in productivity and quality of life brought about by home access to the Internet.  No one hesitates to come up with a story of how the Web saved hours in this or that way.  This remarkable transformation is rapidly becoming commonplace for younger generations in wealthy countries, but remains almost entirely out of reach for billions of residents of poorer countries.  This digital divide has the potential to cause even greater divergence of opportunities and capabilities for the world’s population, already sharply divided between rich and poor.

                AMD, one of the largest manufacturers of the silicon chips that constitute the heart of a personal computer, in the past year has launched an initiative that holds much promise.  The concept is straightforward:  take the technologies of computing to the marketplace of the poor countries and solve the problem of the digital divide while also making a profit.  The product to be offered is a Personal Internet Communicator (PIC), a rugged computer specially designed to be easily set up and operated in an environment of low literacy and low serviceability, packaged with a connection service to the Internet.  The pricing of the computer and connection will be affordable to millions of persons, helping to attain the goal of 50x15, AMDs catchy marketing slogan of having 50% of the world’s population connected to the Internet by 2015.

                The PIC has been tested in an emergency situation following the Caribbean hurricane season of 2004, and is now being marketed in India.  This is an exciting example of the “bottom of the pyramid” business strategy advocated by leading strategic thinkers in business schools around the globe.

                More on PIC can be found at:


AnthroTronix, Inc., Silver Spring, MD, U.S.

            Therapists who work with disabled children know the frustrations of trying to teach skills and at the same time bring joy into the often pained heart of a child.  It often seems unfair that those who most need to learn are least able to learn, because the tools and tricks of the learning establishment are designed for children without disabilities.

Fortunately, the care extended to disabled children improves every year, and technology has begun to play a direct role in that improvement.  AnthroTronix is an encouraging symbol of that role.  Its founder, Dr. Corinna Lathan, and her company have developed an innovative set of rehabilitation and learning tools.  One of these tools combines two exciting trends in small-scale robotic technology: control of robotic movement through movement and gestures, rather than through a traditional keyboard that may be too difficult to use for many disabled children; and feedback from robots to computers, so that care-givers can analyze child activity patterns and document improvements.  The Cosmobot, as the product is called, will be enhanced by other software tools.  Together, the suite should greatly improve performance in rehabilitative therapy and special education.

                For more information please see:


CEMINA (Communication, Education and Information on Gender), Rio de Janeiro,


Inequality of access to information and communication is a continuing anxiety of the global community.  The gap between rich and poor in their ability to access the vast network of electronic communication technologies is surely an important factor in preventing poor persons from fully realizing their capabilities in the modern world.  Poor people are experts in their own worlds, terrains of folkloric traditions and well-honed coordination between mind and body useful in craftsmanship.  But they lack what a liberal arts education strives to provide: a set of cognitive tools and strategies for problem-solving in unexpected situations, especially the literacy and worldliness that comes from education.  At a very basic level, poor people are unable to function in and benefit from the urbanized world of the affluent because they do not have the background of experiences, gleaned efficiently from third parties, to enable adaptation to new situations.

                Radio and television continue to be influential technologies for transmitting some of the elements of a classic liberal arts education by providing information to help answer questions, such as: how can one organize one’s fellow workers slaving away in a illegal gold mine, and how can one use one’s workplace voice to convince a reluctant foreman that water breaks are legally mandated by the state, if neither the foreman or workers can read?

CEMINA, an activist non-profit organization based in Brazil with a mission of serving the community of poor Brazilian women, has successfully developed methods for improving information access.  These methods include implementing a technology vision of joining small radio stations broadcasting to a local community with “telecenters” where residents might gain Internet and telephone access.  The radio stations benefit from  the  Internet  access by  being able  to download digitized radio programming that CEMINA produces designed to serve their core constituency

of poor, rural women. 

                Please see for more information.

Centre for the Improvement of Working Conditions & Environment, Lahore, Pakistan

            Child labor in industrial-type settings is a scourge concentrated in South Asia.  Children suffer much anguish, physical and mental, when they work for long hours away from family and friends, and away from the freedom to play and to let their minds and bodies explore.  The international community has come a long way from the 1980s, though, when public outrage over abuses of children in industrial settings almost led to ill-conceived bans that may likely have caused more harm than good.  The problem of child labor is not a problem of evil parents sending their children to sweatshops.  The solution is not to punish parents or employers of child labor.  Child labor is a problem of poor parents making poor choices.  The public action needed to eradicate child labor involves correcting the incentives that parents and employers have to see the returns from children working in factories as higher than the delayed returns from investing in those children. 

