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If information is power, then access is empowering
August 27, 2008 5:24 AM   Subscribe

In a recent Roundtable on Creative Capitalism hosted by TIME, CK Prahalad, author of "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" brings to our attention the insight that "the essence of poverty is the assymetry of information" and that this asymmetry was now changing due to the availability and affordability of mobile phones in developing nations. Jeffery Sachs supports him by pointing out that the digital divide was being closed by market forces not civic efforts. Global leader Nokia has already leapt into the breach by opening a Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya in order to develop concepts and products that are of value and relevance for those at the Base of the Pyarmid. The ubiquitious little cellphone has now been spotlighted as a key tool for poverty alleviation, although the debate continues. [previously]
posted by infini (57 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
World Bank revised poverty line; discovers world poverty higher than thought previously
posted by infini at 5:32 AM on August 27, 2008


"'the essence of poverty is the assymetry of information'"

If only we'd known this in 1970, we could have air-dropped old Encyclopedia Britannicas into Biafra.

But armed with this insight, today we can fling Compact Disks across all of Africa, and know that as Igbo and Tutsi and Hamer children read up on Wikipedia's frighteningly complete hierarchy of Pokemons (Pokemen?), their bellies will become taut with esoterica!
posted by orthogonality at 6:08 AM on August 27, 2008 [5 favorites]


So in the 20s to 30s, when millions of Americans sank into poverty, it was because information had become hidden or been destroyed. And in the 30s to 40s, FDR generated massive quantities of 1s and 0s to lift them back out? Putting them to work on public projects and paying for social programs with higher taxes on the wealthy, all unrelated?
posted by DU at 6:15 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


In fact, the Government is often seen as a source of misinformation, and this can be the cause of suspicion and conflict. Recent slum-upgrading initiatives in the city are a case in point. The authorities often failed to inform the residents of the plans for their areas, which led to violence and protests, and even riots in which people were killed.
Yet most of the population has access to tv and radio. Therefore, while access to information instruments such as phone, pc, tv, radio, etc is a conditio-sine-qua-non for exploiting the instant communication potential, having access doesn't imply that people will be reached by accurate, truthful, relevant information. Quantity of information doesn't imply quality.

Unfortunately, because of the constrains given by their own experience and education and avaiable time, most people aren't very accurate critics of the information they receive. Consequently, the very same instrument that could help them can also be dangerous for them.

Consider the propaganda radio station in Uganda that, if my memory serves, played a relevant role into inciting violence and hatred during the utu vs tutsi clashes. Consider also the very much opinionated, economical with truth Fox News. Pick any commercial station and it is likely to produce information that is biased by the ownership, or by the current government/funding committee if it's a public station.

On the flip side of the coin, if "bad" information can be spreaded in few second, the same could apply for "good" information, yet in a sea of so called "noise" (all the gibberish that's pushed on the net at all time) it could become hard to pick up the signal. More info isn't necessarily better info, if you don't have the resources and knowledge necessary to obtain just what you need and at the right time.
posted by elpapacito at 6:16 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


No, the essence of poverty is, well, poverty — problems with housing, problems with food, problems with security, problems with education, problems with health, and on and on and on.

That said, though, I think the "leapfrogging" of cellphones and the secondary technologies (eg cellphone micropayments) that this has spawned is really great. My bet is that the potential of this is just being scratched, and we will see a lot more in the next few years.

But it isn't such a great model for development overall, because cellphones work in a particular way (base stations plus cheap handsets) that doesn't work for sewage systems, hospitals, transportation, distributing food, or most other things.

So we should appreciate the potential of dispersed information technologies, while acknowledging the limitations as well.
posted by Forktine at 6:22 AM on August 27, 2008


Consider the propaganda radio station in Uganda that, if my memory serves, played a relevant role into inciting violence and hatred during the utu vs tutsi clashes.

Did you mean Rwanda?
posted by Forktine at 6:25 AM on August 27, 2008


And in the 30s to 40s, FDR generated massive quantities of 1s and 0s to lift them back out? Putting them to work on public projects and paying for social programs with higher taxes on the wealthy, all unrelated?
posted by DU at 6:15 AM on August 27


Yeah, actually
posted by infini at 6:28 AM on August 27, 2008


The essence of poverty is Jeffrey Sachs.
posted by stammer at 6:35 AM on August 27, 2008


stammer, what do you think of Stiglitz' views on this?
posted by infini at 6:38 AM on August 27, 2008


Iqbal Quadir on empowering the poor.

This isn't about bulk, broadcast information. It is about bidirectional communication. Another way to think about it is that your potential for wealth is proportional to the number of people you are able to talk to. If you can only listen, you can't do much business.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:46 AM on August 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


Consider the propaganda radio station in Uganda that...

