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In The Interests Of The Exploited?: The Role Of Development Pressure Groups In The UK

Paper delivered to the School of Politics and Government, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, UK, 2000

“Many Northern NGOs have assumed the role of ambassadors for the world’s poor (Clark 1992: 18).”

By David South

The question “Do pressure groups increasingly advance the fancies of the middle classes at the expense of the interests of the exploited?” is particularly relevant when applied to the ever-expanding network of international development pressure groups (IDPG) in the United Kingdom. Many of these groups are based in London, making use of its political networks, diplomatic connections (the UK is signed up to more international covenants and organizations than any other country), excellent travel links and centrality to the global financial system. While these groups promote their work and policies utilising sophisticated advertising and media campaigns (Save the Children Fund, for example, spends £14 million annually), they rarely come under scrutiny for their claims that they “speak for the poor” (Edwards and Hulme 1992: 23). In fact, “Many Northern NGOs have assumed the role of ambassadors for the world’s poor” (Clark 1992: 18). This question is of particular importance because governments are turning more and more to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to administer and deliver international aid projects (Dolen 1992: 19).

In 1989, Graham Hancock’s seminal book Lords of Poverty singled out government development agencies and the United Nations for being “rich and powerful bureaucracies that have hijacked our kindness” (Hancock 1989: xiii). He, however, deliberately “refrained from mounting an offensive against the voluntary agencies … by and large I believe their staff to be well motivated and their efforts worthwhile … They rarely do significant harm; sometimes they do great good” (Hancock 1989: xiii).

One of the major changes to occur since Hancock wrote those words has been the co-opting and drawing in of development NGOs even further into the priorities of the bilateral and multilateral donors. They have been placed on a pedestal as the voice of the world’s exploited, and lead high-profile pressure campaigns to alter and direct aid and foreign policies of the UK (Jubilee 2000’s drop the debt campaign is one example). This paper will explore whether international development groups “advance the fancies of the middle classes”, looking at their role in UK policy formation, and whether they accurately reflect the wishes of the “exploited” of the world, in this case, the poor (Kanbur and Squire 1999: 1).

Development pressure groups in this paper include charitable non-governmental organizations engaged in advocacy or project implementation, or both. I have excluded the plentiful university departments that conduct extensive research into development practice and policy. The reason for this is the mandate of charitable development pressure groups: they appeal both to our heart and our head.

Where we stand now

British development policy has taken on a higher profile under the Labour Government elected in 1997. The Department for International Development (DFID) was set up as a separate department removed from the Foreign Office and given a full-time minister, Clare Short. DFID also released the first white paper in 22 years on international development, Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century.

As Short says:

NOW THE DEVELOPMENT INTEREST COMES TO THE TOP LEVEL OF THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT’S CONSIDERATIONS. THE DEPARTMENT IS NO LONGER JUST AN AID DEPARTMENT. IT IS NOW CHARGED WITH THE RESPONSIBILITY OF LOOKING AT ALL ASPECTS OF POLICY: TRADE, DEBT, ENVIRONMENT, AGRICULTURE IN THE GLOBAL SYSTEM AND ENSURING THAT BRITAIN’S POLICY ON THESE TAKES ACCOUNT OF THE DEVELOPMENT INTERESTS. (EARTH TIMES, 1999)

The Labour Government is seeking to play a key role in the global debate on the future of international development. As part of this approach, the government aspires to work more closely with those NGOs who support their conciliatory approach to global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO). International development pressure groups are thus presented with a tantalising but difficult decision: work closely with the government on achieving its goals – and so gain access to a steady stream of funding – or remain autonomous but risk being frozen out of the mainstream debate.

The financial stakes are high for the NGOs. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), northern NGOs as a whole spend US $10 billion annually (Smillie 1998: 157). They have evolved into significant economic sectors in their own right, employing thousands, with their tentacles stretching out to the global media and countries around the world.

In the UK, international development spending is currently £2,367 million annually, of which £182 million is channelled through NGOs (DFID 1999). OECD figures show that aid channelled through NGOs rose from 0.7 percent of all aid in 1975 to 5 percent in 1993 (Covey 1992: 4). As well, the number of international NGOs soared in the last century, from nine in 1909 to 28,900 by 1993 (Covey 1992: 3).

