Mobile Technology Starts to Ring the Changes in the Developing World

06/12/2012 17:43 GMT | Updated 05/02/2013 10:12 GMT
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Power is literally in the hands of the people. Ordinary men, women and children are texting, tweeting, photographing and filming, all from a mobile device.

So remarkable has been the sheer volume of information - material that conventional journalism would never have been able to produce - that it's been dubbed a revolution - the so-called Twitter Revolution.

The mobile phone that changed the world for people of my generation by simply being a phone you could carry around, is now not just a device for talking to loved ones, business partners and friends, but an incredible multifaceted communications device.

What's not as widely known is the transformative effect mobiles are having on the lives of people in poor communities across the developing world. They are placing both information and money in the hands of people, often for the very first time. They allow charities like Save the Children to distribute and gather life-saving information in emergencies and they empower citizens to hold institutions to account.

The challenge for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO's) is to make sure we harness the potential of this mobile technology to continue the transformation and save lives across the globe.

The world is at a tipping point in our battle to reduce child mortality and lift millions more children out of poverty. Never before have we witnessed such rapid progress in reducing child mortality. In 1990, 12 million children died before the age of 5; last year it was 6.9 million.

That is still 6.9 million too many, but the progress we are witnessing means that we could be the generation to ensure that no child goes hungry, no child dies of preventable causes and every child gets a fair chance in life. The pre-eminent development economist Jeffrey Sachs has described the mobile phone as the 'single most transformative tool for development'.

From enabling a person to have their first bank account to allowing charities like ours to communicate quickly with people in emergency situations, the importance of this technology is clear.

And it's not just for the privileged few: there are now 5 billion mobile connections in the developing world, with 18 more being added each second. The need for an electrical grid, which reaches rural communities, has been leapfrogged by mobile technology; 80 million people across the world don't have access to electricity but do use a mobile phone. Solar powered panels charging multiple mobile handsets are now becoming common sights in rural villages I've visited across Africa and India.

These little boxes of plastic and glass are starting to revolutionise the lives of even the world's poorest people and there are many examples of just how they're doing it.

In Tanzania, like many countries in the developing world, obstetric fistula is a disabling condition that leaves women incontinent as a result of prolonged or obstructed labour. It can lead to chronic medical and psychological problems and women are often socially excluded, extremely poor, and geographically isolated. Corrective surgery is simple and inexpensive yet often the constraint is simply the cost of getting to hospital.

There are 3,000 new cases of obstetric fistula each year in Tanzania and around 24,000 women have been left untreated since the millennium. Using Vodafone's M-PESA scheme, women from the poorest communities receive the funds for transport costs to hospital. Within an hour of referral, funds are sent via M-PESA to cover the woman's fares. Using this simple infrastructure the number of patients treated for obstetric fistula there rose from 168 surgeries in 2009 to 338 surgeries in 2011, an increase of over 100% in two years.

Malnutrition is the underlying cause of 2.3 million child deaths and leaves 165 million more stunted - meaning their intellectual and physical development is undermined for life. In Northern Kenya, Save the Children, the Institute of Development Studies and Vodafone are exploring the use of mobile phone technology to collect data on nutrition outcomes (the height and weight of children) as well as hold heath providers to account when nutrition services (eg. Vitamin A supplements) aren't delivered. This will bring visibility to a problem which has been invisible because its effects only show when it is too late.

In other countries, agencies like ours are helping those struggling to provide food for their families by providing cash transfers to mobile phones, using Vodafone's M-PESA system. Technology like this facilitates us moving from the traditional model of giving food as aid to being able to give money. It means that people can spend this on fresh food for their family and not have to survive on sacks of rice or flour. By having the option to spend this mobile credit in their local market it also helps the local economy to grow.

Mobile technology can also be used to help people hold governments and even aid agencies to account. Britain is currently supporting an initiative to allow people to report corrupt officials to ministers directly through their mobile phones. Every citizen who contacts the Punjab province's local government, tax office, police, health or education services will receive free automated calls or text messages where they can report if they were forced to pay a bribe or experienced bad customer service. During a three year pilot, several corrupt officials were suspended or sacked.

Despite all these examples, we're only seeing the beginnings of the potential that this technology has to change our world for the better. This improvement will not be automatic. The challenges we face in making these changes, in ensuring the potential of children across the world is fulfilled, are not ones that can only be addressed by governments or NGOs alone. Increasingly governments, NGOs and businesses are working together and it's clear that with mobile technology, partnerships are key.

In the next three to five years, mobile technology will become a core, integrated aspect of emergency response work in humanitarian crises. We know that this explosive growth in access to mobile phones provides us with a unique opportunity to improve our ability to respond effectively in these emergency situations. If this is to happen we need to address three key themes - increasing accountability, building preparedness and prioritising collaboration.

We also know that with more and more organisations using this technology that we need to ensure everyone knows the rules of the game. A charter for facilitating shared commitments between partners following emergencies would allow us to make sure that we're making the most of this technology and the power it can give us to save more lives.

We could be the generation that stops children dying needlessly but to achieve the greatest impact for children we need to find new ways of working and fresh approaches. This week may have seen the 20th anniversary of the invention of the text message but the full potential of this technology has yet to be fulfilled. With bold, collaborative action from all stakeholders we can harness its potential to help transform the lives of the next generation and lift millions out of poverty.

Justin Forsyth will be speaking at the Vodafone Foundation and London Business School's Mobile for Good Summit in London on December 10: