ICTs can really assist social causes, argues 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner

By June 22, 2016
Kailash Satyarthi

L’Atelier interviewed Kailash Satyarthi, an activist against child labour who was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, during the recent TiEcon event coordinated by TiE, an organisation set up by members of the Indian diaspora in Silicon Valley (originally as The Indus Entrepreneurs) to encourage entrepreneurship.

In December last year, Mark Zuckerberg declared that he was going to give away 99% of his wealth. In 2014, Bill Gates gave at least $1.4 billion to good causes. So are the next major philanthropists hiding somewhere among the Web giants? And if they really want to change the world, what role can all that Silicon Valley talent, technology and innovation play in combatting the curses of child labour and slavery? Kailash Satyarthi offers some answers and makes a call for human values to be restored to the heart of innovation.

So what brings you to TiEcon in Silicon Valley?

Kailash Satyarthi: Silicon Valley is a hotbed of technology, pioneers, risk-taking, disruption, innovation and change. I can see similarities with my own struggles. So when I received an invitation from TiE I was very excited. I’ve also tried to take risks, to find solutions to child labour and slavery through innovation. I’ve tried to use technology. Of course, when I started out we didn’t have mobile phones, we didn’t even have a fixed line phone – all sorts of things that have great potential to help solve those problems.

Which statistics do you get most angry about?

Every child counts. If one single child is living in slavery, we cannot yet call the world a civilised place. If a single child is in danger the whole of humanity is in danger. We should be ashamed of the simple fact that a child can be bought and sold like an animal.

Today some 160 million children are still forced to work. Among these, 5.5 million are slaves. Some 59 million children have never been to school. 150 million drop out before finishing primary school. These are the figures that make me angry. But the good news is that things are getting better! Fifty years ago the number of children in forced labour was 260 million. We’ve also brought down infant mortality dramatically. We’ve reduced the number of children who do not attend school from 130 million to 59 million. Things are changing but we need to continue working fast and with a sense of urgency.

A career path such as that of Google CEO Sundar Pichai bears witness to the influence and success of the Indian diaspora in Silicon Valley. How has this Indian-style ‘soft power’ helped you?

The Indian diaspora has emerged over the years as a major power – the power of technology, of wealth, but also of the moral values stemming from its heritage, its eastern values. Of course these values need to be leveraged and made more widespread. The Indian diaspora has a great responsibility. It needs to take a leadership role and help to end the evils we’re talking about – and that includes using information and communication technology to do so. Members of the Indian diaspora have proved that they know how to take risks and find solutions, especially here in Silicon Valley!



You yourself are an engineer, but you abandoned that career to devote yourself to humanitarian causes. Do you feel that working to make an impact on society finds an echo among the talented Silicon Valley people you’ve met?

Well, I know that when they are just starting out, young talented people are very busy setting up their own companies and selling them off, but sooner or later they can’t ignore that little voice inside them. We must give back to society some of what society has given us. Sometimes they find ways of giving money here or in India, but they could do a lot more if they could come up with some real solutions! That’s why I’m here; to provoke them a bit, to kindle the spark inside them, the spark of passion for humanity.

So how can technology foster social change?

It will be up to these young talented people to work out how technology can help. But I can give you a few examples. A network of surveillance cameras with image recognition functionality set up in areas such as train stations where there’s a high people-flow density, linked to a set of apps, can help combat child trafficking. You can also use biometric systems! That’s how technology can help.
We can also imagine apps designed to alert works inspectors and other officials anywhere in the world to cases of child labour. It shouldn’t be too difficult to check – using the same surveillance equipment – whether there are any children working in our companies. The technology isn’t very expensive. Apps can also be used to check whether or not kids are in school. If more than 10% of the registered children are absent, there might well be a problem. In fact technology can help social progress in so many ways.

Mark Zuckerberg a potential Nobel Peace Prize winner?

Mark Zuckerberg says that his mission is to help create a more open and connected world. He claims that if you connect ten people to the Internet, one will emerge from poverty through education, communication and access to job websites. If Mark Zuckerberg helps to connect millions or even billions of people to the Internet – even though this will also benefit his company – do you think he would deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

I don’t know. That would be up to the Nobel Committee to decide. I can only give an opinion. Digital connectivity must be translated into human connectivity. Sometimes digital connectivity can help lift people out of poverty because it helps the spread of information. Making information available to the many is a good thing. But I believe that the most important thing is to connect with human compassion. Let’s globalise information but let’s also globalise compassion!

“Do business with compassionate intelligence!”

This is why I’m calling on people to do business with compassionate intelligence. Doing business intelligently is part of a conventional way of thinking. Doing business with a sense of responsibility is the new way of thinking!

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