If aid is a business, then business is good. Save the Children Fund, to take one example, saw its income increase from £6 million in 1981 to £60 million in 1991 (Dolan 1992: 205), to £97.3 million in 1999 (Save the Children Fund website). Of the current budget, £40.9 million comes from grants given by government development agencies. It also spends £14 million a year on publicity and fundraising.

The “fancies” of the middle class

Interest or pressure groups are in the main a middle-class phenomenon, being largely staffed by the educated middle classes (even so-called ‘working class’ interest groups such as trade union associations can be found to be mainly staffed by the middle classes). They are the product of educated, aspirational citizens who believe they can and should play a role in the world. Moran suggests, “If we are no longer ‘working class’ we can define our social identity and political demands in numerous ways: so groups emerge catering for nuclear pacifists, radical feminists, etc.” (Moran 1985: 236). As Petracca points out, “The rise of citizen groups is probably best explained by a combination of factors: the growth of the middle class in the 1960s, a revolution in communications technology, and the emergence of interest group patrons” (Petracca 1992: 23).

Since the middle class is the core audience for these IDPGs (they vote in large numbers and they have funds to donate), they also colour the priorities of what gets on the development agenda.

Over the past 20 years, IDPGs have used a variety of appeals to raise money and exert pressure on the government. In the beginning appeals were driven by humanitarian disasters such as the famine in Biafra in the 1960s. These appeals struck a strong emotional chord, presenting images of extreme suffering at a time when the UK was enjoying a post-war economic boom. More recently appeals have focused on small-scale development projects such as water wells and classrooms. In the 1980s and 1990s they took on a more economic tone, epitomised in the “ethical shopping” encouraged by Oxfam with its line of Bridgehead products. This coincided with the expansion of a consumer culture and is probably the most graphic example of the marriage between humanitarianism and middle-class consumer lifestyles. It effectively promotes the idea that an alternative and fairer economy can be bought, one rainforest chocolate bar at a time. The environmentalist Dobson is especially critical of social change by shopping: “The Body Shop strategy is a hymn to consumption: in their contribution to the Friends of the Earth Green Consumer Week leaflet (12 and 18 September 1988) they urge people to ‘wield their purchasing power responsibly’ rather than to wield it less often” (Dobson 1995: 135).

In the last couple of years the focus has moved towards the phenomenon of globalisation and a perception that existing internaitonal institutions have failed the poorer countries; that they should be revolutionised or drop-kicked straight out of the global arena. How much are these cries to do with heartfelt concern for the poor of the developing world, and how much to do with middle-class angst over a rapidly changing global order with new economic powers such as China and new uncertainties? Certainly, many of the IDPGs are working both sides of the street, protesting the global institutions and national development agencies while also taking more and more of their grants to fund their activities.

It was once easy to criticise the international development bureaucracy for leading a life of aloof leisure, jetting from conference to conference, inhabiting a world so far removed from the poor that they might as well be living on another planet. More and more this can be said of the parallel world of international NGOs, whose bureaucrats also hop around the world attending conferences and government meetings. Steve Hellinger, co-founder and president of the Development Group for Alternative Policies, notes that NGOs’ dependence on public monies “has affected the way they deal with policy issues. Instead of representing the interests of the people in the South, they are increasingly supporting the interests of the aid institutions” (New Internationalist, 285, 1996).

The relationship between the articulated goals of development pressure groups and the effect they have in the countries of the exploited was the subject of a documentary on Channel 4 Television aired in November 2000. The Hunger Business documents the frustrations felt by Africans who found development NGOs put their own preconceptions ahead of asking Africans what they needed or wanted. This led to aid exacerbating many of the conflicts in the region. As Kenneth Hackett of Catholic Relief Services said, “if food keeps them alive to fight a war, then so be it” (The Hunger Business). Aid donations may have been harder to come by if people knew the messy regional politics.

Pressure and policy

The distinctive nature of the British political and social scene has also contributed greatly to the rise in influence and power of development pressure groups. As far back as the Victorian period, there has been a strong tradition of like-minded individuals banding together to do good works, especially among the poor. Many of today’s British NGOs have their roots in the extensive network of missionary organizations established in this period.