Radio and TV stations must be smashed. Broadcast media is the instrument of oppression and suppression. Peer to peer (cellphone) communication turns the poor huddled masses into a force to be reckoned with.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:47 AM on August 27, 2008


Knowledge generation and policy impact in developing countries is a growing area, with a fair amount of work is being generated on it.

A lot of the work is being done in the context of agricultural research - check out the work of the CGIAR ILAC, where realisation that innovation (pdf) systems complex (pdf) are complex, and that successful research is interlinked into the wider research community. Public-private partnerships are being touted as the way forward in areas like biotech.

Some people do not agree. Another approach that is gaining currency is getting farmers engaged in the research - Robert Chambers for example has been pushing participatory methodologies (pdf)- and humility in Western development's attitudes to developing countries - for years. His books have become development workers' bibles (although he has come under attack as participatory methodologies have become mainstream).

The Overseas Development Institute are doing a lot of work studying the impact of research on policy, particularly in developing countries, and how "the poor" can get involved. The International Development Research Centre, a Canadian funder of research organisations, are also doing a lot of good work on this - on how to evaluate and understand the impact of research, how it can generate impact.

Development science is about politics, and the context matters. The only thing everyone decent seems to agree on is that it's all very difficult.
posted by YouRebelScum at 7:02 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Only, you know, without the redundant works.
posted by YouRebelScum at 7:05 AM on August 27, 2008


Their poverty will not just be measured by their income or assets but also by their ability to generate, process, receive and disseminate information, or what I call their level of "information poverty".

The poor of the future won't just be poor, they will also be uneducated. Fucking. Brilliant.

But don't build schools, or provide nutrition needed for growing minds. Oh no. Give them the web, and expect them to be able to use it, because power comes from holes in the wall.

The whole point of the article is that internet capability is on par with running water and medicine. Meanwhile, one nation with millions of people lacking both, disagrees, and chooses to focus on becoming more Olympicly competitive. Never mind that one thing that major Olympians prize is potable water and fresh air, I agree, tax rupees should be spent on ridiculous sporting chicanery.

They must be right, though, since it is just as reasonable as prioritizing the internet over real needs.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:07 AM on August 27, 2008


the essence of poverty is the asymmetry of information

In our poverty filled inner cities, probably so, in Africa, I think corruption and outside interference trump asymmetry of information.
posted by caddis at 7:10 AM on August 27, 2008


I mean, obviously information technology can help the poorest and most destitute incrementally better their living situation. But it can't give them beans to plant, or water that won't poison their babies.

It seems like people get so caught up with what fancy new stuff CAN do, that they sweep past the much more important shit that it can't do, and that still isn't done.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:10 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


From the last link:

"The idea that the Information Society, Knowledge Based Societies or the Digital Economy can run in parallel from the Industrial Society does not seem backed up by evidence."

I just don't see how owning a cell phone helps when there isn't the infrastructure to support well-paying jobs, health care, and so on. Dissemination of information is a wonderful thing for civic society, and a more "open" society might eventually lead to more economic opportunities in the future, but it seems absurd to me to claim that poverty can be alleviated by these technologies. And I know the claim isn't that they'll do it on their own, but I just think it's an entirely faulty premise.

Plus, wealthy westerners talking about how information technology and "market forces" and not civic efforts will alleviate poverty? Give me a break guys, I'm cynical enough already.

Good post, by the way!
posted by palidor at 7:23 AM on August 27, 2008


Development science is about politics, and the context matters. The only thing everyone decent seems to agree on is that it's all very difficult.
posted by YouRebelScum at 7:02 AM on August 27


imho, it seems to me that its basic concept of context that needs to be looked at more closely. In this respect, what I mean by context is the entire ecosystem in which any program, policy or project will operate. And that includes understanding the mindset, the values and the "to be met" needs of the end users, the people for whom the said [project, product, service etc] is being created/designed for. In the case of Nokia, they have research teams composed of anthropologists, ethnographers, sociologists etc who are constantly observing, interviewing and understanding these new customers of mobile phones and what they're doing with them.

I use Nokia only because right now they're the best known and most visible example, but the basic concept that the better you understand those at the BoP and how they "spend" their money (even if its for a health/development project like mosquito nets for malaria) the greater the chances of successful adoption of said product or efficacy of said project.

Take the mobile phone itself as an example. Among the majority of the BoP, contextual knowledge of ICT devices is very limited or almost nil. Often the phone is their first introduction to the 'big bad world' of electronics communication technology or even consumer electronics themselves. (although it must be said, TVs' and radios are ubiquitious but one way communication just like the 'old internet' whereas the mobile could be said to be analogous to the 'new two way read/write web')

Yet mobile phones, as they exist now, are for the most part designed with the assumption that the person using them has some contextual knowledge of interacting with such a device. Simple assumptions that we take for granted, how many mobile phones come equipped with those animated demo's or tutorials that once upon a time used to accompany most new software applications over a decade or more ago back when even laptops and PC's were for the most part still 'new' to us in our broadband world? Anyone remember the Aldus Pagemaker animated tutorial?

