Making Poverty History

A few weeks back, I was interviewed by Cameron Reilly, on his Podcast, G’Day World. After we got through the normal mobile marketing stuff, we got a bit more eclectic and I told the story of John Newman, which I knew would be the kind of thing Cam likes – and presumably his audience.

John Newman started his life as a drunkard and “blasphemer” before surviving a terrible storm at sea and found religion. Incredibly, almost his first job *after* his conversion was Captain of a slave ship and despite the terrible suffering below decks, he saw no contradiction at the time between his faith and his profession.

Years later, he became a clergyman and actually campaigned with William Wilberforce to successfully end slavery and also penned the hymn Amazing Grace, with the words “I was blind/And now I see”¬†- a¬†is a clear reference to being able to see how misguided his tacit support of slavery had been.

The point of this anecdote was to ask what are we doing today that our descendants will look back on in disbelief and ask themselves how on earth we could have done that, thinking it was normal, or certainly harmless.

Cameron suggested that allowing millions of people to live in poverty and die of hunger would be high on his list for nomination and recommended I read “Bono on Bono”, which makes this point pretty convincingly. I did actually buy it, but ironically, it was immediately stolen. So I need to get hold of another copy.

Anyway, this got me thinking and talking to a few people. And the overwhelming response was that more people would do more and indeed, give more, if the funds weren’t pocketed by corrupt officials – the very compatriots of the people dying and suffering around them. This is hard to argue with as corruption does seem to be endemic and anyway, so many people believe it to be fact, that you can’t convince them otherwise, without a paradigm shift.

So, I’ve been mulling this over and as I wrote earlier today, I attended the ForumOxford Future Technologies Conference last week. Simon Cavill of Mi-Pay¬†was demoing a product that allows migrant workers in say, the Middle East to send money securely¬†by SMS to their families at home, where it can be cashed in or banked. This is cheaper, quicker and ironically more secure where the banking systems are corrupt, inefficient or just don’t exist.

But it got me thinking. Supposing that we could donate money to people “direct”, cutting out the middle men, Quango’s, Governments and liggers who all want their piece of the pie.

Supposing that we could send direct to those in need enough money to buy say, mosquito nets (3 million people a year die of malaria) or basic other tools or food? This would mean mean that the mobile could empower the people for whom the aid is intended and (barring a few transaction fees) would start, bit by bit, to change the world.

Sure, there’s issues to solve. But with mobile phone access exploding in the third world, Nicolas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child¬†project poised to distribute hundreds of millions of machines to needy kids (meaning the same technology and principles of direct donation could be used) and even the growth of “village” phones,¬†distribution of technology is well on¬†its way to being cracked.

The main issue that I would see is getting the money “off” the phone to spend it, but certainly in urban areas, the infrastructure is there.¬†

So, if you’re one of the people who feel ambivalent about¬†donating to these sorts of charities, would this kind of idea change your mind, if you could be sure that your money was going straight to those who need it?¬†

And if you’re in the mobile payments business, perhaps this is an idea you could encourage or nurture.

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