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The flick of a switch - electricity & poverty

 

In this guest post, Daniel Choudhury from e.quinox outlines the importance of electricity in fighting poverty - and innovative student-developed solution to help give some of the world's poorest greatest access. We met Daniel and his team at a 1.4 Billion Reasons presentation in London - and were inspired by he and his group's commitment as everyday people, to doing what they could.

You will probably agree that turning on a light is no big deal. A simple flick of a switch, one most unconscious movement of the hand, and the darkness of the night is effectively eliminated.

For a staggering 1.4 billion people across the globe, however, this simple equation does not apply. The reason: No access to electricity, and therefore no means to produce light other than by open fire, oil, gas or kerosene. On top of commonly unaffordable prices, these light sources bear a variety of health impacts that can range from simple burns to chronic diseases.

The non-profit, humanitarian organization e.quinox endeavors to solve the challenge of rural electrification in developing countries. By developing a solution that is technically viable, financially sustainable and replicable on a large scale, the entirely student-run team from Imperial College London hopes to be able to spread their idea in as many countries as possible. Their vision is to give a large number of remote communities access to electricity, by having other organizations, governments and charities take up their “blue-print” and tailor it to their own respective needs, whilst calling upon the expertise of e.quinox and like-minded organizations.

e.quinox’s model to provide affordable and safe electricity is simple, yet unique. It relies on a centralized power generation hub, the so-called “Energy Kiosk”, and decentralized distribution via battery boxes. The Energy Kiosks are flexible in the sense that they can be powered in a multitude of ways. Current installations include Solar Power or Hydro Power, and one Kiosk is even grid-connected – the use of appropriate technology is key. The battery boxes, supplied each with an LED light and a light holder, also contain the same 230V AC output as any ordinary socket and can be recharged after depletion. Benefiters of e.quinox’s solution can therefore not only use the battery for lighting, but are also able to charge their mobile phones and shavers or power small radios. This allows e.quinox’s current 400 customers in three different Rwandan villages to set up or expand their own businesses. e.quinox strongly believes that the empowerment of the local economy and the instigation of entrepreneurial spirit are key elements to effectively reduce poverty.

Roger Liew, Chairman of e.quinox, illustrates: “Even when a national electric grid is nearby, people in developing countries often can’t gain any access to it, simply because of the high initial and running costs that a connection typically entails. Our system, however, is made economically affordable by undermining the price that our customers would have to pay for alternative, more hazardous lighting solutions. This payment can be made either on a monthly basis or for every single recharge, allowing customers to choose the best suitable model for their own demand.”

Once an individual kiosk’s financial sustainability has been proven, it will be handed over to the local community or government, creating a situation whereby the supported communities no longer have to rely on external support. This financial independence is often overlooked by humanitarian aid ventures, but vital to any community’s long-term development. In essence, this idea of a ‘social business’ allows this form of humanitarian work not to be simple short-term assistance, but to have a prolonged effect and to allow communities to help themselves.

e.quinox is currently competing in the JP Morgan Give-It-Away contest to secure $50,000 for future projects. The competition can only be won through votes from the public, so give e.quinox your support by going to http://www.e.quinox.org/vote and selecting e.quinox as the organization of your choice! Don’t keep this link to yourself either, share it with your friends, families and colleagues! The e.quinox team is grateful for every bit of support and affirms to make every single penny count.

 

Posted by Daniel Choudhury (Guest Blogger) in Technology for column Issue Analysis on Apr 26th 2011, 08:31

Digital Activism in Action

 

In my previous blog about online activism I looked at the potential of digital tools to bring about change offline. In this blog I want to look at digital activism in action to fight for justice in some of the world’s poorest countries.

In February 2009, a campaign was created to protest against members of a group who were sponsoring attacks on women drinking in pubs. The Pink Chaddi Campaign invited to send pink underwear (Chaddi in Hindi) to the head of the right-wing Hindu group Sri Ram Sena as symbol of a non-violent protest. More than 2,000 pairs were sent.

Whilst this may seem like a comical example, it shows the power of online activism - Facebook played a fundamental role in the campaign, helping it to go viral. The Pink Chaddi group mobilised 16,000 people to join the campaign within just three days, and had more than 50,000 members within a few months. As the blogger Guarav Mishra said it was “one of the best Indian examples of how grassroots community can come together, collaborate and take collective action using social media tools”.

The campaign succeeded in creating a space of debate between ordinary people and the Hindu right. It also catalysed the attention of mainstream media all around the world raising awareness of the problem far beyond the confines of the particular society.