Otoh, mobiles were introduced and went mainstream long after we were exposed to ATMs, PC's and all the other devices which give rise to such contextual knowledge, tacitly, such as the icon which means "power" or that "delete" and "erase" mean the same thing? I've had this pointed out to me by a young malawian man as something that took them ages and a dictionary to figure out when they simply switched over from a Nokia (and its OS or commands) to a Sony Ericsson.

Unlike the computers of today (regardless of how we may feel about Macs and PC's ) where things have gotten standardized to the degree where when faced with an unknown application I'm reasonably sure of finding the "personal settings" under "options" or "tools" or even "file", how is someone without that contextual knowledge to know and understand when faced with a new phone?

Anyway I ramble, the point was that its Context which is key, rather than simply information alone.
posted by infini at 7:28 AM on August 27, 2008


fwiw, paul collier is worth listening to, cf.

kinda OT, but here's salmon on creative capitalism (the weblog), "Give Bill Gates, Mike Kinsley, and Conor Clark credit: if their Creative Capitalism project achieves nothing else, it has certainly brought into being one of the most interesting, diverse, and provocative group blogs on the internet."

oh and btw, if you're interested in "Profit-maximization as the sole goal of a corporation," i'd also check out delong on "The Corporation as a Command Economy" and "The Partnership Dance Between Government and Business," cf. "Commons sense" née public goods :P

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 7:33 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Infini - completely, context and education levels matter. On the other hand, where there's a will there's a way. I used to work with a bunch of illiiterate nomads who would organise their herding by mobile phone, which they charged using the battery of a toyota and carried on a camel! I never worked out how they read the menu of the phone (a nokia more advanced than mine), although maybe they were less illiterate than they said they were.

There's some extremely sophisticated seed-development, pest management and natural resource management work being done with modern equipment and illiterate farmer input - these guys are very switched on to anything they think might give them an edge. I think if people find the machines useful, they'll figure it out, and faster than I would. One of the significant recent innovation systems works showed that the ebst uptake happened when the guys who were going to use the machine, the farmers, tinkered with it - it wasn't used as end product off the factory line. Increasnigly, the technical guys are trying to get farmers invovled in the production process, because that'll simply be more effective - the way to deal with your context point seems to be participation in the innovation process.

Great post, by the way.
posted by YouRebelScum at 8:03 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


So in the 20s to 30s, when millions of Americans sank into poverty, it was because information had become hidden or been destroyed. And in the 30s to 40s, FDR generated massive quantities of 1s and 0s to lift them back out?

There's actually some truth to that. The late-20s boom was caused by monetary disorder, and the subsequent collapse was because the economy had the wrong information. It thought it was far wealthier than it actually was.

We built economic strength all through the Depression; every bit of waste was trimmed away, and what was left was incredibly efficient. The jumpstart that WW2 provided then fueled an immense, prolonged economic expansion. The economy was firing on all cylinders, because all the lies and bullshit had been purged. Everyone had the correct information; they knew how wealthy they were, and what their actual income was.
posted by Malor at 8:27 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, as far as the idea of providing communication to the third world: SOME of this is really useful. But there's no point in massive investment here until they have the other parts of infrastructure they need. Information right now, for folks at that end of the economic spectrum, is only a tiny bit more valuable than information sometime today, or even sometime in the next few days. If they have to hike down to the corner cafe to get a market quote, that's probably not going to be any big deal.

Total information penetration is a luxury, just like everyone having their own phone line is a luxury. Party lines and internet cafes are 80% as good for a much smaller fraction of the cost.

Too much of this stuff is sort of a Marie Antoinette-ish, 'let them eat bits!' Invest some? Absolutely! Some information penetration is really critical. But don't overdo it.
posted by Malor at 8:37 AM on August 27, 2008


Great post! Who can argue that access to information isn't empowering?

Rather that patting themselves so vigourously on the back for "solving poverty" by figuring out how to sell cellphones to the poor, maybe the rich of the world can pause for a minute to address some trivial matters like agricultural subsidies, 3rd world development projects that essentially plunder a resource without contributing much to the host nation, IMF bullying, invasion as an instrument of foreign policy - things that keep many nations poor. Let's level the field just a little, huh?
posted by Artful Codger at 8:41 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


The only thing everyone decent seems to agree on is that it's all very difficult.

All power to "Creative Capitalism". All power to creative anything. But there's a certain tendency among Market Forces true believers that creeps me out: specifically the implication in so many of their arguments that it all must be one-way ("market forces not civic efforts").

