Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Notification, You Have 5 Billion New FB Friends; The Human Right To Internet Access

At the beginning of my internship at the UNDP, I was lucky enough to get the chance to volunteer at and then attend the ECOSOC Partnerships forum. I was assigned to write a few blogs for the event, among a number of other blogs I have written about events at  the UN which for some reason I have never shared on NN. Perhaps someday I will release the rest of the “lost UNDP blogs”, but that day is not today. Here are notes from the event Policy Dialogue: “The Changing Face of Technology and Innovation” (full blog):

The second policy dialogue at the ECOSOC youth forum focused on how technological innovations in recent years have helped bridge the “digital-divide” between developed and developing countries. While the gap has not been fully closed, partnerships between the private sector, governments, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups have helped identify challenges and opportunities in the developing world. By creating differentiated products at lower costs, private companies can gain access to new markets while simultaneously empowering the people in those markets.

Internet access is considered one of the great technological advances of our time. Internet access empowers people; the possibilities are constantly evolving and literally endless. It is an essential component of “E-Governance”, which includes the dissemination of information and a more inclusive and democratic government agenda-setting process. With a greater push for accountability and inclusiveness mechanisms in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, internet access, bolstered by innovations in mobile technology, has become an increasingly important tool for achieving sustainable human development.

But not enough has been done to make internet access affordable for a large portion of the world’s population. According to Mr. Tuli, 3 billion people have mobile phones but no internet access. This is not because of a lack of electricity or communication networks (as evidenced by the fact that they do have cell phones), but because they are priced out of the market. Mr. Tuli went on to call basic internet access a “human right”, to resounding applause from the hundreds of participants in the ECOSOC chamber.

While mobile technology was originally thought of as an educational tool, it has since evolved beyond that (although mobile education is still a proposed root for overcoming education deficits in Least Developed Countries (LDCs)). E-Governance can help disseminate information and promote inclusive governance, creating an enabling environment for sustainable human development. Healthcare providers can connect to information and expert advice in ways that can save lives. E-Finance can help provide capital in a much cheaper and convenient way to previously isolated groups, unlocking the entrepreneurial spirit in the developing world (and making such endeavors potentially much more profitable). Even people who are off traditional power grids (the least developed places in the world without basic infrastructure), mobile renewable energy generators and wireless internet capabilities can help bring ICTs virtually anywhere in the world.

Mobile technology penetration can be very rapid. Competition between private sector actors can drive prices down to affordable levels, and in some cases subsidies can help. Mr. Ogutu told the story of mobile phone penetration in Kenya; 5 years ago there were 20,000 users, today there are over 30 million users. This was made possible by M-Kopa, a company that utilized E-finance to provide pay-as-you-go mobile solar powered electricity to poor people who are not on a conventional power grid. Financing—secured through PPPs—allowed the founders of M-Kopa turn their vision into reality.

The narrative on bringing internet access to the least developed areas of the world continues a few months later. Not surprisingly, behind the initiative is a large-scale public-private partnership, with publicity magnet Facebook at its core (original article):

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, announced the launch of Internet.org Wednesday, a project aimed at bringing Internet access to the 5 billion people around the world who can’t afford it. The project is the latest initiative led by global-communications giants to combat market saturation in the developed world by introducing the Internet to remote and underprivileged communities.

“The goal of Internet.org is to make Internet access available to the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected and to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected third of the world has today,” Zuckerberg said.

“There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy,” he added. “Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges.”

The project will develop lower-cost, higher-quality smartphones and deploy Internet access in underserved communities, while reducing the amount of data required to surf the Web. Other founding partners include Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia and Opera.

Facebook and other tech giants, of course, have a significant financial stake in expanding in the developing world. With tech companies reaching market saturation in the United States, countries in Latin America and Africa, for example, offer a big opportunity to attract a steady stream of new users, whose data can be mined by advertisers.

Connecting more people globally has important implications for how people organize their lives, said Patrick Meier, co-founder of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. Social media has become a lifeline to people affected by earthquakes, floods and conflicts in the developing world, he added.

In places where the state is limited, Meier added, the Internet becomes a way to make up for services the government fails to provide. “When the state is not there, when you talk about limited statehood, you get a void,” he said.

In addition to acting as a substitute for the state in the context of “bad governance” / conflict / crisis environments, mobile technology should be a tool utilized by the state to promote inclusive and indiscriminate human rights based governance for sustainable human development. ICT connects people, enabling social accountability (people claiming their rights) by overcoming collective action problems. There are also myriad standard of living benefits associated with bringing ICT in the developing world–micro-financing, healthcare, education, media, etc. (OK maybe I am a little biased, I want those 5 billion readers too 😛 ).

Furthermore, by utilizing open-source technology and the collective will and creativity of 5 billion people facing similar problems, innovations in one part of the developing world can be adapted to the local needs of other developing regions. This would further expedite the global development process–open-source technology should be a core feature of the global internet connectivity push.

The possibilities are literally endless, as the utility and functions of the internet continue to evolve at ever faster rates. It should also be noted that new technological capabilities in LDCs will necessitate new policies, laws and oversight mechanisms to ensure gains are shared fairly. However, since these technologies are only new to certain regions, digital accountability mechanisms already exist for these regions to build on.   