Britain also has a tradition of seeking help when it decides to alter or expand its role in a particular sphere of influence, which was the case at the turn of the 20th century:

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT DECIDED TO INCREASE ITS INVOLVEMENT IN THE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC WELL-BEING OF ITS CITIZENS, THE FRIENDLY SOCIETY MOVEMENT WAS A FACTOR TO BE RECKONED WITH. THE MEDICAL PROFESSION ALSO CLAIMED TO SPEAK FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC AS WELL AS ITS MEMBERS. (VAN DER VALK 1998: 112)

There are strong parellels between this time and the current political climate. Unlike the Conservative government before it, the Labour government under Tony Blair has made it explicit policy to increase funding of, and involvement in, international aid and development. It has broadened its areas of interest (thus needing expertise from NGOs) and is also seeking lobbying power in order to exercise greater influence in the global negotiating game to reform and alter major international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Its new priorities include poverty elimination by 2015, empowerment of women, human rights for all, making government work for poor people, including better health care, tackling the water crisis and expanding primary education (DFID).

These priorities dovetail well with those of NGOs such as WaterAid, Oxfam and Save the Children Fund, which also have a storehouse of experience and contacts in these areas.

To have any influence on policy-making in the British parliamentary system like-minded individuals must form interest groups.

OF ALL THE WESTERN DEMOCRACIES, BRITAIN HAS PERHAPS THE LONGEST-ESTABLISHED INTEREST GROUP SYSTEM. THUS, DESPITE THE LACK OF A WRITTEN CONSITUTION, BRITISH POLICY-MAKING HAS CERTAIN WELL-ESTABLISHED PROCEDURES – STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES – WHICH GENERALLY ACCORD INTEREST GROUPS A KEY ROLE IN THE POLICY PROCESS. (RICHARDSON 1993: 86)

Nowhere has this become more strongly felt than in international development. NGOs have altered what development means and broadened it to include a wide range of community activities. The symbiotic relationship is mirrored in the policy goals of the Department for International Development.

As Weir and Beetham note: “The relationship between organised interests and departmental officials varies across policy domains, but many interest groups perform an intimate role in the way policies are formulated and are often vital to policies being carried through in practice” (Weir and Beetham 1999: 271).

This is also a game in which presentation and professionalism wield influence. IDPGs invest heavily in a range of publications to communicate their views and use the latest in information technology to influence public opinion. As their funds have grown, they have been in the forefront of adopting the sophisticated marketing techniques developed by major corporations. This becomes a virtuous circle, in which more sophisticated communications and marketing creates a more professional public image and in turn draws in more funds. The more funds available to plough into modern communications and research, the greater the pontential impact on the government. Wealthy organizations “naturally achieve their objectives more readily than poorer pressure groups which do not represent powerful sectional interests whose cooperation government departments require” (Beetham and Weir 1999: 275).

Development pressure groups have in many ways been the beneficiaries of the same neo-liberal propensity to private execution as the UK’s business lobby. Contracting out and privatisation are a reflection of dwindling faith in the public sector’s ability to meet people’s needs.

There is also another factor influencing the IDPGs’ rise in power. Mulgan calls this a period in which “weak” organizations have the advantage over traditionally “strong” orgnisations such as the civil service or political parties (Mulgan 1990: 347). He sees both the marketplace and interest groups of like-minded individuals as offering more choice and opportunity than the traditional institutions of democracy. In this environment the opinionated pressure groups will be able to exert greater influence. They are fleet-footed, able to push the agenda ahead, while civil servants are hampered by protocol and hierarchies: “The most significant factors are the general ascendance of free market economics (Toye 1987) and its corollary, a belief that government agencies are ineffective” (Dolan 1992: 203).

These groups also benefit from the decline of rigid class-based politics in the UK. “As support for the two big class-based parties has diminished, so cause-based pressure group activity has won popular support” (Jones and Kavanagh 1994: 236).

They are quintessentially modern organizations, placing more value in intelligence-gathering and opinion-forming than in traditional project managment. As Clark notes, “The ‘software’ of their trade – ideas, research, empowerment, and networking – are rapidly becoming more important than their ‘hardware’ – the time-bound, geographically fixed projects, such as wells and clinics. In this age, information and influence are the dominant currencies rather than dollars and pounds” (Clark 1992: 193).

Ear to the ground: do the exploited have a voice?

