ICTs: Prescribing the right medicine…

The argument that drugs widely available in Western countries (many at greatly reduced cost via public and national health programmes) should also be made available – at preferential rates – to other not-so-well-off developing countries is not new. Indeed, medicines such as those which block the transmission of HIV from mother to unborn child are widely used in Europe and the United States but, despite their huge success, aren’t always available to the millions in developing countries who need them just as much. Perhaps even more.

You’d have thought that campaigning for life-saving drugs was a bit of a no-brainer. People here are unnecessarily dieing from a disease which has a cure there. Sadly, things are never that simple.

I’ve often wondered if the same concept could be applied to ICTs. Over the past two or three years the emergence of information and communication technologies as a means of enabling economic empowerment in third world communities has grown into something of a phenomenon. Report after report reveals the wide-ranging benefits of mobile telephony in particular, from improved communication between family members through to the creation of small businesses and the provision of valuable news and other information via SMS.

As with the pharmaceutical model, cost, for many, is something of a barrier. After all, getting hold of a phone is just the half of it – without a SIM and regular top-ups it’s not much use to anyone. A mixture of entrepreneurial skills and outright resourcefulness often solves some, if not all, of these problems. But if the mobile is such an economic enabler, and if it is able to spread its influence across multiple disciplines such as health, education and communication (to name just three), then shouldn’t we be looking to remove these cost barriers? As with the medicine model, shouldn’t we be fighting for cheaper and wider access to mobile services?

At the NGO level, those with the vision and will to embrace the mobile revolution regularly stumble across the same barrier. Hitting a few hundred phones with a targeted health message is not only technically challenging for some of these organisations, but it can also be costly. Again, if the benefits are so clear then why don’t we campaign for cheaper, more open access to the networks?

The mobile revolution has not only empowered many third world citizens and communities. It’s also making some people very, very rich. It’s the perfect business model. Wouldn’t it be great if a provider could set up a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) for exclusive use by the NGO community – conservation and development organisations alike working for the greater good? The infrastructure is already there. I don’t think it would be too much work. But it would reduce their bottom line a little. Maybe that’s the problem…

I can’t somehow see this happening anytime soon, but an NGO mobile network throughout continents such as Africa? Now, wouldn’t that be something?

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