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Indian Mobile Phone Application Innovators Empower Citizens

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

With mobile phones becoming ubiquitous across the global South, the opportunity to make money – and possible fortunes – by providing ‘apps’ for these devices is now a reality.

Apps (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Application_software) – applications which allow users of new mobile phones to do everything from running a business to banking to navigating chaotic cities – have quickly become a very creative space and a dynamic market for innovators and entrepreneurs. Because they are pieces of software and are relatively inexpensive to create, requiring only time and hard work, an individual working out of their home can develop an app, introduce it to the online marketplace and see if it will succeed.

The only limit is the imagination.

They are also a great way to solve people’s problems and possibly make some money in the process. As economies and cities grow across the South, many everyday difficulties can be tackled with these apps.

Apps are revolutionary because they solve the problem of how to view websites on mobile phones and smartphones (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smartphone). Apps are designed for a small screen and have simple functionality and design. They often can function without any constant connection to the Internet, updating themselves sporadically when the phone can connect with phone networks or the Internet. They are also either free or inexpensive, using micro-payments to make a profit. The essence of the micro-payment business model is to charge a small amount and turn this into a large amount by having large numbers of people download the app. It is a successful business formula that has made many vast fortunes throughout the age of the mass consumer market, which began in the late 19th century.

Bart Decrem, co-founder of Tapulous, a maker of apps for the iPhone (http://tapulous.com), told The Economist: “Apps are nuggets of magic.”

Apps are sold in online stores run by companies like Apple (http://itunes.apple.com/us/genre/ios/id36?mt=8), Google, Sweden’s GetJar (http://www.getjar.com), and South Korea’s SK Telecom. Apple’s store has over 425,000 apps and Google’s Android Market has more than 250,000. Other stores include Mobihand, PocketGear, Mobango, Handango, Blackberry App World and Handster (http://www.handster.com).

Research firm Gartner (http://www.gartner.com/technology/home.jsp) estimated that 18 billion apps have been downloaded since Apple opened its first app store in 2008. Remarkably, it forecasts this number could rise to 49 billion by 2013. The most popular topics include games, weather forecasts, social networks, maps, music and news.

The dynamic documented so far for apps seems to follow the way music charts work. A few apps, out of the many on offer, become big sellers and popular favourites, getting the most users. Partly this reflects the difficulty of quickly searching through all the apps available in the world to find the right one, a process that favours well-marketed apps.

The recent TechSparks 2011 App4India (http://www.facebook.com/techspark) contest showcased the creative thinking about apps now happening in India.

One Indian success story is the 1000Lookz (http://www.vdime.com/pro1.htm) app, developed by Vasan Sowriraj (http://www.vdime.com/about.htm), which helps women perform a virtual beauty makeover. A woman can check what shades work best for her skin tone by using her own photos uploaded to the app. The user adds features like foundation, blush, gloss, eye-shadow, eye-liner and lipstick. The app uses facial recognition and skin tone detection technology to assist the virtual makeover. It was developed by VDime Innovative Works headquarterd in Atlanta, Georgia, with its technology developed by its Indian division.

1000Lookz’ mission is to create “innovative products that bring cheer to consumers’ faces.”

Sowriraj got his experience from working as a key member of the team developing special image processing for the Indian Space and Research Organisation (http://www.isro.org).

The same team has also developed another service enabling users to transform standard emoticons – those cartoons used in electronic communications to convey emotions – into emoticons using your own face image. It is called Humecons (http://www.humecons.com), and its slogan is “Emote Yourself”.

The India TV Guide, based in Bangalore, India’s software hub (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Tech_Park,_Bangalore), is a mobile phone application developed by Jini Labs (http://www.jinilabs.com) offering programme listings for 150 television channels broadcast in India, and allows viewers to save reminders for favourite shows and build favourites lists.

Jini Labs also makes Jini Books (http://itunes.apple.com/in/app/jinibooks/id404988026?mt=8), a clever app to display books, magazines and journals that are hard to find in conventional shops. It is free and promises to have “indie book authors and publishers – including small size, mid-size independent publishers, university presses, e-book publishers, and self-published authors.”