According to the United Nations Development Programme, more than 1.3 billion people live on just US $1 a day (UNDP). Concern for the world’s most exploited is on the official development agenda of all Western governments. Most governments in the developed world explicitly acknowledge that extreme poverty is the most vicious form of exploitation that can be experienced by a human being. Awareness of the plight of people in developing countries is widespread, in that most people generally believe life must be, as Hobbes put it, “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

One of the key claims of NGOs is that they have an extra ear to the ground when it comes to understanding the needs of the world’s poor. Certainly, the world has become a more vocal place with the rise in freedom of expression and electronic communications in many countries. As Covey remarks, “Democratisation, in its messy evolution in societies around the globe, tugs NGOs toward a more active policy-influencing role as more political space opens for people’s voices in public affairs” (Covey 1992: 167).

But there is now a growing body of evidence that development pressure groups are not as tuned in to the needs of the exploited as they claim. The advocacy role of these NGOs in Northern countries such as the UK has been criticised by NGOs in developing countries, who say they are making policy suggestions without consulting fully the people who would be most affected by them.

Covey adds: “Recent doubts expressed by Southern NGOs about the advocacy role of NGOs in the North (speaking ‘on behalf the poor’) provide one illustration of this difficult issue” (Covey 1992: 14).

Covey calls the devolution of power and funds to NGOs a phenomenon equivalent to the rise of the nation state in the 19th century (Covey 1992: 4). This is called “New Policy Agenda”, and is characterised by neo-liberal economics and liberal democratic theory.

IDPGs may express a concern for the exploited, but in practical terms they are often more accountable to their funders. Smillie notes:

DESPITE THE GROWING CONSENSUS THAT PEOPLE’S PARTICIPATION IS A HALLMARK OF GOOD DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS, NGOS ARE SELDOM FORMALLY STRUCTURED TO ENSURE THEIR ACCOUNTABILITY TO GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATIONS. IN FACT, NGO ACCOUNTABILITY PROCEDURES ARE MOST OFTEN DESIGNED TO MEET DONOR NEEDS RATHER THAN GRASSROOTS OBJECTIVES. (SMILLIE 1998: 170)

Research into social movements and advocacy organizations working with the poor has shown an overarching tendency to seek stability and co-optation over confrontation with elites. A study conducted after the turbulent and socially active late 1960s and 1970s found that:

IN THE LARGEST PART ORGANISERS TENDED TO WORK AGAINST DISRUPTION BECAUSE, IN THEIR SEARCH FOR RESOURCES TO MAINSTREAM THEIR ORGANIZATIONS, THEY WERE DRIVEN INEXORABLY TO ELITES, AND TO THE TANGIBLE AND SYMBOLIC SUPPORTS THAT ELITES COULD PROVIDE. (CLOWARD AND PIVEN: XXII)

The effect development NGOs have on the communities they seek to serve also is not wholly helpful. Many “NGOs are seen as eroding the power of progressive political formations by preaching change without a clear analysis of how that change is to be achieved; by encouraging income-generating projects that favour the advancement of a few poor individuals but not ‘the poor’ as a class; and by competing with political groups for personal and popular action” (Edwards and Hulme 1992: 20).

Hellinger criticises these organizations for often ignoring local views and destroying local initiatives:

THE POLICIES OF AID ARE BEING MADE FROM AFAR AND CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT THAT MAKES LOCAL-LEVEL DEVELOPMENT MORE DIFFICULT THAN EVER. PEOPLE ARE BEING FORCED TO LOOK CONTINUALLY OUTWARD FOR ANSWERS – FOR MONEY, MARKETS, ADVICE, TECHNOLOGY. THE SOLUTIONS ARE BEING FOUND LESS AND LESS OFTEN WITHIN THESE SOCIETIES. IT’S DEBILITATING. (NEW INTERNATIONALIST, 285, 1996)

Conclusion

There is ample evidence that international development pressure groups are in need of even greater scrutiny. Their power grew during the 1990s, and they have been targeted by international institutions and national governments to be the primary delivery mechanism for international aid projects. Much of this process has passed quietly by, with little open debate as to the suitability of these organizations to speak for the poor. The most vocal criticisms have come from NGOs based in developing countries, but they have proven to be a weak match for the generously funded publicity operations of Northern NGOs.

