THE BLOG

How the Internet Could End Poverty

02/21/2013 08:04 EST | Updated 04/23/2013 05:12 EDT
AP
FILE- In this Thursday, July 16, 2009, file photo, a Facebook user logs into their account in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. In yet another change that irked users, Facebook has replaced the email address you picked to display on your profile page when you signed up for the online social network with an (at)facebook.com address. Previously, users may have had a yahoo.com or gmail.com address displayed, so that if people wanted to contact them outside of Facebook, they could. Sending an email to a Facebook.com address will land the email in the messages section of your Facebook profile. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick)

The internet provides an unprecedented gateway to communicate and it's already changed the world in more ways than a few. Heck, it's the only way you're able to see this post! While the internet does wonderous and magical things, I think that it's a force that can help end poverty by creating jobs.

In the non-profit world you're often faced with pressing questions; where's my funding coming from? Is the project successful? What challenge are we addressing? Who let the dogs out? And so on.

Next comes the bold and pioneering questions: should a non-profit exist to cease to exist? Can we end global poverty? Can everyday folks really change the world anymore? To these questions I answer -- yes.

I like the bold questions, they rely on raw ingenuity and encourage us to understand what is and isn't within the realm of human possibility. We're not talking about idealism, we're talking about conceptualizing a long-term, challenging goal and turning it into a reality. We have the resources, we just need the will.

That's why within the next few months The SPARK Initiative will be undertaking research to see just how possible a job for every eligible person on Earth is. If it sounds far-fetched but so did going to space 100 years ago.

To explore this possibility we need to start small. The idea was inspired by NGO juggernauts like Kiva and the Grameen Bank that offer micro-loans to people in developing countries to start small businesses so that they can free themselves from the cycle of poverty.

The difference between this proposal and a micro-loan is that this is a self-generated source of alternative income by harnessing the power of the internet. Mind you, this isn't encouraging people who are in need of additional income to go all Zuckerberg on us -- it's more about using your passions and inherent skills to make money.

Tim Ferris' engaging, New York Times bestseller the 4-Hour Workweek is probably one of the easiest to follow alternative income generation books on the market today. It trivializes the process a bit but he's definitely on to something.

The concept is basically about putting in the least amount of time (input) to make more money (output) while having a career. While this book wasn't designed to alleviate poverty and was catered to middle-income earners, the principal still remains the same.

For example, in a Canadian or American context, leaving aside developing-nation poverty, those below the poverty line are either unemployed or working one or more low-wage jobs to put food on the table. What if we could take the passions and skills that people have, assuming that we are all good at something and market it on a freelance basis?

Here's a scenario: let's say there's a single-mom who works two jobs to support her child. In addition to the compounding pressures and responsibilities of motherhood and balancing her priorities, she makes the best lasagna in the world but never thought anything of it. Let's call her Jane. Jane never had the chance to explore the possibility of becoming a chef because she couldn't afford the extra time in culinary school, let alone the added expense.

For all you microeconomics scholars, this would be considered a high-opportunity cost. What if she could market her amazing lasagna to people through Craigslist or Kijiji, where she could start her own unofficial catering business while she kept her current employment? Impossible you say? It's already happening, we just have to substitute the micro-loan for a mini start-up grant.

There are alternatives currently in existence that work just as well, social financing and community impact bonds are similar to micro-loans but they utilize different structures and are complicated to apply for, especially if your current jobs and personal commitments prevent you from doing so. The process needs to be simplified, accessible and impactful to those in lower or zero income brackets.

We're talking about using best practices of income maximization from the private sector and applying it to non-profit sector income generation for those who need it. Of course, there's still lots of challenges to consider. If the individual is selling food, how can you guarantee health standards without applying for a permit?

Will an organization have to manage each sole-enterpreneur separately by helping them with marketing, accounting and other critical small business tasks? The questions are endless but the concept, especially with the onset of the Internet puts the idea of skill and passion based business within reach more so now, than ever before.

What is needed however is government support and buy-in. Programs like the Canadian Youth Business Foundation support young entrepreneurs who have little-to-no capital and only a business plan. Sometimes they may even include grants and forgivable loans for promising projects.

They've received strong funding from the government and in return have created much economic activity. Government policies both locally and internationally need to be flexible enough to support those working low-income jobs or unemployed and provide greater incentives to explore income generation through the internet. It's the 21st century -- let's get with it.

If this works here, it could potentially work in developing countries. In fact it already is. SamaSource is an innovative social business that connects women and youth living in poverty to work opportunities via the Internet from Africa.

Low start-up costs, maximum output. It's a similar concept that works in a completely different climate, both figuratively and literally. The concept of alternative income generation is not only something that can help break someone free from the shackles of poverty, it can provide an unprecedented opportunity to start anew and change lives for the better.

A meaningful, dignified and enjoyable job is available for everyone, especially those who need it the most. By harnessing the innovation and creativity of the private sector and support of the government towards goals that seem ambitious but are less so than putting a man on the moon or putting a computer in your pocket, we may truly change the world.