TedTalk – Iqbal Quadir: How mobile phones can fight poverty

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Title and Link: How mobile phones can fight poverty (2005)

Presenter: Iqbal Quadir is the founder of Gonofone and Grameenphone, which began as a phone service to empower rural women in Bangladesh.  The company started in 1997, and is currently the largest telecommunications provider in the country.  Iqbal is a big advocate of using business and entrepreneurship as way to help people out of poverty.  He is a professor of Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, and was previously a Fellow/Lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, focusing on the democratizing effects of technologies in low-income countries. Quadir has also worked on projects to produce decentralized energy (Emergence BioEnergy), and mobile phone-based banking services (Money in Motion). In 2006, he received recognition for being of the 125 Most Influential People and Ideas for the 125-year celebration of the Wharton School.

Key Points – The TedTalk discusses the use of technology as a device for alleviating poverty.  Although he works mostly on cell-phones, the idea of connectedness is what makes technology so important in our lives.  Quadir feels that connection is important, because it empowers citizens.  He believes that without a large empowered middle-class, it is impossible to form a stable responsive government long-term.

Summary

  • Why does poverty exist?
    • Tons of knowledge but still lots of poverty
    • Rich countries send aid to poor countries (for the last 60 years) – mostly failed
    • We should learn from the history of Europe (citizens were empowered by technology – and they demanded the people in power to come down from their high horses – which allowed for democracy and capitalism to flourish)

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      • Aid actually did the opposite (empowered authorities but not citizens)
        • Oil rich countries have similar patterns as aid-dependant countries

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    • Economic development should be by the people and for the people

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      • Technology can help to empower people
        • Cell phones are an important new device around the world
      • People on computer networks are more connected (don’t have to exchange floppy disks) – When these systems fail, not much work can get done
        • Similar to a story from his childhood where he had to walk for miles to get medicine but there was none
        • Connectivity = productivity
      • There were once no telephones in rural areas (only urban)
      • The impact of one new telephone if there are already many is very little, however in a poor country the impact is huge
    • Specialization leads to efficiency, however without technology this is only possible over short distances.
      • Technology bridges the divide in distance and allows more people to be connected and productive
    • So why don’t more people have phones, if they can increase wealth so easily?
      • Many poor people don’t have buying power, and have a lack of access to credit
      • There is also a lack of infrastrure (not enough banks, power lines, etc.)
        • Started to look at Grameen Bank (who had 2.3 million borrowers)
        • He wanted to connect all of their branches (but they prefered to be de-centralized)
        • Why can’t women buy a phone for the whole village to use instead of a cow to provide milk?
        • Now almost all of Bangladesh has cell-phone coverage
        • 115,000 people providing cell phone service in their communities (to around 80 million people) – which makes about $700/year for the entrepreneur
      • Now working on a new company that will help to provide power to the poor (power plants charged through biogas from cow manure)

Final Thoughts – I think that technology is obviously a very important part of life.  Not only can it be used for entertainment purposes, it can also be used to educate, to communicate, to find out information (such as a medical diagnosis, the price of a crop at different markets, or the weather forecast) but also to connect people.  Connecting people is the most important thing in the world, as humans are social creatures who rely on each other for happiness and support.  I hope that new technologies continue to be created, and that the people of the developing world are considered in the process.

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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