Why Bono is almost right about the healing powers of capitalism

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 22, 2012

From The News Desk

Bono spoke at the F.ounders conference today, and according to reports of people there, he spoke of a "humbling" admission that capitalists, commerce, and nerds can have more impact on solving major social justice problems in the world than anyone else.

He's almost got it right.

As someone who traveled the world to write a book about how "great more to lift thousands out of poverty than most government programs or nongovernmental organizations," I clearly agree the answer to a lot of the worlds problems lies in for-profit entrepreneurship. (And I don't mean that in a creepy Ayn Rand way.) But there's an important caveat here: For this to happen in a widespread way, we can't rely on Silicon Valley nerds as the answer.

Put bluntly, people in Silicon Valley don't build companies for the poor and the disenfranchised, and if they do, they typically don't stay around very long. There are staggeringly few companies built in the US that even focus on the digital divide within our own country.

Sure, Twitter and Facebook have had huge impacts on humankind. And likewise, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom spoke on stage last week about how he wants his company to have the same kind of global human impact -- to be more than just rich kids on Instagram. But let's not kid ourselves: Largely, when a big Western company makes major changes in justice and human rights around the world, it's an accident, not the intention. A wonderful, happy accident yes. But an accident nonetheless.

The problems around the world are too pressing, and technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship are too valuable tools towards solving them to rely on unintended consequences.

What Bono is missing was the far greater role that nerds in these afflicted countries are playing. They acutely know the problems on the ground and are far better suited to solve them. After all, Silicon Valley may have a dominance in the know-how to scale and build commercial giants. But it doesn't have a dominance in using technology to solve problems.

I've written before about companies that are already doing this. VNL in India has found a way to extend cell reception in massively cost effective, power-free ways into remote Indian villages. It has worked so well, that the same equipment is being used in remote and rural parts of the US. SMSOne has created a relevant SMS mashup of a Craigslist and Google in rural Indian villages. BS Construtora has developed a way to build a house in 24 hours. M-PESA is the most transformational implementation of a working mobile currency developed yet. You may not have heard of these examples, but there are hundreds of them around the world.

It's not the star-level people invited to the F.ounders conference. It's the people who will never be invited to expensive, elite conferences that will be the capitalists who achieve the activist goals Bono has spent a career campaigning for.

[Image courtesy wikimedia]