In this article, abridged from his presentation this year at Davos, he argues that while it is important to Save the Earth, it is more important to Save Ourselves first.
In a world ravaged by climate, catastrophes, wars, inflation, and recently Covid-19, most Non-Government Organizations (NGO’s) and ‘Social Good’ actors are constantly being stretched. This stretch is in every aspect of their work: from operational impact to emergency response, as also resource mobilization, research, logistics and advocacy. Responses in all these areas need to be fast and effective, highlighting that for the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and in our quest for a better world, our collective focus must be on working tirelessly towards achieving them, especially those pertaining to climate action (SDG 13), elimination of hunger, malnutrition (SDG 2) and food wastage (SDG 12), by marshalling all the resources at our command.
Were it not for technology and innovation, we may still have been at the losing end of our battle with Covid-19, whereas per WHO & Johns Hopkins data, more than 6.8 million people lost their lives, about 700 million contracted the virus and as per Devex & IMF estimates, collectively about 20 Trillion dollars (including health spends and direct support), were expended in overcoming it. Technology enabled rapid detection of the infection and the innovation of its vaccine that has contained Covid-19. Technology also enabled the evolution of working from home, digital retail and payments, etc.
However, these cutting-edge technologies & global innovations must also work their magic in fighting similar, bigger and unfortunately much older battles, to deliver equivalent outcomes. As an example, it would be interesting to discuss SDG-2 of eliminating Hunger & malnutrition. It was during the same three-year period of COVID-19 that over 20 million people died of Hunger and over 800 million are still suffering from it, where only a miniscule fraction of a trillion dollars (one estimate at around US$ 28 Billion per annum) were being invested in this endeavour of alleviating hunger. Even going forward, World Food Program estimate annual spends of US$ 40 Billion in the next few years.
Why did this happen? I would argue that this happened because Covid treated everyone equally, while hunger does not treat everyone equally.
While adequate funding and collective willingness to eliminate them are an issue, hunger and malnutrition are a complex problem and one cannot achieve zero hunger without addressing the associated factors of malnutrition.
However, multiple NGO’s are trying hard and making progress, by incorporating innovative, tech-driven solutions, alongside the hundreds of thousands of their foot soldiers.
The time has come for all the Tech Giants of the world to put their shoulder to the wheel and contribute to societal causes, in fact towards ESG. Contribute intellectual resources: a few of their best minds, each for a couple of years, under a ‘DonaTech’ Program, to focus solely in their areas of specialization, for finding solutions to global issues like climate change, poverty, hunger, water stress, and diseases. Worldwide, for encouraging their contributions, these efforts could be made eligible for tax incentives, both for the individuals and for the corporations, for the periods where they work on these projects of global importance. As for India, the Government could also consider treating these technology contributions as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility efforts.
Small steps are already being taken and an innovative, real-life technology application in the Hunger NGO space, developed & piloted in partnerships, by Action Against Hunger is quite unique. This utilizes a simple photograph taken by the mother of an undernourished child on her smartphone, or on a smart tab by an ASHA or Anganwadi worker in the village. This photograph is geotagged, analysed for SAM (Severe Acute Malnutrition) or MAM (Moderate Acute Malnutrition) by use of AI and is then entered into a central cloud database. Real-time detection and monitoring of this database ensures immediate commencement of treatment of the child at home with supplementary foods, or at a Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre. It also serves as an evidence bank for future big data analysis for trends and outbreaks. This system minimizes the need for physical measurement by a visiting worker, be it with a weighing scale and height-board, or with a physical Mid-upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) tape, a practice followed for over four decades, that has various challenges with data accuracy and required skillset. It also ensures that regular remote monitoring of that affected child can be done based on simple weekly pictures.
However, if we are to achieve the SDGs and overcome global challenges like climate change etc. multiple NGOs in diverse domains need to work with as many tech companies as possible to design and innovate technological solutions for the problems of the most vulnerable communities across the world.
On the issue of Food Wastage, it is shocking that around 1.3 billion Tons of food is wasted around the world, every year. While the estimated value of this is one Trillion dollars, this also constitutes the equivalent of the third largest Carbon footprint after the US and China. This wastage would suffice to feed the world’s hungry more than twice over.
A substantial portion of this wastage is Packaged Foods beyond their shelf-life. It should be our endeavour to build a “Good for the Earth” program in cooperation and coordination with the large food MNC’s, like Unilever, Nestlé, Danone etc. Under this program they would donate the last 10% of the shelf life of all their products to NGO’s. These NGOs would be responsible for delivery of these donated products to the beneficiaries and consumption by them. Logistical support could also be requested from companies like Amazon, DHL, FedEx etc. under a sub-program, called for example “Amazon for Good”. Parallel, governments would be requested to refund excise, VAT, etc. taxes to the producing MNC’s and / or Supermarkets and Stores, as the case may be. This would result in a win, win, win situation for the hungry, the NGO’s, the MNC’s, Governments and for the planet.
Yet another amusing hashtag which has gained prominence is #Save the Earth. If we look at it logically, the Earth came into existence about 4.5 billion years ago and will probably be around for the next few Billion years. All our plastic waste and even our nuclear waste will resolve itself over the next 10,000 or even a million years, but we as ‘Homo Sapiens’ may not be around to see the day, if we continue to behave as we have been doing. It is time we learnt from the appearance and subsequent disappearance of Neanderthal man….. More than trying to save the Earth, which may have the capacity to generate new forms of life, we need to save ourselves. One of the ways in which we can all put this into action is by “Making Frugal Living Fashionable “.
All of us as stakeholders are well aware of the scale and magnitude of the challenges, given their influence on day-to-day well-being. Understanding that the implications of falling short would be painful, we all must support, promote, and strengthen the collaboration between Donors, Technology Providers/ Innovators, Governments, Beneficiaries and Social Good actors for finding path breaking and game changing solutions.
It was during the same three-year period of COVID-19 that over 20 million people died of Hunger and over 800 million are still suffering from it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashwani Kakkar is presently the chairman of ‘Action Against Hunger’, an organization based out of Paris. He is formerly a travel agent, heading Mercury Travels. He is an investor and an avid art collector.