Unfortunately, the campaign also highlighted the perils of online campaigning. In April 2009, the Facebook group was hacked, resulting in it being disabled. This is probably not surprising, we all are very aware of the risks the Internet can present. However, it also proves the power of the campaign. If it had not been so successful in catalysing civil society’s attention and raising awareness, it would have not been considered a threat worthy of attacking. It was able to create a powerful voice and make people reflect on the issue, scaring those who would prefer to silence the debate.

In 2004, Fahamu and Solidarity for African Women’s Right (SOAWR) ran a campaign in support of the Africa Women’s Rights Protocol. The Protocol’s aim was to provide a comprehensive framework for the promotion and protection of women’s human rights but needed to be approved by 15 countries in the African Union to come into force. The main tool used was a web-based petition gathering signatures in support of the protocol.

Fahamu was also able to add an SMS function to the petition, meaning that people could add their name via SMS. This was a remarkable innovation considering that Africa has much more mobile users than email users. The petition collected 4,000 signatures, of which 500 were received via text messages. Although this number may seem small, given the difficulties accessing the Internet in many African countries, it is nonetheless significant. Within 15 months, the required 15 countries finally ratified the protocol bringing it into force.

A final project I wanted to look at started in India in August 2010. I Paid a Bribe is an initiative launched by Janaagraha to fight corruption in Indian society. The project uses a website as platform for analysing and reporting corruption. Through the website people can report corrupt acts that will be aggregated and analysed in order to expose the most serious areas of corruption in the society. After assessing the cases reported, Janaagraha approaches the government for action.

Through the “Ask Raghu” section, the website also provides users with useful information on how they can address and resist corruption. According to Raghunandan, the creator of the project and a former senior civil servant, the website gets about 25 to 50 reports each day in the ‘I paid a bribe’, ‘I didn’t pay a bribe’ and ‘I didn’t have to pay a bribe’ sections and has about 20 questions asked on the “Ask Raghu” column every day.

Since the project was started very recently, it is still difficult to assess its impact on the Indian civil society. However, the frequency and volume of the reports and questions clearly demonstrates the need for a system to address these issues and the usefulness of this platform to the public.

The above projects are just a few examples of the numerous initiatives and actions that are taken online everywhere in the world. The impact of these campaigns has as wide a range as the digital tools that can be used. The combining factor is the will to improve civil societies and fight situations of injustice.

It is important to acknowledge these efforts and recognise their place in modern society. It may be that the revolution will not ‘take place’ online, but, as can be seen from the numerous example around the web, it is increasingly likely that it will start online.

Posted by Elisa Marcon - GPP Intern in Technology for column Action Stories on Dec 6th 2010, 08:33

Does social media have a place in development?

 

Here at the Global Poverty Project we firmly believe in the power of communication. However, in the wake of the heated debate around online activism, we found ourselves asking the question: will online activism help to end poverty or is it just “clicktivism” as Malcolm Gladwell argued in the New Yorker? The answer to this question is not an easy one.

The criticisms of online activism are broadly based on two objections: the inability of online movements to have any real effects off-line, and the incapacity of the internet to foster connections and collective identities.

It’s clear to us that the first of these is simply incorrect.

The Haiti debt cancellation campaign is an excellent example. In the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Haiti on 12th January 2010, the country owed 891 million dollars mainly to the IMF (International Monetary Fund). In addition, the IMF pledged more money to help Haiti, but this money was offered in the form of loans. In this way more debt would have been added on the country. In the same month, a worldwide coalition of organisations including ONE, Jubilee Debt Campaign and Oxfam launched a campaign to cancel Haiti’s debt by urging their supporters to take action and sign a petition on line. The petition reached more than 400,000 signatures in just a few weeks and was handed in at the G7 Finance Ministers summit on 6th February. These Finance Ministers agreed to push for the cancellation of Haiti’s multilateral debts and after few months, on July 21st, the IMF finally agreed to cancel the Haitian debt.

I would argue that the second objection is also incorrect. Arguing that the Internet does not foster a real connection among people, underestimates the potential of new media. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter give people the ability to overcome national and international boundaries. An American can easily campaign alongside an Indian to see an end to extreme poverty within a generation despite their lack of physical proximity. This feeling of solidarity and the powers of aggregation and organisation created by the new media can help activists to tackle global issues on a global scale by calling to action networks of people all around the world.

It’s important to acknowledge that in the last decades an important change has occurred, that is the creation of new media that have made possible a two-way communication. These new media have not substituted traditional one-way communications but supplemented it, adding a new dimension of interaction into the creation of messages. It has also empowered people, giving them the ability to create new movements using their own initiatives, and communicate it without the need for a central source.

The Global Poverty Project is a movement of people that believe they can fight together to bring an end to extreme poverty. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook have changed the face of communications and have given us an invaluable opportunity to create a dynamic debate about what we are doing and what we can do to achieve this. Through social media people can tell us what they’re doing, suggest which topics they would like us to discuss and create an interaction with thousands of people from all around the world that in the past would have been impossible to build.