To eradicate poverty in a meaningful way, we (ie: humankind) must use all relevant means at our disposal including market forces and civic efforts, not to mention a whole lot of just basic empathy and resilience.
posted by philip-random at 8:48 AM on August 27, 2008


btw, yourebelscum, the link you gave took me to a page where Google tut tutted that I was probably a viral spider or some such nasty so just checking, is this the book?
posted by infini at 8:49 AM on August 27, 2008


you have a fellow traveler!
Emerging from the current slowdown isn’t just a matter of political will or smart central banking. If the recipe for success requires smooth adjustment into new growth sectors, more savings from disposable income, cleaning up the housing mess, well-functioning energy markets, and more effective financial intermediation — all in the right combinations and in the right sequences — neither the government nor the Federal Reserve can control this process. The Fed can add regulatory and monetary clarity, but there isn’t any magic bullet. Beware of anyone who tells you there is.
altho...
Hmm. Stan Collender praises Tyler Cowen for his insight that “people” have been treating capital gains as saving, setting us up for the current mess. But it wasn’t just “people”: the assertion that all’s well thanks to capital gains has been a staple argument of conservative economic commentators, notably David Malpass; in fact, it’s an argument that pops up every couple of months on the WSJ editorial page. So this isn’t a delusion of the great unwashed; it’s a doctrine, one that has played a big role in conservative thinking.
cf. "Breaking Japan's Iron Triangle"

so basically a misallocation of resources towards mcmansions, SUVs and imprudent military adventurism and away from healthcare, education and the environment :P
posted by kliuless at 8:50 AM on August 27, 2008


Malor: "there's no point in massive investment here until they have the other parts of infrastructure they need. Information right now, for folks at that end of the economic spectrum, is only a tiny bit more valuable than information sometime today, or even sometime in the next few days"

I think you underestimate the uses to which phones can be put. People are willing to pay for this, even poor people, because it helps. Herders used their phones to coordinate disparate flocks (kid you not); an opium village I worked with used phones to contact their relatives in the provincial centres and find out whether the governor was sending the police into the valleys that day; money lenders in the bazaar worked out what the exchange rate was in Kabul and Peshawar, etc.

You won't need to invest on anything other than competitive basis, if Afghanistan's anything to go by. The mobile phone market in afghanistan has five commercial companies, whose tax burden comprises 40% of the Afghan government's tax revenue. All of them are commercial operations. And let's not forget the other uses IT's being put to. A surprising number of the population have mobile phones, which you can get at back-of-the-lorry prices and use tactically pay-as-you-go. We're not solving poverty - it's just the poor, as usual, looking for an edge and using what they can get imaginatively.

Infini: yup, that's the one. The innovation selection bit (actually, I must confess I've only read his spin-off articles).
posted by YouRebelScum at 8:51 AM on August 27, 2008


i think what gives some people a sense of absurdity about the 'information' argument is that information needs a social vehicle to carry it. a poor rural ugandan may have great knowledge, but without social ties to recognize the value of that knowledge, there is no way for that person to improve his/her political/economic condition. furthermore, even if you have great capacity to receive and transmit, it may be useless unless you're receiving from and transmitting to the right people, and that they know how to participate in that information exchange in a mutually productive way with you.

prahalad and sachs, as well as people who feel frustration at the incompleteness of their arguments, should check out network sociology a la mark granovetter (the strength of weak ties) or ron burt (structural holes). there's also a book by lester and piore (innovation: the missing dimension) which, although not about poverty per se, relates in the sense that it establishes why information alone is not going to get a group of humans to a common goal - it has more to do with who is conversing, and how the convener of the conversation is bringing their different discourses together.

prahalad says in that time article that "the challenge for the 21st century for me is: how to make every human being get access to world- class products at affordable prices." this is not automatically evident. for those skeptical, some more sociological (as opposed to economic) ways of looking at poverty can be helpful.

a final thought: the great depression is actually an excellent example of what i am talking about. the new deal policies that helped to stabilize the economy did not simply spread information, they changed people's structural positions in the political economy (through the institutionalization of unions, giving the government a role in arbitrating market prices, creating more detailed regulation and monitoring of banks and financial institutions, etc). who was interacting with whom and on what grounds went through a major shift. i don't think it was a matter of generating information that was more objectively 'correct' than before - after all, is there an 'objective' value to a dollar, or is the 'correctness' of its value instead established by building a consensus among subjective interpretations that the value is reasonable? it seems that while it is true that the new deal increased information flows, and that has its own value, it did so by establishing important mechanisms for people to participate in a discussion and understand each other properly.
posted by LoneWolfMcQuade at 8:59 AM on August 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


To eradicate poverty in a meaningful way, we (ie: humankind) must use all relevant means at our disposal including market forces and civic efforts, not to mention a whole lot of just basic empathy and resilience.
posted by philip-random at 8:48 AM on August 27


Yah ;p holistic human-centered solutions to these wicked problems, not just leave it all to the 'invisible hand' cos for sure, a lot of what has happened has been due to the untiring efforts of people like Iqbal Quadir, those at Nokia, the Vodafone Foundation and various NGO's, activists and blogs.