If NGOs represent the next major social and political transformation in the UK and around the world, then an open and vigorous debate is even more urgent. NGO leaders are not elected by universal franchise and are only answerable directly to the boards of their respective organizations. As Hancock informs us, international development is neither benign nor wholly beneficial. It is a major actor in the power dynamics of the world. “At a more general level, foreign aid – now worth almost (US) $60 billion a year – has changed the shape of the world in which we live and had a profound impact on all our thinking. Consciously or unconsciously we view many critical global problems through lenses provided by the aid industry” (Hancock 1989: xiv).

Less than 20 percent of aid actually reaches the poor (Raffer and Singer 1996), and two-thirds of the world’s poor live in 10 countries that together receive less than a third of overseas development aid (Raffer and Singer 1996). Surely this is testament alone to a failure to help the most exploited in their lobbying efforts. It is certainly an unimpressive trickle when taken as whole.

International development pressure groups are a large and wealthy lobbyist of the UK government. They are a vast economic sector with many vested interests, including paid staff, government contracts and the political agendas of their private donors. Their reach is global and they have a significant impact on the economies and societies of countries around the world.

There is ample evidence to suggest international development pressure groups are accountable to many masters; the world’s poor, unfortunately, are not always among them.

Pax Chaotica: A Re-evaluation of Post-WWII Economic and Political Order

A Steppe Back?: Economic Liberalisation And Poverty Reduction In Mongolia

The Sweet Smell Of Failure: The World Bank And The Persistence Of Poverty

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

Further reading:

Whilst there are many examples of charity sector abuse spanning the past 20 years, this story gives a flavour of what can go on: 

  1. Midlands News

Crooked Birmingham charity boss in plot to smuggle illegal immigrants into UK

“Pranvera Smith, 47, launched Freedom to Stay on Hagley Road in 2014 to supposedly help vulnerable people from her home country Albania gain asylum.

Instead, the greedy crook and partner Flamur Daka, 44, used the Big Lottery-funded charity as a cover for helping people smugglers.

Victims were charged up to £10,000 to be illegally brought into the UK by smuggling gangs. Once here they were persuaded and ‘intimidated’ into paying Smith a further £1-4,000 for benefit and immigration advice – a free service.”

In the headlines: 

The Guardian:

Save the Children ‘let down’ staff and public over sexual misconduct claims

 This article is more than 8 months old

Charity Commission condemns ‘serious failures’ in handling of harassment allegations against senior staff 

The Times: Fat cat charities have forgotten their principles

The National: 

Save the Children and IRC dragged into Oxfam abuse scandal

A report leaked this week showed a charity headed by David Miliband had its funding suspended over allegations

London-based Muslim-aid charity is accused of funding human trafficking gangs smuggling Somali migrants into Europe via Greece

  • Croydon’s Al-Kahir Foundation was accused of helping migrants reach Europe
  • Notis Mitarachi, the Greek minister for migration, made the severe allegations
  • The Minister claims the Muslim charity funds and aids human trafficking gangs 
  • He alleges migrants’ testimonies to Greek authorities show the Foundation paid for a boat crossing in which 34 Somalis drowned sailing from Turkey to Greece

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Mobile Phones: New Market Tools for the Poor

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

Bangladesh’s poor can now buy and sell goods and services with their mobile phones, thanks to a Bangladeshi company’s pioneering mobile phone marketplace. The company, CellBazaar, serves as a useful role model for other Southern entrepreneurs and companies looking to develop and market mobile phone applications for the poor that really help them.

CellBazaar is simple to use: A user begins the process by texting the word “buy” to short message (SMS) code 3838. They then are offered a list of all the items for sale and scroll through them to find what they want. When they have found something, they send another SMS. In response, an SMS comes back telling the seller’s phone number. And from that point, business is underway between the buyer and the seller.

“It’s a far more efficient way of finding things. In the past you have to go to newspapers, magazines, and find the best match,” founder Kamal Quadir told MobileActive.

The categories run from used cars and motorcycles, to new laptops, agricultural products like corn, chickens and fish, educational tutors, jobs, and places for sale and rent.

Quadir said he had the idea for CellBazaar when he was a graduate student at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

“I was surrounded by technologically sophisticated people,” he said. “I saw all this technological possibility and heard one top-notch scientist mentioning that a very cheap mobile phone had the same capabilities as a NASA computer in 1968. A country like Bangladesh has 35 million NASA-type computers, and most importantly, they’re in people’s pockets.”

Quadir saw all this power going to waste, and realized how business was being held back by the lack of information. Absence of market intelligence – or what is available for sale and what is a good price – was a big impediment to more profitable and efficient business transactions.

