Can The Sharing Economy Solve Global Hunger?

The ideas behind sharing are inherently local, but global issues also feature some of the distribution problems that the sharing economy is designed to solve. What lessons can be taken from the local to the global economy?

As interest in the sharing economy has grown over the last year, the poster child for sharing has been the power drill. As Rachel Botsman, author of a great book on sharing called What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption points out, the average power drill, which most of us own, gets something like 12 minutes of use over the course of its life. The argument that follows is pretty simple: We’d be much more efficient consumers, and much better at using our global resources, if instead of wasting our money to buy things like power drills that we need occasionally, but not often, we just shared them with our neighbors.

Implicit in many--though certainly not all--businesses and concepts around sharing, is a certain kind of localism. For the most part, sharing is oriented around cars and tools and other things that can be easily shared with a neighbor, but can’t easily be shipped halfway around the globe.

But what if we could use the concept of sharing excess capacity to create tangible social connections across continents and to reduce unnecessary inequalities?

That’s the idea behind a couple of different initiatives involving the World Food Programme. The first idea is an energy drink called Street King that the WFP has released in partnership with rapper and entrepreneur 50 Cent. Every time a consumer purchases a Street King, the parent company donates a portion of the profits to pay for a meal for a hungry child.

The second, called We Feedback, asks people to pick out a favorite meal--a hamburger, say--plug the cost into the site’s calculator, and donate an equivalent amount to efforts to reduce hunger. It’s particularly interesting to think about We Feedback as a dieting strategy, where, in effect, you could pledge to eat fewer burgers and use that money to make sure someone else has enough to eat.

Now, at first glance, rethinking the need to purchase an underutilized power drill and not eating a few hamburgers don’t seem to have a lot in common. But they share a similar insight. Both are essentially taking your excess capacity (you’re not going to starve without those extra burgers) and converting it into benefit for someone who does. There is huge disparity in the system: As the number of overweight and obese people has climbed above 1 billion globally, the number of hungry people globally has also risen from below 800 million in the mid-1990s to more than 900 million people today. So, much like the drills that some people own but don’t need all the time, the programs let you give away some calories that you don’t need to people who don’t have the calories available to them.

The key differences between the problems of food and the problems of the power drill are the scale of the challenge and the geography of the distribution.

What these initiatives from the World Food Programme point to is both a longer-term question and opportunity for thinking about how to move emerging efforts around sharing from primarily local to becoming more broadly global.

Services like ZipCar are already demonstrating that sharing is a viable strategy for making resources like cars both cheaper and more accessible in local communities, while simultaneously ensuring that these resources are used more efficiently. The next challenge in the sharing economy will be to think about resources like food, where distribution problems can’t be fixed simply by reallocating local resources, to identify strategies to rebalance these global disparities.

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