And to what yourebelscum said earlier, yes I agree with you, but a little helping hand never hurt either. although it must be said that grassroots innovators given the wherewithal to tinker have managed to hack multiSIM phones in the backstreets of various African cities
posted by infini at 9:07 AM on August 27, 2008


I just don't see how owning a cell phone helps when there isn't the infrastructure to support well-paying jobs, health care, and so on. [...] but it seems absurd to me to claim that poverty can be alleviated by these technologies.

Well, just to throw out one example: a boom of contract programming jobs in India and the Ukraine attests to the internet as, in some cases, a doorway out of poverty.
posted by kid ichorous at 9:16 AM on August 27, 2008


"Society is nothing without good plumbing. What the world's poorest one billion need more than doctors, good roads, the Internet and even electricity, is quality drinking water and safe sewage disposal."
- Vic , founder of a Plumbing Company

Of course, if I were selling phones, I would think they were the key to civilization. Some of the reasons given for third world farmers to have phones was so they could get a better price (doesn't work for farmers here in America - like my brother says, buy retail, sell wholesale and pay the freight both ways) and order parts for their tractor so they could get the harvest in (presupposes bank account or Paypal and efficient mail). The Afghanistan drug examples make a little sense.
posted by Bitter soylent at 9:16 AM on August 27, 2008


a poor rural ugandan may have great knowledge, but without social ties to recognize the value of that knowledge, there is no way for that person to improve his/her political/economic condition. furthermore, even if you have great capacity to receive and transmit, it may be useless unless you're receiving from and transmitting to the right people, and that they know how to participate in that information exchange in a mutually productive way with you.

ah, yes, well, alas, I cannot self link ;p

otoh, stepping away from the "information = data" assumption we all seem to be making in our MeFI content junkie way, lets look at a snippet from one of the links in the FPP,

When beekeepers in central and eastern Uganda got vouchers to go online at internet cafés, their most popular query was how to treat bee stings. A local agricultural information provider replied in Baganda, the local language.

In Kenya, horticultural entrepreneurs and researchers lobbied the Ministry of Agriculture to update a clause in the Pesticides Act. This allowed a local company to market a natural pest control package to exporters of high-value products, such as green beans, baby corn and cut flowers, and comply with European Union requirements for no pesticide residues.

In Tanzania, where the cheapest transport is donkeys, a comic book explains how to improve their performance through taking good care of them.

The key here is information: tailored to farmers and to policy makers, requested and delivered through a variety of ways, from computers to comics, and based on research on natural resources funded by


and I wont even start on Sente and rural Uganda ;p
posted by infini at 9:18 AM on August 27, 2008


i think the free market mantra is too often confused (on purpose!?) with efficient markets (i.e. when they work and make sense, and aren't gamed, cf. perfect information ;) altho there are perhaps innovative market and/or 'private' non-gov't solutions that are worth trying, i'm somewhat comforted by the practical acknowledgment that market failures still need to be addressed regardless :P

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 9:32 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


funny story: my girlfriend went to do some work with an NGO in a south african township. she found that everyone and his dog had a cell phone because they're the local equivalent of bling.

only problem is, phones are cheap but service is not. none of the phones actually work.
posted by klanawa at 9:35 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


they might look into how to build a local phone network :P
DIGITAL technology may seem unpredictable, but it follows some basic patterns. Innovations quickly become commodities, enable arbitrage and lead to more distributed systems. Combining all three is the recipe for Dabba, a South African wireless start-up, which has pioneered an idea called the “village telco”. It could make phone calls much more affordable for many people.

First, Rael Lissoos, Dabba’s founder and a socially minded entrepreneur, uses the cheapest technology he can find to build a wireless network. Reprogrammed Wi-Fi routers serve as base-stations. Open-source software weaves them into a network. Cheap Wi-Fi handsets can then make calls. Dabba offers free local calls to the people of Orange Farm, a township near Johannesburg where it has built its first network...
also see "Africa Cell Phone Provider’s Ingenuity Turns to Wind and Solar" and "Low-cost sun-powered cell tower for third world"
VNL's base station will cost $3,500 and require 100 watts to run, about the same as a light bulb. By contrast, the GSM stations most widely used today can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000.
cheers!
posted by kliuless at 10:18 AM on August 27, 2008


I would start with information on health and nutrition, clean drinking water, and prenatal and postnatal child care. Yeah, that's a good place to start.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:23 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


kliuless, you been digging in my delicious again?
posted by infini at 10:48 AM on August 27, 2008


Have any of you actually purchased and used a mobile phone in the developing world? Here's how it works, at least in urban Southeast Asia (specifically Bandung, Indonesia, a city of 4 million people, where I lived for a year).

