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Hacking Poverty through Social Entrepreneurship

In Silicon Valley the term “hacker” connotes high praise for someone particularly adept at finding clever new ways to accomplish difficult tasks...

In Silicon Valley the term “hacker” connotes high praise for someone particularly adept at finding clever new ways to accomplish difficult tasks and solve challenging problems. With this context in mind (rather than nefarious meanings ascribed to “hack” in the presidential campaign), I suggested during my recent TEDx talk that Pope Francis is a hacker of poverty.

Global poverty is a wicked problem. Even with the estimated $150 billion in official development assistance in 2013 alone to help lift people out of poverty, 4 billion of the world’s nearly 7.5 billion people still live on less than an average of $4 a day; 1.1 billion lack access to safe drinking water; and 2.5 billion practice open defecation, spreading diarrheal diseases that kill a child every 20 seconds.
These ill effects of poverty are likely to worsen. Consider:

  1. We’ll have 2 billion more people on the planet by 2050. Even if poverty rates decline, the absolute number of poor people could increase.

  2. We’re experiencing history’s largest wave of urban migration. Migrants moving to cities often can’t find work because they lack necessary skills, ending up destitute. Unlike rural environments, urban areas lack ecosystem services such as food.

  3. We’re headed toward a 4° Celsius increase in global mean surface temperature by the century’s end, far beyond what most scientists consider catastrophic. The poor – already affected by climate change – will continue to suffer most severely. Food insecurity will intensify from drought, heat waves, and ocean warming and acidification.

Official development assistance tends to focus on centralized solutions to poverty. That’s where “hacking poverty” comes in. 

Two Hacks for Poverty: Distributed Systems and Social Entrepreneurship
The most successful distributed system to date is mobile technology. With 6.8 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, more people on the planet have access to mobile phones than to toilets. Leveraging this near ubiquity of mobile technology, poverty hackers are providing financial services to the unbanked; mobile money in the global south is leapfrogging the global north’s centralized banking paradigm.
Social entrepreneurship applies established business principles and practices to poverty-related issues, including climate change. Unlike top-down aid approaches, social entrepreneurship fosters solutions within poor communities, boosting adoption and sustainability over time.
Social enterprises hack poverty through distributed energy and food production; by changing how solutions are financed, distributed, and sold; and by shifting economic dynamics toward the poor themselves.
How does Pope Francis fit into hacking poverty? The pope’s Laudato Si’ encyclical, which also aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), carries this essential message: The system is broken. It needs to be hacked.
Pope Francis and the UN SDGs provide frameworks for doing things differently, more creatively, more effectively. We can all take action and become hackers of poverty in whatever ways we can. There’s literally no time to waste.


*A version of this article was originally posted on TechCrunch on July 22, 2016.

Business, Entrepreneurship, Global, Silicon Valley, Technology
Environment, Religion, Social Impact, Illuminate
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