By Esther Dyson
Addressing the world’s most pressing problems, requires helping to tackle the underlying businesses
An online charity organisation is taking Silicon Valley by storm. Called Watsi, the charity allows users to read personal tales of medical woe in emerging markets and contribute up to the total amount needed to pay for a particular patient’s treatment. Many might say, “How nice!” But I say, “Hold the applause.”
The problem is not that Watsi is a bad service. The problem is that it is good at what it does. All the money raised goes directly to the individual whose care you are paying for. (You can contribute separately if you want to support Watsi’s operations.) There are strict processes and protections in place to ensure that the care goes only to the “deserving poor” (not their words, but that is the idea), rather than to just anyone. There are safeguards to prevent expensive care from being given to someone who does not really need it. And everything is visible; all of Watsi’s financial records are accessible on a Google Transparency Document.
Yes, the Internet allows people to connect – one to one – across cultures and distance. And it is good that people feel empathy, or at least sympathy, for those who are less fortunate. But the ability to solve immediate problems encourages a passive, money-heals-all approach. You see someone lying in a virtual ditch, you help him or her, and call it a good day. In this respect, Watsi resembles a day-trading site, where investors buy and sell stocks relentlessly, without helping to build the underlying businesses.
The problem is broader than Watsi. Even as it becomes easier to see and care for people lying injured on the side of the virtual highway, it becomes harder to perceive and easier to ignore the “road” conditions that caused their injuries – poor nutrition, poverty, inadequate prenatal care, corruption, diversion of resources, and the like. Like so many modern tools, Watsi encourages a short-term, emotional approach to the state of the world. It is like looking through a telescope: a lot of detail, no perspective.
It is not that we should feel nothing; but we should be encouraged to think more and to prevent the wound rather than pay for the Band-Aid. In a media culture that can deliver instant stardom and fickle trends, our attention shifts too rapidly to see the forest for the trees.
It is this short-term approach that leads us to celebrate each overthrow of a dictator, rather than think about how to educate people to demand good government. We are drawn to heartwarming stories of an understanding teacher who sees a student’s potential and helps her get into university, or a frequent diner who funds a kitchen worker’s dream to start his own restaurant.
But a good society is one in which you do not have to get lucky to avoid a life of poor education, unhealthy food, and dead-end jobs. And a good commentary is one that does more than just whine about other people’s shortsightedness. So, what would work better? The answer probably is not an academic paper about the inadequate diet or corrupt medical system in country X. But perhaps it would help to ground discussion of such issues in the context in which other people live. It is easy to think we understand someone’s distress, but most people (especially Americans) have no idea what life is really like in another country.
Indeed, instigating and supporting long-term change is a far more complicated undertaking than treating the casualties of broken systems. The fact that we can quantify so many things means that sometimes we abandon the challenges that are harder to measure – such as corruption, food quality, or education. Even as the Internet and services such as Watsi make the world seem smaller, they can obscure the reality of what is driving global developments. Let’s invest in prenatal care, education, and transparency. Let’s help people build their own societies.
Unfortunately, addressing the world’s most pressing problems is not as simple as setting up a Web site where foreigners can contribute to social improvements in some other country. So, if you lack the knowledge or standing to involve yourself in another country’s affairs, don’t do it. Poverty, ignorance, poor nutrition, and inadequate health care exist almost everywhere; the path of least effort – and perhaps greatest effectiveness – may start at home.
Esther Dyson, principal of EDventure Holdings, is an entrepreneur and investor concentrating on emerging markets and technologies. Her interests include information technology, health care, private aviation, and space travel.