The Humanitarian Centre Event: Global Poverty and ICTs (October 26th at Churchill College)

As hinted at previously, Michelle and I attended the Global Povery and ICTs event hosted by The Humanitarian Centre at beautiful Churchill College earlier this week.  Importantly, this continued my streak of attending only technology-related seminars (well…almost).

The event turned out to be a decent one, but I can almost feel the development studies cynicism being drilled into me because I wasn’t as impressed with the presentations as I might have been just a few weeks ago.  The program featured six quickfire presentations by Cambridge non-profits outlining their use of technology in development projects.  The presenting non-profits were Aptivate, CamFed, the Centre for Commonwealth Education, the Centre of Governance & Human Rights, FrontlineSMS, and Iceni Mobile.

As expected, one of the presentations was completely horrible (I won’t say which one) and the rest were pretty good.  Iceni Mobile won the highly coveted “Michelle Knott Best Presentation Award.”  I tended to agree that the Iceni Mobile work seemed the most innovative (something involving mobile money transfer, financial services, and health services – that last one is in my notes…but I can’t remember how that fit in).  However, you really can’t learn much in four minutes.  Strangely enough, Iceni doesn’t seem to have a functional website…which propels it all the way to the top of my growing list of incongruities observed at technology-related events.

Moving on, the keynote address was delivered by David Edelstein, the Director of the Grameen Technology Centre and the Vice-President of Technology Programs at Grameen Foundation.  Yes, the length of his title did impress us all.  

Overall, the keynote presentation was well done, but a little light on details.  As many of you probably know, Grameen is best known for its microfinance model, developed by Muhammad Yunus, which originally focused on Bangladesh.  In short, microfinance (or microlending) focuses on providing small loans for small (often very small) business development to individuals that regular banks won’t touch.  Grameen was originally funded with grants and aid money, but is now self-sufficient (though many question this).  Mr. Yunus is widely hailed as a revolutionary figure in the development world and he and Grameen received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.  While some of the acclaim is probably warranted, Yunus and Grameen are not without critics from both the political left (who question the high interest rates levied against borrowers) and the political right (who question the independent financial viability of the model).

Mr. Edelstein’s presentation, however, was not about microfinance (obviously), but focused rather on the technology arm of Grameen.  If you are so inclined, you can learn more about Grameen’s technology initiatives on their website.  Some of the technological tools and ideas presented seemed quite innovative and useful…while others not so much.  What I most appreciated about the presentation was that Mr. Edelstein emphasized the necessity of examining the problems and roadblocks that exist in developing countries and developing solutions to meet the people’s needs (rather than vice versa…trying to force ready-made solutions where they won’t necessarily fit).  On the flip side, the overall slickness of the presentation and the business jargon was a bit off-putting at times.  He also seemed to gloss over (both in the presentation and Q&A) some significant limitations of the technological tools…for instance, access in poorer countries (he emphasized how cheap cell phones are, but failed to mention how expensive usage rates are).  I was also displeased that he attempted to blame African governments for inflating the prices of phones with taxes…which is fundamentally misleading (all countries have taxes, why wouldn’t African countries have them when they need the revenue more desperately?) and absolves any potential blame to corporations that could be seeking profit where none is realistically available.  

In the end, while I am not one to pile on people or organizations that try to serve the greater good, I have questions about Grameen’s effectiveness.  Both their microfinance and technology programs seem to be a bit overhyped and oversold.  While I believe it is good that there are people attempting to work from the bottom up, I think it’s equally important to remember that programs based on microfinance and technology dissemination are not a substitute for top-down programs and reforms.  I guess my complaint cuts more to how Grameen is often portrayed, which may or may not be due in some part to the way they market themselves.

So, to summarize, I would say overall it was a night that fulfilled the Black Eyed Peas’ premonition (if you don’t follow…here’s a reminder).  And we capped it off with a lovely glass of bottled wine…not that boxed rubbish that CRASSH likes to hand out...

Until next time…