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‘A Digital Lifeline’ - World Food Programme Brings High-Tech Jobs To Struggling Regions

By Mara Lafontaine · July 22, 2023

In brief…

  • WFP Innovation Accelerator chief Bernhard Kowatsch uses tech training to fight poverty in the developing world.
  • Program has successfully trained young people in basic computer skills and data labeling, enabling them to transition into remote jobs like website design and social-media management.
  • Initiative aims to bring technology to regions without internet access or electricity.
  • Accelerator program has reached 37 million people while helping startups raise $200 million.
Digitized Decision Tree   Rens Dimmendaal & Johann Siemens, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the United Nations ‘AI For Good’ Global Summit in Geneva, Switzerland, Bernhard Kowatsch, head of the World Food Programme (WFP)Innovation Accelerator, spoke with CNN about the connection between access to technology and poverty.

“Historically, organizations would train people to become carpenters,” Kowatsch said.

“But now, why not choose to do digital training and connecting people to jobs online?”

Kowatsch wants to bring technology to those who may not currently have internet access, electricity or running water [to] empower people that are young, that…have a future in front of them. But because they have to flee from a war, or they just happen to be growing up in an area where they don’t have economic opportunity,” we asked ourselves, “how could we bring them into the digital economy?”

Programs funded by the WFP’s Innovation Accelerator are operational in 88 countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, and Kenya, where they have taught young people basic computer skills and trained them for jobs such as data labeling, a critical part of creating artificial intelligence (AI) systems. 

As they acquire these skills, students can transition into jobs such as website design or social-media management. “These are the types of jobs that you can actually do remotely. And all of a sudden [individuals] can provide for themselves and their families rather than being dependent on donations and food assistance,” Kowatsch said.

Addressing AI safety and ethics, Kowatsch emphasized, “You don’t want to put people at risk. But you want to improve their lives. This is going to be the big goal.” To date, the Innovation Accelerator has assisted 37 million people. The program’s reach roughly doubles annually. Startup companies supported by the program have raised $200 million in capital, demonstrating the immense impact these types of job-focused programs can have.