A very useful app improving people’s lives is the Indian Railway Lite app. India’s railways are a critical part of the country’s economy, and the world’s largest railway system. The complexity of trying to work out the train schedule has been made easier with the app.

Founded by Srinath Reddy, the app’s chief technology officer at RSG Software Services (http://www.rsgss.com), the app enables users to discover train connections between stations, and find which trains pass through stations, while navigating the Indian Railways website. It is a good example of how an app can quickly become a big hit. It became the second most popular on the Apple India app store and is downloaded more than 1,000 times a day.

One of the advantages of the app is its ability to function without access to the Internet. It draws on its own database of information and offers a friendlier user interface than the Indian State Railways website.

“This feature has proved to be very popular as users can access train information even while they are travelling and are out of network range,” Reddy told Yourstory.in. “We update the app at regular intervals and the user has to download a new version of the app to get updated information. Trains are generally added once in a few months and the timetable does not change significantly, so the user can use the same version until the next one is released.”

The app’s creators initially found it difficult to get information and updates from Indian Railways.

“We took around four to five months to build the app,” Reddy said. “Significant effort went into compiling the train and station data as this was not easily available. Refining the UI (user interface) took quite some time as well.”

The company saw a market for the app because there were so many iPhone (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPhone) users in India. The app was downloaded 45,000 times between June and September, and other versions, including one for Google Android (www.android.com) are in the works to broaden access to people without an iPhone.

The company has its headquarters in Ranchi, India and has four development centers in India located in Delhi, Pune, Ranchi and Hyderabad. Currently, the company has approximately 250 employees with core competencies in Apple, Filemaker and Open Source technologies.

The Tuk Tuk 2 app is a clever and practical application for users of India’s ubiquitous motorized and bicycle rickshaws. They are an important part of the country’s transport infrastructure – but a journey in one can be a stressful experience for many reasons. This app seeks to lesson the stress.

Tuk Tuk 2 app (https://market.android.com/details?id=com.mindhelix.tuktuk2&hl=en) is designed to introduce fairness to the auto rickshaw marketplace. It empowers travellers to track where they are on a journey, check the fare and find the distance covered. It helps to reduce exploitation of travellers and makes sure they know where they are at all times: a powerful resource in crowded, busy and confusing cities.

It was developed by Mind Helix Technologies (http://www.mindhelix.com), founded in 2009 as a dedicated application development company with a mission to empower people with its apps. And that is really what apps are all about!

Resources

1) Mobile phone boot camp: Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles: Website: http://www.media.mit.edu/ventures/EPROM/entrepreneurship.html

2) Mobile Active: MobileActive.org connects people, organizations, and resources using mobile technology for social change. Website: http://mobileactive.org/

3) Teams of motorcyclists with mobile phones in Lagos, Nigeria take pictures of traffic gridlock and open road, send it to central control, who grade it “slow”, “moving” or “free” and in turn send the message to subscribers. Website: http://www.traffic.com.ng

4) Southern Innovator magazine: New global magazine’s first issue tackles the boom in mobile phone and information technologies across the global South. Website: www.scribd.com/doc/57980406/Southern-Innovator-Issue-1

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High Impact Communications In A Major Crisis: UNDP Mongolia 1997-1999 | 18 February 2016

I was head of communications for the United Nations mission in Mongolia from 1997 to 1999. The mission had to primarily tackle three major crises: the country’s turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy, the social and economic crash this caused, and the Asian Financial Crisis (Pomfret 2000) (Quah 2003)*.

Richard Pomfret said in 1994 “In 1991 Mongolia suffered one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).”

From Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah: “The combined effect of these three shocks was devastating as ‘Mongolia suffered the most serious peacetime economic collapse any nation has faced during this century’. Indeed, Mongolia’s economic collapse ‘was possibly the greatest of all the (peaceful) formerly'” Communist countries. 