First, you take extremely inexpensive public transportation (less than 20 US cents from one side of town to the other) over to the giant electronics mall; if you've ever been to Singapore, think of Sim Lim Square, but with more vendors and less air conditioning. Bandung only has three or four of these; Jakarta has ten or more. And by "mall", I mean a seven-story, hundred-stall-per-floor madhouse of everything electronic. There's a floor for wires and components, a floor for computers, a floor for PDAs...cell phones have two floors, if I recall. There's a food court and valet parking, but most people come in on foot to shop.

Each stall is stacked high with the latest/greatest cell phones. Some of the phones, though, are refurbished, or have been sold back by their original owners who want to upgrade. These phones are perhaps half the cost of a new phone. All the phones I saw came with multi-language menus; Indonesian was obviously one of the choices.

So what kinds of costs are we talking about here? A brand new Nokia 1108 - which is a super-basic model but still has full functions (calls, texts, calculator, alarm clock...), a week of battery life on a single charge, and is a tank (mine fell out of the open door of a van, was run over by a car, and still worked!) - is less than $50 US. That sounds like a lot, but the price of many of these phones - made explicitly for the developing world - isn't tied to service contracts or special deals. A year to save up $50 for pretty much everyone in the developing world with a job or a way of earning money is plenty of time. Many people also get phones from relatives or friends who have upgraded for far less than the purchase price, or nothing at all. And the companies encourage this: unlocking your phone is incredibly easy when there are kiosks on the street dedicated to nothing but. One kiosk at the top of my street in Bandung sold used, functional phones for as little as $10 or $15 - old models, but completely functional.

Service is also incredibly cheap: a SIM card with a starter amount of credit (and you don't need a lot - I think you can get as little as around $1 to start), since there's no charge to receive calls and texts. Texts to the US were 5 US cents; domestic texts were 1 US cent; domestic texts to users of the same network as I was on were FREE, as were calls to users of the same network for the first five minutes (for me, this was something like 95% of my calls). Many mobile phone companies have special deals where everyone in the same network pays NOTHING to call or text each other - and this is so effective that many people, especially as you start getting into the middle classes (and yes, there is a middle class in Indonesia!) - have two or three phones just to take advantage of the inexpensive service.

Over the course of a year, I bought a new Nokia 1108 (less than $50), and the most-expensive/best-value pay-as-you-go service vouchers ($10 every two months or so). That's about $100 for a year, and I could have paid way less by buying a used phone and using a cheaper service (I went with one that let me check my balance and voicemail in English).

So here's the thing: cell phones are not bling, but are the most essential - and most accessible - means of modern communication in the developing world.

Check out Safaricom's M-PESA money transfer service in Kenya if you're still doubtful - you don't even have to be the owner of a phone to take advantage of the system if you can use someone in a shop or have a friend who can use the service on your behalf. The system wouldn't exist in the US because we've already got things like Paypal and bank accounts which make paying for things really easy - and because we don't, for the most part, have to deal with loan sharks or local money-laundering rings like a slumdweller in Nairobi or Mumbai would.

And finally, to address the ridiculous argument above that people in the developing world don't have enough exposure to technology to figure out mobile phones - do you think companies don't put local-language manuals in the box? Or that no one asks a friend how they think the phone works? Or that the person who gets the phone from a vendor can't ask the vendor how to use it? I have never met a more cell-phone proficient group of people than a group of really poor kids in my neighborhood, who were able to walk me through setting up my voicemail (an Indonesian-language only thing) and who spent their days off playing video games - at a shop dedicated to letting people play with Xboxes and Playstation 2s for a miniscule fee, like 10 cents for three hours.

The innovation and knowledge is out there, but you can't see it unless you're there. There's a whole range of businesses and local industries that are only now being noticed by academics and intellectuals - and they are changing nearly everything we think about how developing economies can work.
posted by mdonley at 10:59 AM on August 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


"...the essence of poverty is the assymetry of information..."

I found that to be a very intriguing, very captivating statement, one that I've actually thought about before this wonderfully link dense FPP. I think there is more to information, especially to asymmetrical information sets than just the obvious, the price of goods, the ease of ordering or arranging delivery.

A previous job had me spending lots of time on the ground in Africa and not only the cities - I got out to the remote border regions, and sometimes spent days if not weeks in small towns, deep in the bush.

It's amazing to see how people living on the edges and peripheries of our globally wired culture embrace technology, even our cast off technology, and how it changes their lives in very profound, deeply moving ways.

Sometimes I'd have to use an internet cafe. They are all over the place in Africa, every little town's got one as the greater population usually can't afford either a computer nor internet connectivity at home.

I'm nothing if not a friendly American country boy, and in a place like Zuba, Nigeria, a small town of maybe 15,000 people, about thirty klicks northwest from Abjua, to say I was an object of curiosity is an understatement.

