2008 Manthan Award Winners – ICT and Development

Prerna announced the acceptance of nominations for the 2008 Manthan Awards back in March, and Livemint.com now provides highlights of the innovative winners. The full list of winners can be found here.

On first glance, I was amazed by the sheer number of categories (there are 13) and the diversity of tech products out there. Here are a few personal favorites, but I encourage you to look through the list to get the full view:

  • Wall newspaper – broadcast sheet pasted on the walls of milk cooperatives and Panchayat buildings in 40,000 villages, targeting the rural and low literate
  • Safal National Exchange of India Limited (SNX) – pursuing a One India One Market vision, creating an opportunity for small farmers to gain access to national markets through negotiating prices in a transparent way that eliminates as many intermediaries as possible
  • Lipikaar – an e-localization method that allows typing in 16 different languages using a normal keyboard, making it extremely user-friendly for non-English speakers
  • Learn with Fun – making maths an enjoyable subject through satelitte communications in a vernacular language, to reach out to rural areas where drop out rates are high

There are seemingly endless ways to marry technology and development, and these winners provide just a taste of the current landscape.

Cellphones and (Rural) Development, Part Two

The agricultural sector employs 2/3 of India’s population, and contributes to 1/3 of its gross domestic product (GDP) – yet, Indian farmers in rural communities are plagued by debt, falling commodity prices, changing weather patterns, fluctuating demands in the global market, and failing crops. In regions such as Vidarbha, farmer suicides are endemic, to the extent that even the recent governmental debt relief scheme has been unable to mitigate the crisis.

Moreover, most rural farmers are unable to capitalize on the true value of their crop yields, often getting as little as “25% of the value of the final price of their raw produces against 40%-50% in America and Britain.” In light of this concern in particular, technological advances, specifically with respect to mobile phones, have gained traction within South Asia through initiatives like Grameen Phone, InternetSpeech, the recent IBM initiative, etc.

As highlighted in a recent Times Online article, of particular interest is the Reuters Market Light campaign, which has the capability to provide, for example, weather reports, crop spraying information and competitive market pricing, all through the mobile phone for 175 rupees a quarter.

I know what you’re thinking – we’ve all heard of this kind of technology before, but what makes this particular initiative so unique? According to the Indian Development Blog, Market Light uses a very different, and in their opinion, “superior system for gathering and reporting local spot prices than that employed by local newspapers.” The blog goes on to explain:

Newspapers typically rely on middlemen to report the range of prices observed in the market each day for a given commodity. The problem with this method is that the maximum and minimum quality of the produce that shows up in a mandi on any given day can vary quite a bit so these figures are often difficult to interpret.

Reuters Market Light takes a different approach. Rather than report a range of prices, Reuters provides the exact spot price for a given quality level of each commodity. Doing this takes more effort – the person providing the prices must be able to precisely discern between varying levels of quality — but it is much more useful for farmers.

In terms of measurable outcomes, this initiative has reportedly generated positive results to date, concretely enabling farmers to enhance their abilities to bargain, negotiate prices, and most importantly, make choices on the basis of the most favorable financial outcomes. Sounds great in theory, but what exactly does this look like on the ground, you may ask? (this article continues after the break – click “Read More”) Continue reading

Amartya Sen encapsulates why we should care

One of the ongoing discussions that is linked ot the field of social entrepreneurship is the very nature of what this concept truly means. In a talk held at Stanford University this week, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen eloquently and concisely spoke to the issues of empowerment and enlightenment, and I feel as though his words form a great basis for our own conceptualization of our purposes here.

1- If you feel threatened it makes intelligent discourse impossible
2- For creating a just society: Empowerment is not enough. You must to ensure “enlightened empowerment” which can only come from public discussion and giving a political voice (to those who are not being heard)
3 – Recognition (or fame) can useful unless it becomes a substitute for doing anything useful

These points were summarized by Neerja Raman on Digital Provide: From Good to Gold.

Cellphones and Development

Recently, the NYTimes featured an article entitled, “Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?”, in which it highlighted a new wave of “human behaviour” research funded by cellphone companies such as Nokia in order to tap into less developed markets. The author of the article centers around a series of conversations/interactions with Jan Chipchase, a “user anthropologist” for Nokia, but I will highlight the larger trends presented in the article instead.

According to the article, Asia and Africa are at the cusp of a new wave of technological improvements and access that potentially stand to benefit a significant portion of the poor, underprivileged population (we have highlighted a few key trends here – InternetSpeech, SMS for Blood Donors, Quarter Million Internet Capable Phones, LifeLines Education, Cellphones as a Social Epidemic, and CureHunter). Small improvements in terms of access, suggests the article, can generate exponential returns:

Today, there are more than 3.3 billion mobile-phone subscriptions worldwide, which means that there are at least three billion people who don’t own cellphones, the bulk of them to be found in Africa and Asia. Even the smallest improvements in efficiency, amplified across those additional three billion people, could reshape the global economy in ways that we are just beginning to understand.

To get a sense of how rapidly cellphones are penetrating the global marketplace, you need only to look at the sales figures…Eighty percent of the world’s population now lives within range of a cellular network, which is double the level in 2000. And figures from the International Telecommunications Union show that by the end of 2006, 68 percent of the world’s mobile subscriptions were in developing countries.