Quadir first created the idea at MIT Media Labs and eventually signed a contract with GrameenPhone. CellBazaar launched in July of 2006, and, after a year of beta testing, the team started to actively market the service in August 2007.

CellBazaar can also be accessed through its website. This has the advantage of making what is a very local market an international market.

Partnering with GrameenPhone, Bangladesh’s leading telecommunications service provider with more than 18 million subscribers, had its advantages. With 60 percent of the Bangladesh market, “their network is larger than others,” Quadir said.

Just as web applications like Google and the powerful social networking website Facebook (www.facebook.com) transformed the way people work and socialize, so CellBazaar has needed to encourage a change in behaviour for it to work. At first, people didn’t think they had anything worth selling, or that they could use the text messages to connect to a marketplace.

“In the past, a rural village person couldn’t even imagine that they wanted to sell something and the whole world would be willing to buy it,” Quadir said. “The biggest challenge we have is people blocking that audacity and courage.”

To date, over 1 million people have used the service out of a country of 150 million people. “Fundamentally the real issue is about changing people’s patterns,” he said. “But once they learn how to use it, people start doing it really frequently.”

The CellBazaar experience also shows how critical clever marketing is to business success. The company has been marketed through tastefully designed stickers placed in the windows of cars, taxis and microbuses — ubiquitous and continuous publicity for low cost.

CellBazaar also has launched educational booklets for four target audiences: villagers and farmers, the elderly and retired, young professionals, and tech-savvy teenagers. There are detailed booklets for those who want step-by-step instructions, as well as short leaflets for customers who want to carry a “quick guide” in their pocket.

CellBazaar launched its first television campaign during the Muslim festival of Eid in 2007. The ads featured a newspaper seller called Shamsu Hawker, and show how he begins a new career buying and selling used televisions with the help of CellBazaar. The advertisement’s unusual setting on a train, as well as positive imagery of Bangladesh, created a sensation among TV viewers. The character “Shamsu Hawker” has become a nationally recognized icon and popular cultural figure.

As the service grows, the demographic that uses it has also expanded. “Young people were the early adopters,” said Quadir. “Initially urban people used it more, because we didn’t market very aggressively. Word of mouth spread faster because of the higher concentration of people in cities. But now it has spread to rural areas as well.”

CellBazaar has won many awards for its innovation in social and economic development.

The ambitious Quadir wants to expand CellBazaar into East Africa, Eastern Europe, and South Asia. Unlike the web, CellBazaar has to make deals with local mobile phone providers. He can’t just offer the service through the internet. “The Internet belongs to everybody — like highways and like fresh air,” said Quadir. “Mobile networks are privately owned.”

“So far the operators we have worked with have been very good,” he said. “We are very selective in terms of what operator we work with.” As CellBazaar looks to expand, Quadir is focusing efforts on places that have high mobile penetration rates and low web penetration. “We’re looking at any place that has less internet. No matter how good the application is, having internet and high computer penetration doesn’t help us,” he said. “And mobile is everywhere.”

The same lesson is being learned around the world. A study of grain traders in Niger found that “cell phones reduce grain price dispersion across markets by a minimum of 6.4 percent and reduce intra-annual price variation by 10 percent.” According to the study, “The primary mechanism by which cell phones affect market-level outcomes appears to be a reduction in search costs, as grain traders operating in markets with cell phone coverage search over a greater number of markets and sell in more markets.”

Mobile phones are now the fastest growing consumer product in history. Portio Research estimates that between 2007 and 2012 the number of mobile subscribers will grow by another 1.8 billion, mostly in emerging economies like India and China.

Informa Telecoms and Media estimates mobile networks now cover 90 per cent of the world’s population – 40 per cent of whom are covered but not connected. With such reach, finding new applications for mobile phones that are relevant to the world’s poor and to developing countries is a huge growth area. It is estimated that by 2015, the global mobile phone content market could be worth over US $1 trillion, and basic voice phone calls will account for just 10 per cent of how people use mobile phones.

Leonard Waverman of the London Business School has estimated that an extra 10 mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country, leads to an extra half a percentage point of growth in GDP per person.

The experience in the Philippines has shown that the best way to drive fast take up of mobile phone services is to offer something very practical and connected to personal income.