I talked to lots and lots of people there, got invited to many homes, and generally learned first hand what they did with the technology, the internet and why.

You see, people are the same all around. At some level, we all have the desires - identical wants and needs and drives and dreams. And the technology those people have, no matter how backward or advanced by our standards, helps with all of these desires. And more.

One old guy I frequently spoke with, white haired one eyed in his sixties probably not in the best of health but with a lively wonderful spirit used voip to talk to his older brother who lived in Ghana. Once he confided to me that he'd never see his brother again, but, thanks to the internet cafe he could talk to him every day, sometimes twice a day and be a part of his life, even though distance separated them.

A younger guy who was only working in the area had left his wife and their baby in a remote village two years ago while he took advantage of an opportunity to earn money. The internet cafe helped them stay in contact, to video conference with and be a part of the life of the now small child that he hadn't held in years.

The final example that comes to mind was of a rather young, very sharp and clearly gifted kid. Using the internet cafe he explored the world, seeing opportunities that he would otherwise never know existed. He wasn't going to stay in Zuba, no he told me he was going to try his fortune, first in Abjua then the big time - Lagos. His dream was to go to England for an education.

So internet cafes in Africa, they're more than just places to go to get online, to waste time like we do with the 'Net. For people living on the edges and periphery they're places that not only satisfy the basic human desires by sharing information, but they also provide a fertile ground for growth.

The essence of poverty is at some level accepting the status quo. And if you don't know that a better world exists somewhere else, you're more inclined to accept things as they are.

So yeh, on some level asymmetrical information is indeed a driver if not the pure essence of poverty.
posted by Mutant at 11:22 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


mdonley: I will agree with everything you're saying except for this, because you may have noticed i'm just a train ride away from sim lim square

however to your point:

And finally, to address the ridiculous argument above that people in the developing world don't have enough exposure to technology to figure out mobile phones - do you think companies don't put local-language manuals in the box? Or that no one asks a friend how they think the phone works? Or that the person who gets the phone from a vendor can't ask the vendor how to use it?


Its not an argument that's ridiculous, its an argument I had with the design group at [big name mobile NOT nokia] after coming back from the field with insights for them to use to become more effective in emerging markets.

Companies don't put language manuals in the box, to be honest, or if they do, its max in English/Hindi, or English/mandarin or English/Bahasa. As for the rest, you're talking about digital babies. Get real my friend, if the companies moved their asses a bit to address this issue, those folks could be a lot more self sufficient about figuring out how to use their mobile beyond what someone else could tell them or teach them. The features are then limited to what their social circle has figured out or what the guy at the shop bothers to tell them. At least the poor in India are treated like shit by shopkeepers and everyone else.
posted by infini at 11:25 AM on August 27, 2008


Information and communication technologies can obfuscate just as effectively as they can liberate.

Oh, I'm so sorry ... didn't you get my last email? What? My blog was down again ... oh, well. Heh, guess Twitter's crashed again.

Quantity does not equal quality and communication only truly occurs between equals.
posted by aldus_manutius at 11:33 AM on August 27, 2008


they might look into how to build a local phone network

as soon as they figure out how to stop dying of AIDS, violence, diabetes and staph infections, sure. trouble is, if you're black and you live in a township - at least the one my woman worked in - there's simply nobody to call. ambulances won't come and even if they did, there's no money to pay for them or the medication you need. there's no access to healthy food. little access to clean water. scant education, with the generation gap left by AIDS, few role models for children and no economy to speak of...

communication is great, but our gadget-obsessed culture gets a little confused about priorities sometimes.
posted by klanawa at 11:37 AM on August 27, 2008


re: payment systems

India's Poor Get Health Care in a Card - India has earmarked $1 billion for the rollout of a program that allows the country's poor to use a smart card to receive hospital care and gives insurance companies and hospitals incentives to take part.

Brazil: Betting On The Working Poor - The country's new people's banks have given millions their first accounts.

Embracing Illegals - Companies are getting hooked on the buying power of 11 million undocumented immigrants.
posted by kliuless at 11:39 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


as soon as they figure out how to stop dying of AIDS, violence, diabetes and staph infections, sure. trouble is, if you're black and you live in a township - at least the one my woman worked in - there's simply nobody to call. ambulances won't come and even if they did, there's no money to pay for them or the medication you need. there's no access to healthy food. little access to clean water. scant education, with the generation gap left by AIDS, few role models for children and no economy to speak of...

on the other hand, having a phone, yes airtime is very expensive but people budget adn manage it in ZA's townships, means that if you are a daily wages worker you can get called for work, or you can put up ads with your services adn a number at intersections and get called for work, and not have to go trudging 4 hours by taxi or train or whatever to the city to hang about looking for work.

read this for example, of how having a phone can make a difference to income.
posted by infini at 12:50 PM on August 27, 2008


Give me a break. What is this, a cell phone in every pot?
posted by Morpeth at 5:50 PM on August 27, 2008


yah
posted by infini at 12:05 AM on August 28, 2008


India's Poor Get Health Care in a Card - India has earmarked $1 billion for the rollout of a program that allows the country's poor to use a smart card to receive hospital care and gives insurance companies and hospitals incentives to take part.

