Editor’s note: Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, passed away on 18 August. In the below keynote speech, delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2015, he shares his views on how technological advancements could improve the state of the world.
Several crises are today playing out on the world stage, simultaneously. Democracy is threatened by autocratic governments which use fraudulent elections to wrap themselves in a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Climate change is already wreaking havoc as those experiencing droughts, wildfires and floods can tell you.
‘The Internet can bring learning to the most remote areas of the planet.’ – Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations
Hunger continues to haunt millions, particularly in Africa, which is the only continent on earth that depends on food imports despite having 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. In some of the poorer parts of the world, these crises are compounded by rapid population growth, which is producing a youth boom. Africa alone is forecast to double its population to 2.4 billion by 2050.
Two crucial ingredients can help solve these crises: Technology and political will. The use of electronic systems for voter registration and identification and the tallying of votes can increase trust and reduce suspicions in countries with records of electoral fraud.
Yet the best technology is useless if the decision makers are not willing to accept the results and govern in manner that serves the public rather than their own narrow interests. Technology for harvesting solar, wind and geothermal energy can help green our economies and avert an impending climate catastrophe.
Yet without the political will to invest in, promote and disseminate these technologies, we will not get very far. Advanced farming techniques, if made accessible to smallholder farmers will enhance productivity and avert hunger. Drought and heat tolerant crops and improved irrigation systems have the potential to make of Africa a global food exporter and agricultural powerhouse.
Great promise also lies in digital technology allowing the many disparate African smallholder farmers to organize simply and efficiently to negotiate better seed prices and tap into bigger markets. But yet again, without the political will to put in place adequate incentives, and remove unfair trade barriers and eliminate harmful export subsidies of the richer nations, none of these efforts will bear fruit.
‘Let us invest in and embrace technology; it makes progress possible.’
Let me conclude those few introductory remarks by pointing to two other areas that hold the promise to improve the lives of people everywhere: education and big data.
The Internet can bring learning to the most remote areas of the planet. The financial means to afford a cutting edge education are no longer the prerequisite for access to cutting edge knowledge. Technology can transport this knowledge in real time, at low costs, to areas that do not even have schools, let alone universities.
Big data can predict the spread of viruses based on a community’s behaviour on search engines and how often they type in keywords such as flu. It can make the management of disaster response work more efficient by predicting refugee movements and preparing first responders ahead of time. But again, without the right policy framework ensuring that big data is not abused, our privacy, indeed our liberty, will be in danger.
In sum: let us invest in and embrace technology; it makes progress possible. But technology does not free us of the need for leadership; it makes leadership all the more important. So let us not forget that technology by itself cannot absolve us of our political responsibility to ensure that we use it wisely and efficiently for the good of society everywhere.