“The years 1998 and 1999 have been volatile ones for Mongolia, with revolving door governments, the assassination of a minister, emerging corruption, a banking scandal, in-fighting within the ruling Democratic Coalition, frequent paralysis within the Parliament, and disputes over the Constitution. Economically, the period was unstable and rife with controversies.” Mongolia in 1998 and 1999: Past, Present, and Future at the New Millennium by Sheldon R. Severinghaus, Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 1, A Survey of Asia in 1999 (Jan. – Feb., 2000), pp. 130-139 (Publisher: University of California)

Writing in 2018, author John West  found, in a chapter titled Mongolia’s Corruption Curse (Transparency International and the World Bank had found corruption worsened in Mongolia after 2001), “In many ways, Mongolia has everything going for it. After being a satellite state of the former Soviet Union for much of the twentieth century, Mongolia regained its independence with the end of the Cold War. A relatively peaceful political revolution in the early 1990s ushered in a multi-party democracy and open society which have remained in place. … And it is blessed with vast reserves of copper, gold, coal, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin and tungsten deposits. True, Mongolia experienced great upheavals as the breakup of the Soviet Union saw its trade decline by 80%. But Mongolia was also perfectly placed to benefit from the commodity super cycle driven by China, which is now the destination for the vast majority of its exports.

“However, despite much hype about the Mongolian “wolf economy”, this country of so much promise is being dragged down by massive corruption. …

“Mongolia’s corruption is greatly weakening its attractiveness as an investment destination, is fracturing society and weakening its fragile political institutions. Its culture of corruption has also fed its love-hate relationship with foreign investors, which has destabilized the economy.” Asian Century … on a Knife-edge: A 360 Degree Analysis of Asia’s Recent Economic Development by John West, Springer, 24 January 2018.  

In this role, I pioneered innovative use of the Internet and digital resources to communicate the UN’s work and Mongolia’s unfolding crises. The UN called this work a “role model” for the wider UN and country offices. A survey of United Nations country office websites in 2000 ranked the UN Mongolia website I launched in 1997 and oversaw for two years (1997-1999), third best in the world, saying: “A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be.” (https://www.scribd.com/document/35249986/United-Nations-2000-Survey-of-Country-Office-Websites)

As part of a strategic plan to raise awareness of Mongolia’s development challenges and to spur action on meeting them, a Communications Office was established for the UN mission in 1997. Acting as a strategic hub, the Communications Office and its dynamic and talented team, were able to leverage the existing budget to spur action on many fronts, including: 

Media

Working with journalists and media both within Mongolia and outside, the Communications Office was able to significantly raise awareness of Mongolia and its development challenges. This was reflected in a substantial increase in media coverage of the country and in the numerous books and other publications that emerged post-1997. The book In Their Own Words: Selected Writings by Journalists on Mongolia, 1997-1999 (ISBN 99929-5-043-9) archived the stories by theme.  

Top journalists covering Asia in the late 1990s contributed to the book.


Ger Magazine

Ger Magazine (the Mongolian word for home and traditional tent dwelling) was published as the country’s first e-magazine in 1998. There were four issues in total from 1998 to 2000. The launch issue was on the theme of youth in the transition. Mongolia was transitioning from Communism to free markets and democracy and this had been both an exhilarating time and a wrenching time for young people. The magazine drew on talented journalists from Mongolia and the handful of international journalists based there to create a mix of content, from stories about life adapting to free markets to stories on various aspects of Mongolian culture and life. 

The second issue of the magazine proved particularly effective, with its modern life theme and cover story on a thriving Mongolian fashion scene.

Archived issues of the magazine can be found at the Wayback Machine here: https://archive.org/. Just type in the UN Mongolia website address for the years 1997 to 1999: http://www.un-mongolia.mn.


Blue Sky Bulletin

The Blue Sky Bulletin newsletter was launched in 1997 initially as a simple, photocopied handout. It quickly founds its purpose and its audience, becoming a key way to communicate what was happening in the country and a crucial resource for the global development community, scholars, the media and anyone trying to figure out what was happening in a crazy and chaotic time. Blue Sky Bulletin was distributed via email and by post and proved to be a popular and oft-cited resource on the country. The quality of its production also paralleled Mongolia’s growing capacity to publish to international standards, as desktop publishing software became available and printers switched to modern print technologies. Blue Sky Bulletin evolved from a rough, newsprint black and white publication to becoming a glossy, full-colour, bilingual newsletter distributed around Mongolia and the world.