I cannot stress enough how important bringing mobile ICTs to least developed countries is for sustainable human development, nor can I know how the technology will evolve in the future. Providing access to mobile information and communications technology empowers people, creating an enabling environment for a multitude of interrelated development objectives. These positive forces will naturally synergize, empowering people to challenge power-imbalances and hold powerful groups accountable for their human rights obligations.

ICTs are a natural fit for a large scale public-private-partnership (PPP). Companies can provide most of the start-up capital and technical know-how. Governments can create an education campaign about the benefits of ICTs and how to use them, while also guaranteeing companies market access and security of any capital / infrastructure installations (extremist groups will not like this idea as closing government service gaps will restrict their ability to buy goodwill and recruit new members). As ICTs help sustain the development process, new markets will emerge for communications companies to sell their products and services. This means more profits for companies, more tax revenue for governments, and a higher standard of living for people in LDCs. Not to suggest vested interests will not try to play spoiler (my regular readers by now know this is not the case), but overall a this is a win-win-win partnership.

Due to the indisputable importance of ICTs for sustainable human development, internet access should become an internationally recognized human right. Human rights obligations are primarily the responsibility of the state; in this case however, it seems that states have a willing and capable partner in the private sector. I will continue to keep the NN community up-to-date on this potentially-world-changing initiative.

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Transparency Thursday: Helping the Poor Help Themselves

Lots of attention is paid, rightfully so, to those in extreme poverty in the developing world. However, those living in relative poverty in wealthier countries face similar problems as those living in extreme poverty (albeit generally to a lesser degree) : malnourishment, an underestimation of the value of education, and poor financial choices due to a very high “discount rate” (a little pleasure now is worth more than a lot of pleasure in the future, possibly because of a pessimistic view of the future driven by living in poverty).

Another important similarity is that financial shocks always affect poorer people more than wealthier people; with less income to go around, an unexpected strain causes a poorer family to have to make difficult financial decisions with potentially serious ramifications. This problem is compounded by the fact that poorer people tend have worse credit ratings, further hurting their ability to utilize the financial tools available to them and deal with unexpected financial shocks.

“When there is no cushion, one small mistake can be catastrophic — if you rely on a car to get to work, for example, missing a car payment can result in the loss of a job.”

A major difference is that in the developed world, the institutions, organizations, and infrastructure already exist to help these people. In the developing world, projects often have to be built from the ground up, financing is harder to find, and projects are more susceptible to corruption and general volatility/insecurity that could threaten its success. In the developed world, it is not so much about building a financial system, (and a strong government / judicial system to oversee that financial system) as it is teaching people how to use systems already in place to their advantage. This simplifies the job of poverty reduction in the developed world immensely.

The social “safety net” is a good system, however providing welfare services does not address the root cause of of poverty, it simply mitigates the human suffering being poor can cause. By doing more to prevent people from having to rely on entitlement spending, and helping people avoid entitlement spending by being more financially responsible, the sustainability and integrity of the social safety net is preserved.

“Ideally, the coach can help clients set up systems that keep them on track: automatic savings, automatic bill payment, automatic reminders by text. ‘Distress is an economic state but also a psychological state,’ said Mullainathan. ‘The remedies have to address both.’”

A large part of this process is helping people overcome the fear associated with handling financial problems. This process will depend on experts simplifying ones budget and teaching them about simple financial tools that will help their problems more accessible (and then signing them up for those programs).

People often feel overwhelmed by financial troubles and ignore the situation, which only compounds the problem. By addressing the fear behind getting finances in order, poor people are empowered to take control of their finances. By setting up simple automatic measures, one’s financial position can change drastically.

“Jaimes said that most of his clients come to their first meeting with a stack of collection letters — unopened. ‘Can I open these envelopes for you? We have to deal with them,’ Jaimes tells them.”

 “Lisser begins by addressing clients’ stress, step by step: ‘You will feel relieved after you settle the first one,’ she says. She leads them through opening the debt notices, calling the collections agencies and beginning negotiations. When the client takes over making the calls, she will coach by scribbling notes.”

The process is appealing because it is not “giving” in the sense of a traditional welfare program, but is “empowering”. This empowerment should build confidence when handling financial issues and help build optimism towards the future (and therefore better decision making skills), increasing social mobility while breaking the root causes of “poverty traps”.

This program is currently being championed by, guess who, Michael Bloomberg (you knew it had to be either Bloomberg, Gates, or Buffet right?):
“Currently there are more than 30 centers lodged in neighborhood organizations around the city, offering counseling in multiple languages. Bloomberg Philanthropies, the mayor’s personal charity, is now providing grants to Living Cities’ Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund to replicate and customize the model in Philadelphia, Nashville, Denver, San Antonio and Lansing, Mich., — places that won out over 45 others for these grants. The first centers will open in March.”

It will be interesting to see how successful this program is when tried in different locations. If it is successful, the U.S. government should seriously consider further investing in this empowering model of poverty and debt reduction.  

(Note: debt reduction and poverty reduction are not the same thing, but they are very closely related)