Panel Explores the Power of the Mobile Phone in Fighting Poverty


Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

I first met Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations, through one of our greatest Grameen Foundation Board members, Lucy Billingsley.  When Isobel and I were introduced to each other, she was running a small program at the Council focused on women’s issues.  She has since grown it into a flagship initiative of this prestigious institution, and her reputation as a researcher and thought-leader has naturally grown along the way.

I was therefore very pleased when she invited me to speak as part of her Women and Technology series last week, alongside Ann Mei Chang, senior adviser for women and technology, Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State (and formerly with Google), and Scott Ratzen, Vice President for Global Health at Johnson & Johnson.  The title of the session was “mDevelopment: Harnessing Mobile Technology for Global Economic Growth.”  We had a planning call with Isobel, Scott and Ann Mei the week before and I realized I was joining some extremely knowledgeable and articulate people.  To prepare, I read up on all of Grameen Foundation’s many programs that work to alleviate poverty by leveraging the mobile phone revolution, as well as some related research on inclusive business models.

Alex Counts makes a point while (from left) Isobel Coleman of the Council for Foreign Relations, Ann Mei Chang of the U.S. State Department and Scott Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson listen.

Alex Counts makes a point while (from left) Isobel Coleman of the Council for Foreign Relations, Ann Mei Chang of the U.S. State Department and Scott Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson listen.

The event was kicked off with remarks by Suzanne McCarren of ExxonMobil, which sponsors this speaker series.  Suzanne, whom I sat next to during lunch, explained why women’s economic development is a high priority for their company’s foundation, which has made more than $50 million in grants so far, according to my notes.  Then Cherie Blair, the former first lady of the United Kingdom and the founder of a foundation that bears her name, spoke.  She announced the release of an important new report titled, “Mobile Value-Added Services: A Business Opportunity for Women Entrepreneurs.”  I had met Cherie several times through Meera Gandhi, whose book Giving Back features the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, as well as Grameen Foundation.

Isobel then led the panelists onto the stage and we had a 25-minute dialogue with her, followed by 30 minutes of discussion with the audience.  In my opening remarks, I borrowed a joke from Paul Jacobs, the CEO of Qualcomm, who began his speech at our gala – one that that celebrated Grameen Foundation and Qualcomm’s partnership around mobile phones – by saying, “I would like to ask that you all switch on your mobile phones.”  It got a good laugh and relaxed everyone – including me, as I was a little nervous at the start!

The discussion, expertly moderated by Isobel, was invigorating and gave me a chance to talk about Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Worker, MOTECH, Mobile Financial Services, Microfranchise and Microsavings programs.  (In fact, both Cherie Blair and Ann Mei had visited our microfranchise program in Indonesia, which is also known as AppLab-Indonesia.)  I was even able to go back as far as our original “Village Computing Project” work in India, where we made some inroads into eGovernance applications to reduce corruption.

Isobel has already blogged about the session, and in time there will be a transcript available.  There were members of the media present, including Barbara Crossette, who now writes for The Nation and formerly was the U.N. correspondent for The New York Times.  While in the earlier role, she once wrote a terrific piece about Professor Muhammad Yunus, long before he was a Nobel laureate.

Based on the audience’s reactions and questions, and the number of people who came up to me afterwards, I think Grameen Foundation made some important new friends by demonstrating that we have gone well beyond traditional microfinance (as powerful as it is) and put ourselves at the cutting edge of using technology – particularly information and communication technology – to reduce global poverty.

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