What a thrilling experience to receive the first World Information Society Award. I congratulate ITU for introducing this award and I hope this award will bring our dream come true. The dream of ending poverty to this world closer than it ever was. Honourable President Wade, his Excellency Mr Secretary-General, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Winning the ITU World Information Society Award is a thrilling news of a lifetime. This is a global honour in an exciting area of technology. It is very inspiring. Thank you ITU for choosing me for this award.
I do not come from a technology background. I got interested in the information and communication technology because I saw this as a powerful new technology which can help the poor people, particularly poor women, out of poverty, very fast. I saw how micro credit can bridge the gap between the poor and ICT. All you need to do is to find a business model where ICT can become an income-generating activity to the poor. I tried this through bringing mobile phones in the hands of the poor women in Bangladesh. It worked beautifully.
Almost everybody that I shared my thoughts about getting poor women involved in mobile phone business thought: this is an idea which may fit into a science fiction, but not in a real situation of Bangladesh.
But poor women responded to my idea with enthusiasm. They learned quickly how to handle the phone, and the business. Today there are 200 000 telephone ladies in Bangladesh, earning a good income for their families and contributing USD 11 million worth of revenue per month to Grameen Phone, the mobile phone company.
Grameen Phone found the women in Grameen Bank network so reliable as business partners, that it has now launched another programme with them. This time not only poor women will sell the airtime, they will also sell telephone connections for new subscribers, receive money on behalf of the company from the subscribers for replenishment of their accounts, and replace their prepaid card completely. This is a case of win-win-win situation from all three sides, the mobile phone company, the subscribers and the poor women.
Grameen Bank now serves over 6 million borrowers, 96 per cent of whom are women. The number of these borrowers will reach 8 million by the end of this year, and 12 million by the end of 2010. The number of telephone ladies is expected to reach 400 000 by the end of this year, and exceed one million by 2010. All this expansion is taking place with Grameen Bank’s own deposits, which expands at a rate to support the expansion of the branch network. New Grameen Bank branches are required to operate with its own money collected from deposits, and come to break-even point within the first year of work.
Entire accounting and MIS of Grameen Bank is computerized. We are launching
an experimentation in collaboration with MIT Media Lab to use the USD 100 laptop
for our field staff. This will reduce our cost and improve our efficiency. We
can pass on the benefits of improved efficiency to our borrowers, who are also
the owners of the bank.
We are in the process of setting up a technology promotion fund in collaboration with Mr Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel of Saudi Arabia, to provide financing to innovative adaptation of already designed technology, provide venture capital and loans to produce and market these technologies. I am expecting that ICT will be an area of technology which the innovators will give high priority.
Two years back, Grameen Bank launched a special programme to give loans to beggars. We did not impose any of our existing rules on them. Their loans are interest-free. They can pay whatever amount they wish, whenever they want to pay. When the first loan is repaid they can take a second loan, usually a bigger loan, and so on. With this money they turn themselves into door-to-door sales persons. It is up to them to decide when they should give up begging. We now have over 70 000 beggars in this programme and it will reach 100 000 by the end of the year.
Ownership of assets plays a very critical role in generating income. We see how Grameen Bank helps people to own income-generating assets, like land, cows, chickens, whatever. From telephone ladies we learn how mobile phones can be an income-generating asset. We brought this experience to apply on the beggars. We have given several loans to beggars to buy mobile phones. If they cannot master the technique of operating the business we pair them with capable persons who become their managing partner. But both share the profits.
Beggars who do not have limbs, cannot go house-to-house, do the begging at a fixed spot with a beggar’s bowls in front. We are inviting them to keep some soft drinks, some cookies, some fruits, next to them, and give their patrons an option whether to throw a coin into the beggar’s bowl or buy something from her, or do both.
Besides the Grameen Phone we have created other ICT-related companies, such as Grameen Software, Grameen ICT training, Grameen Communications, ISP, etc.
I strongly feel that we can create a poverty-free world. The basic ingredient of overcoming poverty is packed inside each of the individual human beings, including the poorest human being. All we need to do is to help the person to unleash this energy and creativity. Once this can be done, poverty will be history. It will disappear very fast. The only place in the world where poverty may exist will be the poverty museums, no longer in human society.
We need to reconceptualize the business world to make sure it contributes to the creation of a humane society, not aggravate the problems around us. We need to recognize two types of businesses, not one, and offer equal opportunities to both. These two types of businesses are: One which is already known, business to make money, that is conventional business, the principle of whom is to maximize profit. And the other new kind, business to do good to people, or social business.
Social business enterprises are a new kind of non-loss non-dividend enterprises which aim at solving social, health and environmental problems, utilizing the market mechanism. We need to give opportunities to the social business entrepreneurs similar to the institutional and policy support system that the world has built over the years for the conventional businesses. One such new institution to help social business entrepreneurs will be the creation of “social stock market” to bring the social business entrepreneurs and social investors to come in contact with each other and solve the problem of finding investment money for this new type of business.
There are many other things that need to be created, such as social venture capital, social rating agencies, methodology of evaluating successes and failures of social business enterprises, training of social MBAs, etc.
I strongly feel that ICT can change the fate of the poor people dramatically. If we can ensure access to ICT for the poor, it can be done. ICT has the wonderful capacity to empower an individual person, even the poorest person.
In three major areas ICT can play an immediate role helping the poor: 1) integrating the poor into the mainstream economy by expanding their market, eliminating the middlemen in their business and creating international job opportunities through service outsourcing; 2) bringing information, educational programmes, skills training and healthcare services, etc., all in a very user-friendly way, even to the most remote villages; 3) empowering the poor, particularly poor women, with a stronger voice that can be heard behind the borders of their village, better access to information, and improvement in the democratic process.
ICT can be visualized as an Aladdin’s lamp in the hands of poor women. A digital genie will come out of this new digital version of Aladdin’s lamp at a voice command to give all the support to a poor woman who needs to leverage her energy and creativity to lift herself out of poverty at the fastest speed.
But is anyone actually designing this Aladdin’s lamp? No. None at all. Not at present. Designers are busy designed i Pods and endless incarnations of mobile phones in every size, shape, colour and combinations of camera, voice recorder, music player, PDA, notebook, games, wi-fi, you name it. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against them. I love them. I use many of them. But I want ICT designers to be given the challenge and opportunities to show their talent in designing equipment and gadgets which will solve the problems of the poor. These designers will have pictures of poor women in Bangladesh, or Somalia, or Bolivia, on their desks to remind themselves who they are working for. Better still, these women may be co-opted as their co-designers through frequent video-conferencing.
To pool the energy and talents of the poor who would like to devote themselves in bringing ICT to the poor in the form and shape that they can benefit the best, I have been proposing to create an “International Centre for ICT to Help Overcome Global Poverty”. To begin with, it can start as a “Virtual Centre”, a global network of committed people and social business entrepreneurs. Later it can have its own physical locations, full-time personnel, design centres, action research programmes, businesses, etc. If we are serious about ending global poverty, I think this is to be a strategic institution to build.
Let me conclude by expressing my deep gratitude to ITU for recognizing our efforts in bringing ICT to the poor.
With the visibility and importance that you give to the ICT initiatives I hope more such initiatives will come forth and will outdo each other in their effectiveness and in commitment to achieve MDGs, particularly reducing poverty by half by 2015. We must take bold initiatives which will make historical breakthrough in ending global poverty.
I accept the honour you have given me on behalf of all my colleagues and our
owner-cum-borrowers, millions of them, in Grameen Bank, particularly our
Managing Director of Grameen Bank, Bangladesh
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Updated : 2009-09-10