Archived issues can be found online here:

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 1

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 2

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 3

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 4

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 5

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 6 

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 7 

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 8

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 9

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 10


Publishing

MHDR 1997

The Mongolian Human Development Report 1997 (MHDR), the country’s first, placed the story of the Mongolian people during the transition years (post-1989) at its heart, using photographs, stories and case studies to detail the bigger narrative at play.

This groundbreaking Mongolian Human Development Report went beyond just chronicling Mongolia’s state of development in statistics and graphs. Designed, laid out and published in Mongolia, the report broke with the practices of many other international organisations, who would publish outside of Mongolia – denying local companies much-needed work and the opportunity to develop their skills. The report’s costs helped to kick-start a publishing boom in the country and significantly raised standards in design and layout in the country. The foundations laid down by the project producing the report ushered in a new age in publishing for Mongolia.

The report’s launch was innovative, not only being distributed for free across the country, but also part of a multimedia campaign including television programming, public posters, town hall meetings and a ‘roadshow’ featuring the report’s researchers and writers.

The initial print run of 10,000 copies was doubled as demand for the report increased. To the surprise of many, once hearing about the free report, herders would travel to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to pick up their copy. The report proved people cared passionately about the development of their country and that development concepts are not to be the secret domain of ‘development practitioners’. The report also became an English language learning tool as readers compared the Mongolian and English-language versions. 

You can read the report’s pdf here: http://www.mn.undp.org/content/mongolia/en/home/library/National-Human-Development-Reports/Mongolia-Human-Development-Report-1997.html

Mongolian AIDS Bulletin

Assembled by a team of health experts after the Fourth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, the Mongolian AIDS Bulletin was published in 1997 in the middle of an HIV/AIDS crisis. It provided timely information and health resources in the Mongolian language and was distributed across the country.
 
“Mongolia’s first AIDS Bulletin marked the beginning of the UNDP Response to HIV/AIDS/STDs Project back in the autumn of 1997. Over 5,000 copies of the magazine were distributed across the country, offering accurate information on the HIV/AIDS situation. The project has been pivotal in the formulation of a national information, education and communication (IEC) strategy, bringing together NGOs, donors, UN agencies and the government.”
 
Source: YouandAids: The HIV/AIDS Portal for Asia Pacific 

Green Book

In the Mongolian language, the Mongolian Green Book details effective ways to live in harmony with the environment while achieving development goals. Based on three years’ work in Mongolia – a Northeast Asian nation coping with desertification, mining, and climate change – the book presents tested strategies.  

EPAP Handbook

The Environmental Public Awareness Handbook was published in 1999 and features the case studies and lessons learned by UNDP’s Mongolian Environmental Public Awareness Programme (EPAP). The handbook draws on the close to 100 small environmental projects the Programme oversaw during a two-year period. These projects stretched across Mongolia, and operated in a time of great upheaval and social, economic and environmental distress. The handbook is intended for training purposes and the practice of public participation in environmental protection.

In its 2007 Needs Assessment, the Government of Mongolia found the EPAP projects “had a wide impact on limiting many environmental problems. Successful projects such as the Dutch/UNDP funded Environmental Awareness Project (EPAP), which was actually a multitude of small pilot projects (most costing less than $5,000 each) which taught local populations easily and efficiently different ways of living and working that are low-impact on the environment.”

Mongolia Updates 1997, 1998, 1999

Mongolia Update 1998 detailed how the country was coping with its hyperinflation and the Asian economic crisis.

The mission simultaneously had to deal with the 1997 Asian Crisis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Asian_Financial_Crisis) and the worst peacetime economic collapse in post-WWII history (http://www.jstor.org/pss/153756).  

Mongolia Update 1998 – Political Changes

1998 proved a tumultuous year for Mongolia. The country’s existing economic crisis caused by the transition from Communism to free markets was made worse by the wider Asian Crisis. The government was destabilised, leading to an often-confusing revolving door of political figures. In order to help readers better understand the political changes in the country, a special edition of Mongolia Update was published that year.  

