The Opposite of Poverty
Jacqueline Novogratz

Dignity through access to technology

Technology is often seen as one of the perks of a better life. From labor-saving devices to live-saving medical equipment, the transformative potential is vast, provided, that is, you have access to it. For those living in the poorest parts of the world — those with the most to gain — too often this isn’t the case, because it can take a decade or more before technology becomes available or affordable — if it ever does.

Today, new ways are emerging that can change all that. Through innovative public-private sector partnerships, it is possible to help create equitable access to even the latest technology. By investing in these kinds of novel business models we can now use technology to help tackle poverty and help millions of the most marginalized people live more dignified lives.

My favorite example, and one to which I have devoted decades of my life, is something many of us probably take for granted and don’t even think of as a technology — vaccines. Whether they come in the form of shots or drops, vaccines are one of the most profound technologies ever created, and not just because of the complex science that goes into making them — it’s also what they can do.

A girl being vaccinated against HPV in Rwanda. Photo by: Gavi / Ryan Youngblood

Their impact on humanity is hard to match; they have reduced human suffering and death on a global scale, eradicated smallpox, with polio on its way out and helped halve childhood mortality in recent decades. Despite this, one-in-five children still don’t have access to a full course of the most basic vaccines. The vast majority live in poor countries where a vaccine can make a very real difference between a child dying before their fifth birthday or going on to live life to their full potential. After all, it’s not just about the short-term aim of preventing disease. It’s also the long-term gain in helping people stay healthy.

A healthy child doesn’t need medical treatment or healthcare, both of which come at cost to the family and government. A vaccinated child is more likely to attend and perform better at school, giving them greater opportunities to live a more productive and fulfilled life. In addition, a healthy child doesn’t need looking after, allowing their parents to go out to work. So while caring for a sick child can push a family into poverty, a healthy child can enable them to live more productive lives.

However, the precious drops of liquid that make this possible are the end product of sophisticated and complex biological technologies, and that comes at a price. In the United States, it can cost more than $950 to vaccinate a child against all recommended diseases, a figure that puts this technology well beyond the reach of the vast majority of children in the world. In addition to cost, there is the issue of access. With improved supply chains and equipment, particularly in remote regions that often lack the power to provide the necessary refrigeration for vaccines, we stand a greater chance of reaching the hardest to reach. Much like Acumen’s investment in projects like Ambulance 1298 in India and SolarNow in Uganda, we can transform lives by providing much needed infrastructure.

Thankfully in the last 15 years, through the creation of innovative organizations like Gavi and Acumen, we have made real progress in overcoming such obstacles. By recognizing health as a fundamental human right, we have seen vaccine prices brought down, by more than 90% in some cases for people living in the poorest parts of the world. We have also seen radically new technologies developed to help improve the delivery of vaccines to remote regions.

Dedicated workers can also play a vital role in bringing dignity back to the community as we have seen with the work Acumen has been doing in Pakistan, where Kashf, the country’s first microfinance institution has helped empower low-income women and their families. Similarly, by developing more culturally sensitive ways of delivering services we have helped increase immunization coverage in Pakistan, such as through the 100,000 Lady Health Workers who have had a huge impact in reducing the gender barrier to mother’s attendance and care.

Shankotila Bai, a Lady Health Worker in Pakistan. Photo by: Gavi / Asad Zaidi

All this has not only given millions of the most marginalized people across the globe access to the same technology as those living in the wealthiest parts of the world. It has also helped create a bridge, enabling other vital health interventions to reach them too. That’s because immunization, and the services and infrastructure that support it, can also act as a platform for improved maternal care, nutritional supplements and malarial prevention, among others. All this is helping more people than ever before to live healthier more dignified lives. In a sense, childhood vaccination represents the ultimate in patient capital, investing for the long-term in the lives, health and dignity of infants no matter where they live.