The Centre for the Improvement of Working Conditions & Environment (CIWCE) is a division of the Directorate of Labour Welfare Punjab, in Lahore, Pakistan.  It was established in 1988 with grants from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP).  CIWCE has developed an improved, ergonomic and, most important, adult-friendly loom.  The loom makes it easier for adults to weave, improving incomes and thereby freeing their children to pursue schooling or less onerous activities in the household.  The loom has been implemented in 30 sites in the country; monitoring reports suggest it is having the positive impact predicted by the project, to the extent that other organizations working to eliminate child labor are interested in replicating the looms with a view to eventual commercialization.  Moreover, CIWCE has built an impressive number of linkages with international groups involved in the movement to eliminate child labor, including the ILO and the United States Department of Labor.  Their project to improve working conditions in the carpet weaving industry is an excellent example of how technologists as social entrepreneurs can have an impact. 

                CIWCE’s Web site ( provides more detail on their work.


Human Rights in China, New York, NY,

U.S./Hong Kong

            A precursor to any kind of equality has to be respect for the dignity of each person.  This equality is made concrete in international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and national constitutions and other founding documents. Cavalier dismissal of this form of basic equality provokes reaction: civil society organizes human rights groups, and attempts to expose, shame, and testify to the inequalities experienced by citizens.

            Human rights groups are most effective when their efforts are known to the population affected, rather than to distant outsiders who may have little lever age with a national government.  Repressive governments use censorship to prevent this.  Electronic communication is quickly replacing print as the major avenue for obtaining information, including news about human rights issues.  Governments that heavily restrict the circulation of news have been developing extensive controls over electronic communication.  Advocates of freedom of information, including human rights groups have been forced to develop new technological strategies for delivering news and information to their audiences. 

Human Rights in China (HRIC) is one of the premier sources, in China, for news about human rights in the country.  To maintain that position, and deliver the human rights information desperately needed by a democratizing and energized civil society, the organization surmounts constant technological challenges. HRIC delivers proxy server addresses to hundreds of thousands of subscribers in China, who can then access the full range of Web sites all over the world, including Web sites blocked by the government.  HRIC also develops and delivers an interactive electronic newsletter that features contributions from Chinese citizens, as well as dispassionate analyses, and  that reaches hundreds of thousands of people.

                More information on HRIC is contained in their Web site


                The 2005 Laureates and other applicants for the Knight Ridder Equality Award suggest some interesting trends in how social entrepreneurs are innovating with technology to promote greater equality.  First, while electronic technologies are increasingly important, there remains a large role for redesign and promotion of older, pre-electronic technologies.   Second, a new generation of software programmers is making content available online that appeals to disadvantaged communities.  Often these technologies involve facilitating the emergence and deepening of virtual communities.  These virtual communities may someday grow into real forces for change, at both individual and social levels.  The judging panel for the Knight Ridder Equality Award looks forward to keeping tabs on this development.  Finally, the equalization of computing power into the hands of ordinary persons is surely one of the greatest trends of the decade.  But continued progress is not inevitable, and travelers to the Third World are often reminded of the enormous reservoir of understanding of what computers do and how they work that has been built up in the population of the wealthy countries.  Whether hardware and software solutions will be enough to bridge that gap remains an interesting question for researchers and an exciting opportunity for social entrepreneurs.



The Panel

Michael Kevane, Chair, Associate Professor of Economics, Santa Clara University


Mark Aschheim, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, Santa Clara University


Brad Mattson. Chairman, Tegal Corporation


Emile McAnany, Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University


Paul Meissner, Executive Vice President, General Manager of Laser Systems

Coherent, Inc.


John Woldrich, Former COO, Fair, Isaac & Company.

About the Author

Michael Kevane

Michael Kevane conducts research on economic institutions and growth in poor countries, focusing on Africa.  New research focuses on the importance of libraries in promoting reading, and the impacts on societies of a reading public.  Ongoing research includes studies of the determinants of ratification of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the effects of CEDAW.  He is the author of Women and Development in Africa: How Gender Works (Lynne Rienner, 2004), which analyzes how gender operates at the village level to structure the choices that men and women take as economic actors. Kevane now teaches in the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, where he is a Breetwor Fellow.  He is also President of the Sudan Studies Association, and President of Friends of African Village Libraries, a non-profit he co-founded in 2001.

Printer-friendly format