“The most significant lesson learned so far,” said Shawn Mendes, lead author on the report, The Innovative Use of Mobile Applications in the Philippines: Lessons for Africa, “is that m-Banking, rather than more altruistic applications such as m-Health and m-Education, has delivered the greatest benefits to people in developing countries.”

Resources

  • SME Toolkit: A free online resource aimed at the South to help entrepreneurs and small businesses access business information, tools, and training services to be able to implement sustainable business practices. Website:http://www.smetoolkit.org/smetoolkit/en
  • Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles: EPROM, part of the Program for Developmental Entrepreneurship within the MIT Design Laboratory, aims to foster mobile phone-related research and entrepreneurship. Key activities include development of new applications for mobile phone users worldwide. Website: http://eprom.mit.edu/
  • Textually.org: a very inspiring website profiling loads of innovations with mobile phones in the developing world. 
    Website:http://www.textually.org/textually/archives/cat_mobile_phone_projects_thir
  • The innovative use of mobile applications in the Philippines Lessons for Africa: A paper from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) on mobile phone innovation. Website:http://www.sida.se/sida/jsp/sida.jsp?d=118&a=33306&language=en
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Crowdsourcing Mobile Phones To Make The Poor Money

By David South, Southern Innovator Magazine

The proliferation of mobile phones across the global South, reaching even the poorest places on the planet, has given birth to whole new ways of making money. A phenomenon called ‘crowdsourcing’ – in which the power of individuals is harvested to achieve a goal – is now being used to create networks of people earning extra income.

One technology called Txteagle (http://txteagle.com/index.html), works like this: somebody performs small tasks with their mobile phone, such as translating a document into a local language, and in return receives credits or cash, so-called ‘micro-payments.’ By having many people perform these tasks in their spare time or down time at work, a large project can be completed and people can top-up their income. The secret is that the task must be able to be broken up into bite size chunks: the elephant must be eaten with a small fork.

For the poor, or people who are just getting by in a poor country, this can be a much-needed survival top-up in hard economic times. It is also an opportunity for people normally frozen out of formal employment opportunities or living in slum conditions.

Txteagle is being pioneered in Kenya using text messages or a low bandwidth, interactive protocol known as USSD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USSD) (usually used to check prepaid phone balances).

The rapid growth in take-up has made mobile phones the big success story of the 21st century. With such reach, finding new applications for mobile phones that are relevant to the world’s poor and to developing countries is a huge growth area. It is estimated that by 2015, the global mobile phone content market could be worth over US $1 trillion: relegating basic voice phone calls to just 10 percent of the way people use mobile phones.

The technological success story of mobile phones is impressive: China is home to the same number of mobile-phone users (surpassing 650 million in 2009) as the whole of Europe. According to India’s telecoms regulator (http://www.trai.gov.in/Default.asp), half of all urban dwellers now have mobile – or fixed – telephone subscriptions and the number is growing by eight million a month. In Tanzania, mobile phone use grew by 1,600 percent between 2002 and 2008.

Txteagle is the brainchild of Nathan Eagle of EPROM (Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles) (http://eprom.mit.edu/ ). He works on developing new mobile phone applications with computer science departments in 10 Sub-Saharan African countries including: the University of Nairobi (http://www.uonbi.ac.ke/) (Kenya), Makerere University (http://mak.ac.ug/makerere/) (Uganda), GSTIT (http://www.gstit.edu.et/) (Ethiopia), Ashesi University (http://www.ashesi.org/) (Ghana), and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (http://www.kist.ac.rw/) (Rwanda).

Eagle has pioneered Txteagle in Nairobi, Kenya with students at the University of Nairobi. Drawing on his experience in East Africa, where he has lived since 2006, Eagle has a powerful message about mobile phones in the South. “This is their technology. The mobile phone is theirs,” he told a conference in March of this year. “It has had a far greater impact on their lives than it has on ours.”

Eagle says typical Txteagle users are “literate people in Nairobi who have significant idle time, like taxi drivers, security guards” or high school students. Like many Southern countries, Kenya has a plethora of languages: 62 in all. It can be laborious and costly to translate into all these languages. But by using crowd-sourcing on mobile phones, mobile phone company Nokia’s (www.nokia.com) phone menus have been translated into 15 local languages.

