What do Queen Rania of Jordan, former British first lady, Cherie Blair, and the BBC World Service Trust have in common? All are involved in innovative programs aimed at using mobile phones to improve the lot of the very poor. Simon Kearney reports on who is having the greater impact.
Apparently when Queen Rania stood up to speak at Mobile World Congress many delegates headed for the door, only to be turned around by attendants - who insisted they sit through the worthy presentation after all the business was done.
The Jordanian Queen is a great advocate for education and her latest initiative 1GOAL is no less worthy with its goal of encouraging the goal of educating an extra 72 million children, all those without education today. She seems to have the attention of the mobile executives that matter, after signing up 18 operators, representing 1 billion subscribers to underpin the 1GOAL campaign.
Cherie Blair was at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to release a report on women and mobile phones, which highlights inequalities between men and women in mobile phone ownership.
The report says that women in low and middle income countries are 21 per cent less likely to own a phone, worldwide there are 300 million less women than men who own a mobile phone. The report highlighted that helping women in developing countries purchase a mobile phone could increase revenues for operators by US$13billion and have a flow on effect to each country’s GDP.
Ms Blair called on mobile operators and policy makers to develop programs to help low-income women buy a mobile phone. “By being better connected, women feel safer, find employment, start businesses, access banks, learn about market prices and altogether benefit socially and economically,” she said.
The BBC World Service Trust’s head of interactive, Sara Chamberlain, announced – on TelecomTV – that their Janala English language learning service in Bangladesh had signed up one million eager learners in just three months in the impoverished South-Asian nation. Their aim is to multiply that number many-fold.
The Janala project is using recorded voice on what is an almost ubiquitous (credit where credit is due, Nokia) handset without any smart features.
The BBC’s service is commercial, charging a nominal amount for each lesson, obviously the right amount looking at the sign up rate.
Mobile operators, like many large corporations, have corporate social responsibility programs that put some of their returns and expertise towards the greater good. Operators like MTN, Bharti Airtel and Orascom were quick to point out the importance of social responsibility programs that utilise the benefits of mobile phones as a tool to help people when they offered their support for Queen Rania's 1GOAL program to promote universal education.
However as MTN unwittingly points out and the BBC and Cherie Blair's Foundation show, perhaps they should be using their handsets to even greater effect.
“One of the responsibilities that come with operating a business in highly indebted parts of the world, which are characterised by dysfunctional education systems and high levels of poverty is responding to the nation’s social needs and to work with partners – including government, civil society organisations and the business sector to – effect social change,” MTN spokesperson Nozipho-January-Bardill said.
To spell out the irony in the MTN statement, they are supporting a campaign to promote the idea of universal education while saying that the education systems they are calling on to deliver this are dysfunctional. They should know, operating in countries like Uganda, where free public education fails in delivery with few teachers, overcrowded classrooms, corruption and poor infrastructure undermining a well-meaning policy.
The BBC’s program in Bangladesh and Cherie Blair’s report show the power of mobile to do what governments often fail to do, offer tools for people to help themselves.
GSM Association CEO Rob Conway said as much launching the Blair report. “Mobile has proved to be a key element in today’s society as it is the most ubiquitous, connected and personalised communications tool that we have, and holds significant potential in bringing the benefits of connectivity to most of the developing world and reaching families at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” he said.
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