As experts gathered for the TED Global conference in Oxford, Iqbal Quadir, a Bangladeshi entrepreneur, outlined a brave new method to help the Developing World ¨C he argued the way to aid developing nations is by local technological development, in particular communications technologies rather than the traditional aid packages.
Technology in the developing world is not about closing the digital divide, or promoting the latest gadget but helping them to increase productivity - Iqbal Quadir pointed out ¨C technology is "of the people, by the people and for the people".
Mr Quadir¡¯s ideas to use technology to empower the people, began 12 years ago, when he started up Grameen Phone, a company that provides mobile telephony into Bangladeshi villages and rural areas. Today, the company provides 115,000 phones in villages across the country, to more than 3.5 million subscribers.
Empowering the people
Talking at the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Global conference, where leading thinkers unveil technological ideas, which shape the future of society, he emphasized how this can be used to improve communication in developing nations and increase productivity:
"The only way we can depend on each other is if we connect with each other. Connectivity leads to dependability which leads to specialization and then productivity," he said.
By providing something as simple as mobile technology to the people, the power structure within a village can change, and more and more, the voice of the people can come out. Through the Grameen Phone scheme in Bangladesh, woman in the village now provide a vital link between their relatives and the local services such as the Hospital. Their lives have been changed; known as the Grameen phone ladies, they can now make their voices heard:
"A woman with a mobile becomes important in a village," he said. "This changes the power distribution."
Following the success of Grameen Phone, Mr Quadir hopes to get wireless internet through the mobile devices into the villages, but warned of growing too quickly:
"But we should not jump ahead too much and say just because the First World has internet, then the Third World should, too. There is a fundamental beauty in just a phone," he said.
He also outlined the bigger problems yet to be addressed with Grameen phones such as the lack of other credit checks, bank branches, customer contact points, but also energy production. To work on these, his current project with Dean Kamen is to develop village-based micro-power plants, fuelled by cow manure.
The project combines access to micro-credit with low-cost energy generation technology to see if rural entrepreneurs can manage mini power plants in villages.
"Some breakthrough in energy would be fantastic," he said. "If you bring electricity to villages, you can bring jobs. Electricity is half the problem," he said.
This local approach to tech development is certainly something that bigger companies are starting to follow. Intel announced earlier this year, its intention to open regional developments centres that would focus on platforms for these emerging markets.
Wilton Agatstein, vice president of Intel¡¯s Desktop Platform Group, explained that the new centres are designed to understand what the needs of the people in rural India are, and to work out whether there are technology solutions to those problems.
"People want to do two main things," he says. "That is communicate with the government - there are lots of forms to fill in, between three and 20 per year per person. At the moment, each form takes around a day to complete and process. Anything that could improve the efficiency of this process would be helpful. Secondly, people want to educate their children."
Agatstein also points out that the intense heat and an intermittent power supply are challenges than need to be overcome. He says Intel is running pilot projects installing communication kiosks in villages, which provide phone and net access for the villagers.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Christian Aid has also added that although initially strange, the idea of technology for some people who are struggling to get clean water and food, technological resources can be invaluable as a provider of information.
"Internet access, for example, can allow villages to find out about potentially devastating weather conditions and thus protect their homes and crops," she explained. "In countries where schooling is often a luxury, the worldwide web can provide relatively easy access to education networks, helping to break the poverty cycle."
However, she cautioned that technology needs to be combined with traditional aid to provide the best possible solution with no conditions attached. She reaffirmed the need for debt relief and Trade Justice to make international trade fairer, to continue bridging the poverty gap.