Mercy Wanjiku is unlike most farmers. Her most powerful tool is her cellphone and a text messaging service called iCow. (Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)
By conventional wisdom, 2016 has been a horrible year.
Only someone living in a cave could have missed the flood of disheartening headlines.
However, if 2016 continues the global trends of previous years, it may turn out to have been one of the best years for humanity as a whole.
Those of us who live in the world of poverty research and rigorous measurement have watched many global indicators improve consistently for the past few decades. Between 1990 and 2013 (the last year for which there is good data), the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than half, from 1.85 billion to 770 million.
As the University of Oxford’s Max Roser recently put it the top headline every day for the past two decades should have been: “Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130,000 since yesterday.” At the same time, child mortality has dropped by nearly half, while literacy, vaccinations and the number of people living in democracy have all increased.
Third, access to mobile money may lift people out of poverty in large numbers. In many parts of the world, cellphone signals are reaching remote areas, and with that new forms of electronic services. In Kenya, the M-Pesa mobile money system, introduced in 2007, allows anybody with a mobile phone to transfer money through a text message. Research from this year shows that as M-Pesa became more available in a local area, households became less poor — particularly households run by women. The study estimates that 185,000 women changed professions from subsistence agriculture to business and retail and that 194,000 households were lifted out of extreme poverty.
Finally, mobile phone technologies are leapfrogging the reach of traditional telecom infrastructure, and text message reminders are proving to be effective at helping people follow through on things they want to do. One study found that they helped the poor save money. Another in Ghana aimed at combating drug resistance found that such reminders helped people to finish all of their antimalarial drugs. Researchers in Ghana also found that text message quizzes improved girls’ understanding of reproductive health, resulting in fewer reported pregnancies. In Kenya, another interactive text message system offering support for teachers helped reduce student dropouts by 50 percent.
This is not to say that poverty research is a continuous parade of celebratory findings. Many programs don’t work, but knowing what does work allows governments, investors and aid organizations to move toward the more effective programs. Here’s to a 2017 that’s even better for humanity than 2016.
Annie Duflo and Jeffrey Mosenkis are the executive director and senior policy communications associate, respectively, at Innovations for Poverty Action, a nonprofit that researches and promotes solutions to global poverty problems.