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Here's How Mobile Innovation Can Help End Poverty

The digital inclusion conversation isn't limited to emerging markets, says Cairns; there are 90 million people in Europe who don't have a bank account or any digital means of payment, rendering travel by train or plane virtually impossible.

"Connectivity can bring people into the financial system," says Anders Borg, Chair of the World Economic Forum's Global Financial System Initiative. "It can spread healthcare, and facilitate education." Wednesday's keynote at Mobile World Congress 2016 is on the theme of digital inclusion; Borg is joined by Anthony Lake, Executive Director at UNICEF; Ann Cairns, President of International Markets at MasterCard; and Karim Khoja, CEO at Roshan.

To each panelist, mobile and IoT technology represents not only an opportunity to make positive change in the developing world, but a very real responsibility. "If you have a connected world, but you have half the people on the planet disconnected from it, then you're creating a world of haves and have-nots," says Cairns.

"This is a moral issue," says Lake. "We have to, for a variety of reasons, bring the most disadvantaged children into these systems that are creating progress." He points to birth registration as one area in particular where children (especially girls) in developing countries are likely to fall through the cracks; on average, 1 in 3 children in developing African countries aren't registered at birth, making it harder to get into school. UNICEF are currently trialling digital registration in Tanzania; a relatively simple process which offers children a "passport to life."

Telecoms and the Taliban

Roshan is Afghanistan's leading telecoms provider, and CEO Karim Khoja believes that telecoms have an integral role to play in digital inclusion, from improving access and increasing adoption to diversifying the applications of mobile across sectors. Roshan has made strides in each of these regards by making communications more affordable and encouraging digital literacy.

The education and empowerment of women has also been one of Roshan's more controversial missions. "If you invest in a woman, you invest in a nation," says Khoja, whose senior leadership team is 37 per cent female; something of a record in Afghanistan, where girls aren't permitted to attend school. He recalls how Roshan has introduced a number of e-learning centres in some of the most dangerous southern provinces (being careful to actually avoid the word "learning," lest they be blown up by the Taliban) and strongly urging village elders to allow girls access to them.

Implementing simple mobile solutions has also proven effective in reducing corruption in Afghanistan, says Khoja. A whopping 70 per cent of the population are in the farming business, but would consistently be ripped off at the bazaar, and be forced into growing poppies for heroin. Now, farmers have access to real-time commodity prices, allowing them to get a fair deal on their produce in the marketplace. Roshan also found that delivering police wages directly via IDR meant that, for the first time, police officers were receiving their full salary, without anything being siphoned off by the bank or other institutions.

Stop talking, and listen

The interconnected nature of development is something that cannot be ignored -- Lake urges ministries to work together to solve issues. For instance, if a girl is busy carrying clean water to her village because they don't have nearby access, then she isn't in school; to which department does it fall to fix this? "The key in helping to defeat poverty and getting to these communities is to be in touch with them, to know what they want," he says. "The people who live in these communities know more than the development experts who live miles away."

U-Report is one such way that UNICEF have achieved this; a single weekly question sent to young people in Uganda once a week, gathering real-time information about conditions in their communities. U-Report has also been used to determine the percentage of the population in Nigeria who are aware of their own HIV status.

The digital inclusion conversation isn't limited to emerging markets, says Cairns; there are 90 million people in Europe who don't have a bank account or any digital means of payment, rendering travel by train or plane virtually impossible.

There is plenty of work to be done in Europe, Lake agrees, especially when it comes to on-going situations like the Syrian refugee crisis. "Something like 30 million children fled conflicts last year," he says, estimating that children make up a third of the influx of refugees in Europe at present. While these children have very little in the way of possessions, the majority of them brought their smartphones with them.

UNICEF has responded by deploying tech hubs across a number of European countries which allow both the children to charge their phones, and UNICEF to track them better; an important objective, as unaccompanied children pose a big challenge. This connectivity also helps UNICEF to provide helpful information and services remotely, enabling these children and their families to take better care of themselves amid an awful situation.

"Mobile has not only transformed how we work, but it's transformed UNICEF," says Lake. "It has allowed us to achieve results I literally couldn't have imagined."

This article first appeared at Ogilvydo.

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