UNDP Mongolia: The Guide

The Guide, first published in 1997, provided a rolling update on UNDP’s programmes and projects in Mongolia during a turbulent time (1997-1999). The mission simultaneously had to deal with the 1997 Asian Crisis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Asian_financial_crisis) and the worst peacetime economic collapse in post-WWII history.

Each edition came with short project and context summaries, key staff contacts, and facts and figures on how the country was changing. For the first time, any member of the public could grasp what the UN was up to in the country and be able to contact the project staff. An unusual level of transparency at the time for a UN mission.

Memoranda of Understanding

Three Memoranda of Understanding were negotiated with the Mongolian Government to help focus efforts and aid the attainment of internationally-agreed resolutions. This was affirmed by a series of youth conferences, One World, held in 1998 and 1999.

Strategy and Leadership in a Crisis

The scale and gravity of the crisis that struck Mongolia in the early 1990s was only slowly shaken off by the late 1990s. The economic and social crisis brought on by the collapse of Communism and the ending of subsidies and supports from the Soviet Union, led to a sharp rise in job losses, poverty, hunger, and family and community breakdowns. 

The challenge was to find inspiring ways out of the crisis, while building confidence and hope. The sort of challenges confronted by the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office included: 

1) A food crisis: agricultural production was down sharply, and the traditional nomadic herding economy, while at peak herd, was failing to get the meat to markets and to a high enough standard to restore export levels to where they once were. As a result, a cross-border trading frenzy became the solution to falling domestic food production and availability.

2) HIV/AIDS/STDs crisis

3) A major banking crisis

4) Both the Asian Financial Crisis and the Russia Crisis.

5) An ongoing political crisis and an inability to form stable governments.

“Mongolia is not an easy country to live in and David [South] showed a keen ability to adapt in difficult circumstances. He was sensitive to the local habits and cultures and was highly respected by his Mongolian colleagues. … David’s journalism background served him well in his position as Director of the Communications Unit. … A major accomplishment … was the establishment of the UNDP web site. He had the artistic flare, solid writing talent and organizational skills that made this a success. … we greatly appreciated the talents and contributions of David South to the work of UNDP in Mongolia.” Douglas Gardner, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative Mongolia

Citations

The response by the Communications Office has been cited in numerous articles, stories, publications and books. It has also contributed to the development of the human development concept and understanding of human resilience in a crisis and innovation in a crisis. Book citations include: 

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists

Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia

A more detailed list of citations can be found here: http://www.davidsouthconsulting.com/about/

For research purposes, key documents were compiled together and published online here: https://books.google.ca/books?id=K76jBgAAQBAJ&dq=undp+mongolia+key+documents&source=gbs_navlinks_s

In 2001, the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world” and its communications innovations, with work such as that in Mongolia being cited as a contributing factor to the awarding of the Prize

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched in a 15-year bid to use a focused approach to development centred around eight goals to accelerate improvements to human development. From 2000 to 2005, work was undertaken in various UN missions (Mongolia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Ukraine) to communicate the goals and to reshape communications activities around the goals.

*Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah, Eastern Universities Press, 2003 

Transition and Democracy in Mongolia by Richard Pomfret, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 149-160, published by Taylor & Francis, Ltd. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/153756?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)

UNDP Mongolia team photo in 1997. I am sitting front row centre left of the UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Gardner.

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Landmark Study Finds Simple Toys Key to Boosting Educational Development and Meeting MDGs

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 5

African youth need to play more according to a new landmark study published in the UK’s leading medical journal, The Lancet. The study tackles the high rates of illiteracy and educational under-achievement in Africa and finds that malnourishment and lack of stimulation are leaving millions unable to benefit from schooling. It found projects that encouraged learning through play led to children boosting their IQs and getting better reading skills. And it comes up with a very simple and low-cost solution – but excellent opportunity for entrepreneurs – toys and play.

“These are not high tech interventions,” said team leader for the study, Professor Sally McGregor of the Institute of Child Health of University College London. “Research over decades in Jamaica (and other countries) has shown that women with only primary school-level education and a few home made toys can be trained to make a significant difference in the education, intelligence and mental health of disadvantaged children. The Millennium Goal of universal primary education for all cannot be met unless these children’s poor development is tackled.”

The paper – Strategies to Avoid the Loss of Developmental Potential among Over 200 Million Children in the Developing World – is published in three parts in the journal.

Twenty projects around the world were evaluated for the benefits they produce for children under five who use toys. McGregor, who has set up several projects in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda designing and constructing toys using whatever materials are available, was appalled by the widespread neglect of play throughout these countries. With play, the study found children read better, have better mental health and better self-esteem. In Africa it is ‘desperate, really desperate’ she says.

African primary school enrolments and literacy rates are among the lowest in the world, with over 42 million school children in sub-Saharan Africa not enrolled in school, and many children not able to afford to go or stay in primary school. Today a little more than half of African adults are literate and some 60 per cent of children go to school, according to UNESCO. The agency has forecasted the need for an additional 1.6 million teachers in Sub-Saharan African classrooms by 2015 – an increase of 68 percent.

The materials used to construct the toys do not need to be expensive or sophisticated. Toys can be constructed from banana trees, mud, corn on the cob, old plastic bottles, or cloth and straw dolls. It is key that the toys are safe for children under five and that anyone building such toys for sale must follow existing manuals.

McGregor continues: ‘One mother in a village was doing marvellous things with tiny scraps of material to make a doll. She received no recognition in the village for the work she was doing yet it was so important. It doesn’t take much – dolls or simple wooden blocks – they are so versatile. You see schools with nothing – it is unforgivable. The problem is how poor these people are – food just takes priority over toys – it is that stark.”

Locally produced toys are key to resolving this crisis for several reasons. Cost is the most important, with those most adversely affected also the least able to pay for toys and who are already living a precarious existence where basic survival takes precedence over play. Another factor is Africa being home to the countries who import the least number of toys: Somalia, Liberia, Togo, Rwanda and Chad. But the situation for African toymakers is often desperate as well, with many craft workers living at the economic margins. Several initiatives have emerged in the last couple of years to address this problem and ensure African toys are local and toymakers earn a living.

Initiatives like the African Toyshop based in Johannesburg, South Africa – a fair trade business – work to ensure African toymakers can make a living and get their wares to as wide a market as possible. The toymakers featured all use natural resources or recycled materials. Most work at the village level and produce toys that are culturally relevant to Africa. The organization COFTA – Cooperation For Fair Trade in Africa – is a network of Fair Trade producer Organizations in Africa involved and working with disadvantaged grassroots producers to eliminate poverty through fair trade. It is an excellent resource for grassroots organizations wanting to work with African toymakers.

Resources

The UK charity TALC – Teaching-aids At Low Cost – is planning to make available toy making manuals on a CD. Tel: (0) 1727 853869

This website also has excellent resources for budding toy and play area makers in Africa.

Online exhibition of African toys: Click here

Book: Africa on the Move: Toys from West Africa Stefan Eisenhofer, Karin Guggeis, Jacques Froidevaux Stuttgart, Germany: Arnoldsche, 2004. 216 pp., 195 color, 28 b/w illustrations. $75.00, cloth.

Published: January 2007

SDG Resource Centre: The southern origins of sustainable development goals: Ideas, actors, aspirations.
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Envisioning Better Slums

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

More than 900 million people – almost a sixth of the world’s population – now live in urban slums (UN). Improving conditions for these people is a critical Millennium Development Goal target. And the scale of the problem is vast: this year half the world’s population will live in cities, and already in developing countries 43 per cent of urban dwellers live in slums. In the least-developed countries the figure is 78 per cent.

The UN has estimated it will take US$18 billion a year to improve living conditions for these people – and most of it will have to come from the residents themselves.

An essential route to improving the situation is to give people living in slums the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings. Initiatives across the South seek to do this and turn the situation on its head: seeing slum dwellers as a valuable asset, not an urban blight.

The concept of ‘slum networking’ has been developed by Indian engineer Himanshu Parikh of Ahmedabad , a winner of the Aga Khan award for architecture. He starts from the point of believing there is no need for slum conditions to exist in India, but that slums do not need to be moved, just upgraded; and that good change can happen quickly. He also sees the residents’ involvement and financial contribution as critical to the sustainability of any improvements. His approach has already helped one million people overall, including 8,703 families (43,515 people) in Ahmedabad in 41 slum communities.