How exactly do cellphones contribute to development, you may ask? Well, according to development specialists and business scholars Robert Jensen, cellphones have been proven to augment income:

Robert Jensen, an economics professor at Harvard University, tracked fishermen off the coast of Kerala in southern India, finding that when they invested in cellphones and started using them to call around to prospective buyers before they’d even got their catch to shore, their profits went up by an average of 8 percent while consumer prices in the local marketplace went down by 4 percent.

In fact, “a 2005 London Business School study extrapolated the effect even further, concluding that for every additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people, a country’s G.D.P. rises 0.5 percent.” Further research by the World Resources Institute, which, in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation, published a report entitled, “The Next Four Billion,” has found that poor families invest a significant amount of their savings in the information-communication technology category. Here are further details from their findings (more after the jump): Continue reading

World Bank Executive Development Program – Inclusive and Sustainable Business: Creating Markets with the Poor

What are the “linkages between corporate strategy and development”?  How can public and corporate sector leaders implement strategies that provide opportunities for the world’s 4 billion people to lift themselves out of poverty?  The World Bank Institute has recently launched an “Executive Development Program” to help company managers and public sector leaders develop sustainable, yet profitable business models in emerging markets:

This unique program offers you insights to build corporate strategies that fight poverty while delivering profits. An innovative learning model will encourage you to learn how your organization can not only meet the bottom line, but develop working business models that include the world’s poor as investors, producers, sellers and buyers. Specifically, you will:

  • Gain a unique interdisciplinary perspective on how to align social and environmental issues with corporate strategy and develop successful business models in low income markets.
  • Explore how global trends, global imbalances, and global opportunities affect corporate strategy as well as the broader development objective of reaching the “4 Billion” at the base of the pyramid.
  • Identify the gaps in existing market institutions which may be acting as barriers to growth and understand how to overcome them.
  • Learn interdisciplinary approaches to complex issues including the elements of good governance and accountability, cross-sectoral partnerships, and measuring impact.
  • Capture lessons from relevant project experience and corporate initiatives that could be applied within your organization.

The curriculum/program includes topics such as: 1) Global Trends, Imbalances, and Opportunities: Reaching the “4 Billion”; 2) Aligning Corporate Strategy with the Development Agenda; 3) Promoting Good Governance; 4) The Role of Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships; and 5) Measuring Impact.   The “face-to-face” component of the program will be held in Washington, DC from June 9-13, and the “distance learning component” will be held from June 16-30, 2008. 

Want to learn more?  Go here.  Or apply here

Source:  World Business Council for Sustainable Development

Op-Ed: Migration and its Discontents

There is no doubt that the issues of migration and urbanization within India are wrought with controversy.  In the case of rural-urban migration, which is overwhelmingly the case, the impact on the social, economic, and psychological structure of villages and cities, both on a macro and micro level, is significant. 

In my experience within the Adivasi, rural communities of Gujarat, migration holds a sense of urgent promise, of a future with exponential financial dividends for the family.  Local community members themselves believe that village life is inferior to that of urban India, and that migration / urbanization leads to social and economic development, both on an individual and community level.  Therefore, instead of looking inwards by initiating local-resource driven campaigns for the development of their respective villages, local inhabitants tend to look outward, towards the city.  Rural communities, therefore, come to signify stagnation, whereas the city comes to represent progress, opportunity, and most importantly, money.  Artisanship, agricultural expertise, and other local-level skills atrophy as community members come to regard these skills as unvaluable, or in many cases, unmarketable, in comparison to more the more “lucrative” skills necessary for “urban jobs.”  This mentality, I believe, is a self-destructive one, as it leads to the devaluation and decomposition of potentially rich local resources within the rural landscape.

More after the jump… Continue reading

Caged by the Public Sector

Over the past three years, the Indian economy has surged at an average rate of 9% per year, thereby bolstering India’s image as a formidable economic force on the global stage.  However, in order to sustain both economic growth and human development, the Economist, in its latest issue entitled, “What’s Holding India Back?”, contends that India must institute and enforce significant reforms in its bloated public sector.  Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s commitment to “administrative reform – at every level”, including the formation of a commission to look into the matter, even P. Chidambaram, India’s Finance Minister, admits that for the most part, the commission’s deliberations have been “academic.”  In an article entitled “India’s Civil Service: Battling the Babu Raj”, the Economist contends that this trend threatens to stifle economic growth:

 Some economists see India’s malfunctioning public sector as its biggest obstacle to growth. Lant Pritchett, of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, calls it “one of the world’s top ten biggest problems—of the order of AIDS and climate change”. 

There is a very human dimension to this issue, as bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption takes a bite into government schemes intended for the poor.  In fact, the impact of India’s recently proposed development spending schemes, termed “inclusive growth” by the government, are expected to be diluted by gross inefficiencies in the public sector.  In a separate article entitled, “What’s Holding India Back?” the Economist informs readers of the following:

 In his budget, Mr Chidambaram duly handed out extra money to a long list of worthy schemes, from school meals to rural road-building. But as he himself conceded, outlays and outcomes are not the same thing. Standing between the two is an administrative machine corroded by apathy and corruption. The government’s subsidies fail to reach the poor, its schools fail to teach them and its rural clinics fail to treat them. 

Continue reading