Good piece in the Guardian about how Bangladeshi women, armed with a netbook, GSM mobile, blood pressure monitor and pregnancy kit, are ‘champions’ by people who used to think it was a scandal. The project, run by D-Net (disclaimer – with Panos Im helping D-Net develop a tool for NGOs to work out how to use mobile phones in their work) aims to provide information people need in areas such as agriculture, health, sanitation and disaster management.
Its a particularly good piece, because it makes the point that these efforts are filling in where the State is failing:
“The success of the InfoLadies is making the failure of the state more noticeable. “We have corruption and political interference in every sector,” says Gullal Singha, a state executive officer of Sagatha sub-district. Sagatha is severely affected by soil erosion and is home to the poorest of the poor. “Even the ultra-poor entitled for food relief are segregated as Bangladesh Nationalist Party poor or Awami League poor,” says Aziz Mostafa, an elected representative of a local civic body.”
Its striking how much innovation in the area of communications in Bangladesh.
Ive long argued that mobile phones represent a Gutenberg type shift in power relations, enabling people excluded from communication and debate to be part of the conversation. Owen Barder argues cheap communication reprepsents one of the four megatrends that will affect development, changing the relationship between citizens and states
Recent research by Australian researchers Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron are exploring how India’s mobile phone boom has helped parties representing the bottom rung of the caste system do well at the ballot box.
The Sydney Morning Herald has this:
“They say it is likely mobiles contributed to the electoral success of the Bahujan Samaj Party popular with India’s Dalits, previously the untouchables of the Hindu caste system.
The BSP won a resounding election victory in India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, in 2007 that elevated Dalit hero Kumari Mayawati to the position of Chief Minister and entrenched her as a powerful player in national politics.
There is evidence that the effective use of mobiles by the BSP helped party activists to mobilise Dalit voters. The researchers suggest the mobile phone gave BSP organisers a new way to get round the power barriers that in the old days kept low-caste people down, under control of social superiors and confined to their villages.
They describe the mobile as the ”most disruptive device to come to India in modern times” and argue consumer and communication capitalism is posing new challenges for established structures of authority and power.”
But few development practitioners and even fewer donors recognize this, and take a strategic view of the implications. DFID has closed its Information and Communication for Development unit, focussing instead on its press relations team.
Its time for development practitioners to remember that development is about politics, and that politics is essentially a communicative act. And cellphones allow increasing numbers of people to be part of the political process.
Always reliable blog State of Telecom Industry in Pakistan notes that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has recently mandated that all cellphone towers funded by tax revenue from telecommunications companies (held by the Pakistan Universal Service Fund) will have to use renewable energy.
Given the massive power shortages the country faces, this is a very positive move. Two questions:
- Where are the USF funded cellphone towers located?
- Could the USF also pay for security for towers where they are threatened?
In Bangladesh, the BBC World Service Trust is delivering English language lessons through SMS:
BBC Janala (‘Window’) has turned the mobile phone into a low-cost education device by offering hundreds of 3 minute audio lessons and SMS quizzes through people’s handsets. By simply dialling 3000, almost anyone can learn with new classes each day ranging from: ‘Essential English’ for beginners, to ‘How to tell a story’ for those more advanced.
With 39% of callers returning to the service, BBC Janala has outperformed the majority of other value added mobile products in Bangladesh which typically achieve a 5% return of customers. The beginner’s content is experiencing a 69% repeat rate. To date 1,030,583 lessons have been accessed, with users engaging with Janala’s interactive services – including audio quizzes, English story recording and direct feedback – an additional 130,000 times.
In insecure environments, such tools offer useful ways to reach out to audiences and provide useful services directly. This could work in Afghanistan, in Somalia, Sudan and so on.