Each person gets 700USD in Health Credit.

1B/700 = 1,428,571 people who can benefit. Sounds like a lot. It is a lot. But it is only 1% of the population. And well over 60% of the population uses the free, state-run hospitals. The build tents inside, and live for weeks in the waiting areas.

This idea is certainly going to provide many people with access to better health care, sooner. Just don't forget that it is a drop in the bucket.
posted by paisley henosis at 12:29 AM on August 28, 2008


This idea is certainly going to provide many people with access to better health care, sooner. Just don't forget that it is a drop in the bucket.
posted by paisley henosis 20 minutes ago [


A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step ~
posted by infini at 12:51 AM on August 28, 2008


Of course. And that first step still leaves you around a thousand miles away.

Are you posting just to do it, or did you actually think you had something to say?
posted by paisley henosis at 2:31 AM on August 28, 2008


excuse me?
posted by infini at 4:31 AM on August 28, 2008


Spending a billion dollars in a nation with a massive network of free hospitals, to allow 1% of the population access to the relatively-costly, relatively-quick, but otherwise about the same private hospitals isn't an impressive step forward.

Spending that billion dollars on things that would keep over 1% of the population from needing to visit the hospital wouldn't even be hard. You could flatten a lot of roads, for US 1B. You could pay for a whole lot of drunk-driving checkpoints, or, lets be reckless, enforce speed limits somewhere in the nation. You could certainly (and this is the real reason it bugs me) make much more meaningful progress towards clean drinking water, (without uranium in it, for example) which would help a whole lot of people, and prevent some really, really terrible stuff.

A little progress at a time is certainly better than no progress, I know. But to spend such a large amount of money, for such a small amount of benefit is really a bit depressing to me.
posted by paisley henosis at 4:58 AM on August 28, 2008


Are you posting just to do it, or did you actually think you had something to say?

One of the remain reasons I left development work was exactly this type of argument. Everyone's got a different understanding of the problems, a different prioritisation of the problems, a different set of solutions for them, a different set of values to judge all of the above. No-one ever has the data to back them up, because they're either too arrogant to look beyond their own experience or because they've got some humility and realise India (or Kerala, or Andrha Pradesh) and its problems are just too complex to be comprehended. It becomes a question of - well, assert and counter-assert, eventually tailing off into abuse. That's what depresses me.
posted by YouRebelScum at 5:41 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


tell me about it
posted by infini at 5:43 AM on August 28, 2008


You are both right. I am actually in Andhra Pradesh, and having to see these kinds of things every day, and read about them in the news paper, makes some of the window-dressing that people suggest to fix things really frustrating.

But that is not a reason or an excuse to be a jackass, which I was. So, I'm sorry for that.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:03 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


fwiw:
The National Health Insurance Program is different, according to the Indian government, because of its use of technology; its business model, in which insurance companies and hospitals are given incentives to take part; and because the information on the smart cards is secure. The program enables a family that is below the poverty line to choose where its members would like to receive their benefits, and it helps migrant workers...

The plan presents a way for insurance companies to market themselves and develop brand awareness. A large, private general-insurance company in India, ICICI Lombard General Insurance Company Ltd., which is a joint venture of ICICI Bank Ltd. of India and Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. of Canada, is introducing the program in the northern states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh -- regions with a combined population of more than 240 million people, many of whom would qualify...

For private hospitals, the program can increase the number of patients and potentially widen the client base. By opening private facilities to more patients it should take some of the weight off overflowing government hospitals.

Those government hospitals, which already offer free treatment to such patients, can also apply to join the program. If they do, they are paid the same rates private hospitals would get.

Since its launch in April, about 1.5 million people have joined the plan. India's government said it would like to add 12 million families before next April -- about 60 million people -- and then continue at that rate for another four years.

Rural India has enjoyed few of the fruits of growth as India's economy has expanded by about 9% annually over the past four years. Providing some welfare to India's poorest -- 60% of the nation's 1.1 billion people eke out a meager living off the land -- has been a key focus of the ruling coalition, led by the Congress Party.
so like that's more than the number of uninsured in the US at least, by next April, if all goes well :P

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 7:11 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, see, that is awesome.

That's what I get for shooting my mouth off after only reading the Wall Street Journal extract.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:47 AM on August 28, 2008


;p now do you understand why we pay 5 bucks in perpetuity for mefi and not read the WSJ ;p
posted by infini at 9:12 AM on August 28, 2008


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