Combined with effective education campaigns and offline activism, these new online tools cannot but be considered an important resource. This is why we ask you to join the conversation and follow us both via Facebook and Twitter. Ask your questions, tell us what you think and help us build a movement that will bring an end to poverty within a generation. Make the most out of it, this can be your first step towards change.

Posted by Elisa Marcon - GPP Intern in Technology for column Issue Analysis on Nov 10th 2010, 08:06

TedxLondon Event 20 September 2010

 

Alongside the MDG Review Summit, every nerd’s favourite website, TED.com held events around the world yesterday under the banner ‘The Future We Make’. It was an inspiring night to see so many people there, and indeed around the world via the wider TedxChange event with a desire to make change happen and the wide variety of ways they are doing it.

You can see the presentations streamed from America above, or see the full stream and conversation on the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website here.

Global Poverty Project staff and interns in New York and London attended, and here are their thoughts on some of the highlights:

  • Progress is happening: Melinda Gates,‘we’ve made more progress in the last 10 years than in any other period in history combined’
  • Fighting poverty is local: Several speakers spoke about the need to stop having a blanket approach when looking at development, and create individual approaches based on a country’s particular needs. Hans Rosling demonstrated in his speech how meaningless data can become when we generalise it too much, as he focused on child mortality rates, stating ‘The time has come to stop looking at Sub-Saharan Africa as one place. The countries are so different and they should be recognised in the same way as we don’t talk about Europe as one place’ you can see his full talk here.
  • The Coke Effect: Melinda Gates asked ‘how is it they can get Coke to these far flung places and if they can do that why can’t governments and NGOs do the same thing?’ The answer lay in their marketing – it was tailored to every specific country they sold to – and social mobilisation – they made sure they got the local communities committed to the brand.
  • Local solutions: Mechai Viravaidya talked about the success in family planning in Thailand. Again the success was due to social mobilisation and tailoring their actions to the community with everything from getting the police involved in a ‘cops and rubbers’ campaign to blowing-up condom contests. The theme was also talked about by Graça Michel as she said ‘everybody seems to have a plan for our continent. We need a plan for Africa, by Africans.’
  • The pitfalls of transportation donation: Andrea Coleman talked about the need to look at every angle of aid and how much of health work in Africa was suffering from poor transportation due to the fact that people didn’t know how to maintain the vehicles and how her charity – Riders for Health is addressing that.
  • New technology: Wendy Hanamura talked about the power of stories for spreading information and how LinkTV’s website ViewChange.org is using semantic technology to generate links between the video you're watching and other relevant content across the web, to give people wider exposure to the non-profit sector as they watch the videos hosted on their site

The event was a truly inspirational one that provided much food for thought and clearly demonstrated how change can and is being made in fighting poverty.

MDG 8: M-Pesa mobile banking

 

I‘ve always taken my bank for granted. Sure, they annoy me from time to time, but it’s only because I expect to be able to get to the little money I have 24 hours a day, 365 days a week without having to carry it around with me all the time.

But, according to UN figures, having a bank account is rare across Africa, as 80% of the population remains unbanked and in Kenya this figure hits a staggering 90%. This means that most people in Africa have nowhere to deposit their vital savings and are left to keep their assets in the form of cows and chickens that are prone to sickness or accidents. They’re left unable to ever get a loan or credit in times of need or to invest in property or their business.

It’s for this reason that we need to see access to banks and savings as a part of the fight against poverty.

As can be seen from the video above M-Pesa from Safaricom has provided an innovative solution. The system is simple: the user visits an M-Pesa agent and deposits cash; they receive an e-float on their mobile which can then be transferred to another user’s mobile; the user at the other end can visit their local agent and withdraw the cash. The system also works by providing a rudimentary savings account for the users, as money can be stored in their M-Pesa account.

For many people in developing countries their mobile is their lifeline to information, and so has become a vital trusted asset to them, so the power of integrating this system on a wider scale is immense as it will give people a way to manage their money without having to make lengthy and often costly trips to find a bank.

The benefit this will provide to the sphere of microfinance is a good example of how this technology can help end extreme poverty. Users can receive the loan into their M-Pesa account and visit the local agent to withdraw the money. Then, rather than having to stop working in order to make trips to the bank to repay the loan this can be done via few button presses on their mobile phone, and they can continue their work, increasing their amount of time to earn money.

Clearly this technology is a great tool towards the achievement of MDG 8 and the end of extreme poverty overall, and its wider adoption across the developing world is something to be encouraged.

Posted by Guy Kirkpatrick - GPP Intern in Technology for column Millennium Development Goals on Sep 20th 2010, 06:00