Already there are more people wanting to earn money this way than there are tasks to do. Eagle has had to cap payments at US $1.50 a day. The service needs to grow, and it is looking to offer people in the United States the opportunity to have easily broken-up tasks done in Kenya. Eagle believes his algorithms (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algorithm) ensure a 95-percent accuracy rate. One possible market is the US $15 billion medical transcription industry.

Kenya, a nation of 32 million, relies on its small business sector for most employment. In 2005, the government’s Economic Survey (www.cbs.go.ke/) found the small business sector created 437,900 jobs – mostly because of the boom in mobile phones. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), adding an additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people boosts a typical developing country’s GDP growth by 0.6 percent. The boost comes from the innovative use of mobile phone technology by local entrepreneurs.

Kenya is making significant headway on innovating with mobile phones. Already, 30 percent of Kenyans pay for their electricity with their mobile phones instead of waiting in line.

“We have transformed the majority of phones in East Africa into a platform that people can use to make money,” Eagle told the conference. “There are 15 million Africans ready to start working on their mobile phones.”

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: July 2009

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Creative Use of Wi-Fi to Reach the Poor

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

In 2003 former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for greater access to wi-fi, or wireless internet networks, as a mechanism to help poorer regions catch up with the pace of technological change in developed countries. Wireless networks remove the need to lay costly wires and can quickly bring fast and convenient internet access to large populations currently denied access. By removing the need to lay lots of cables to get communities online, wireless could help poorer nations narrow the digital divide and catch up with countries where the technology has already taken hold. Social entrepreneurs are stepping in to fill the gap between the promise of wi-fi and the reality.

A contemporary take on the mobile library, where a bus travels to remote or under serviced areas to lend books, is being used to bring wi-fi and web content to remote villages in India, Rwanda, Cambodia and Paraguay lacking internet access. United Villages and its subsidiary First Mile Solutions cleverly targets only the content the villagers really want and then provides it to them for a fee. Using a fleet of buses and motorcycles, they upload in the city before going to the countryside popular pages and pages previously requested. “There’s only 0.003 percent of the web that rural Indians care about,” founder Amir Hassan told the BBC. “They want to know the cricket scores, they want to see the new Aishwarya Rai photos, and they want to hear a sample of the latest Bollywood tunes.”

Once in the countryside, a small box with an antenna onboard the buses or a motorcycle communicates with the rural computers, sometimes up to six times a day. Special content requests can be made for a few rupees, and emails are collected and delivered. Not only do the buses deliver web content, they also act as a courier service, picking up and delivering products ordered via the web for the villagers. “We-re bringing e-commerce to rural India,” said Hassan.

“My objective is to show to the village youth that having a PC with connectivity is a viable business, so that more and more unemployed youth can take up this as a self-employment opportunity,” remarks villager Raj Kishor Swain, who helps with United Villages.

Green WiFi, based in San Francisco, has a simple aim: to provide children in developing countries with access to the internet. But the difference is that they have developed a solution to the biggest problem in most remote regions: reliable electricity supply. Their invention is intended to partner with the US $100 laptop computers being rolled out in the developing countries by the One Laptop Per Child Project. Green WiFi has developed a low cost, solar-powered, standardized wi-fi access solution that runs out-of-the-box with no systems integration or power requirements. All that is required is a single source of broadband access and light.

In a further boost to internet access in Africa, the World Bank is also funding US $164.5 million in high-speed internet access for Kenya, Burundi and Madagascar to boost regional competitiveness. Eastern and much of Southern Africa is the only region in the world not connected to the global broadband infrastructure.

Resources

  • The Wireless Internet Institute was launched in 2001 as an international think tank where stakeholders explore wireless Internet technologies, best practices and sustainable implementation models. W2i is a World Times, Inc. initiative addressing the regulatory, business and integration complexities associated with the deployment of wireless Internet technologies.
  • The World Dialogue on Regulation for Network Economies is concerned with regulation and governance for network economies. They conduct research, facilitate online dialogue and discussion among experts, and publish and distribute papers, reports and other relevant information.
  • I-Genius: I-genius is a world community of social entrepreneurs and seeks to inspire a new generation of social innovators. They hope to encourage partnerships across geographical and cultural boundaries, by building partnerships between social businesses and wider stake holders, governments, corporations, NGOs, investors and the media.
  • A blog linking technology and social entrepreneurs: Click here
  • Social Edge: a web portal for social entrepreneurs by social entrepreneurs
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