Are Smartphones the Right Gift for West Africa’s Ebola Fight?
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Smartphones may not be the smartest solution to fighting Ebola in West Africa.
Technology giants including Google, Amazon and Ericsson, and techie charities such as the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation have donated thousands of smartphones for use across the region, where better communication is key to stopping the epidemic.
But some tech experts with long experience in Africa say the phones could end up overwhelming fragile digital networks and electrical grids and actually complicate the effort.
“I’m sure this comes from only the best sentiment and a true desire to help — but it is a very bad idea,” Chris Fabian, UNICEF’s senior innovation adviser, wrote in a blog post last month. “It might be better to dump the smartphones into the ocean than to dump them onto the Ebola emergency response.”
In a way, the conflict is just the latest chapter in a debate raging since the 1960s about whether technological fixes — anything from vaccination campaigns to hybrid crops and fertilizer — are the best way to assist developing countries. Wary of loading down countries like Liberia with high-tech gadgetry they can’t maintain, U.S. officials are advocating modest tech applications in conjunction with efforts to help build infrastructure that lasts.