Slum networking does not depend on aid funds but is a self-reliant approach, in which residents make a partnership with private suppliers to get access to the most important services first: clean water and hygiene and sanitation.

Parikh’s approach involves providing channels for sewage, water supply and roadways in existing slum areas by exploiting the natural topography and pattern of development to provide the new infrastructure.

Parikh makes a detailed survey plan of the existing houses and divides them into groups based on the quality of construction. If they are of reasonable quality, they are left in place. Where possible, slum dwellers are allowed to buy the land they are squatting on. By buying the land, the owner now has a direct stake in its development.

“Working inside out, i.e. starting with quality infrastructure in the poor areas and working outwards to produce larger networks for the city or village, not only integrates the two levels, but actually produces far cheaper infrastructure at both levels,” Parikh told Architecture Week magazine.

In the Indian city of Indore, 181 slums were networked, giving the city 360 kilometres of new roads, 300 kilometres of new sewer lines, 240 kilometres of new water lines, 120 community halls and 120,000 trees. This transformed the two local rivers from open sewers back to water. According to the World Bank, the incidence of fatal water diseases fell by 90 per cent.

“No project for their rehabilitation could be successful until they were involved as the capital partners,” Parikh told India’s The Tribune. Upgrading “the civic amenities, including sewerage, roads and water supply, was the need of the hour for better living conditions of the slum dwellers.”

Another initiative in Bangladesh is bringing first-rate healthcare to the country’s water-logged slum dwellers. They live in areas called ‘chars’ — effectively stranded islands surrounded by rivers, plagued by frequent flooding and physically cut-off from the country’s transport and infrastructure networks. Located in northern Bangladesh’s Jamuna river regions of Gaibandha, Kurigram and Jamalpu, these areas are very poor and overlooked by most government and foreign aid programmes. The fact the islands shift around has made it difficult for much help to reach the people.

Bangladesh also has a severe shortage of doctors: there are 12,500 people per doctor, compared to 2,000 in Pakistan.

But a hospital ship run by the Friendship NGO (funded by private companies and NGOs) now brings healthcare to 4 million people, treating everything from cataracts to skin infections. It sees between 200 to 250 patients a day aboard a converted former river barge. Called the Lifebuoy Friendship Hospital because of its sponsorship by Lever Brothers Bangladesh Ltd. — makers of Lifebuoy soap — it cruises the river Brammaptura, helping 172,000 people since it set sail six years ago.

“People of the area look forward eagerly to our arrival,” said Dr Feroza Khatun, a doctor on the hospital ship. Other doctors and surgeons are provided by NGOs from Sweden, the Netherlands and France.

The ship carries a team of two doctors and four nurses, who live on board. It provides a range of services, from basic healthcare and immunisations to minor surgery. The ship is fully equipped with modern facilities, including clinics, a pharmacy, a treatment room and an operating theatre. There is also a four-bed ward for short-term care, a pathology lab and store, x-ray unit and dark room and an electrocardiogram (ECG).

Stays in the individual ‘chars’ are usually from three weeks to two months. When it leaves, a satellite clinic continues to provide care until the next visit. “In our satellite programmes, we bring in professionals for health and rural social education, provide paramedical care, give special treatment for mother and child health, family planning and pregnancy hazards, child nutrition and identify the needs for secondary care interventions,” said executive director Runa Khan to Bangladesh’s Star Weekend Magazine

Started as a trial in 2001, the ship began full operations in 2002. It has been so successful, it is currently expanding by building new ships paid for by the Emirates Airline Foundation.

Published: February 2012

Resources

  • Shelter Associates: established by Indian architect Pratima Joshi, an NGO working on slum rehabilitation.
  • SPARC: one of the largest Indian NGOs working on housing and infrastructure issues for slum dwellers.
  • Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers: published by the Millennium Project.
  • Slum TV: Based deep inside Nairobi’s largest slum, Mathare, they have been seeking out the stories of hope where international media only see violence and gloom.
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