Hot Nude Magic Bullets!

Naked Sarah Jessica Parker and nude Britney Spears won’t end poverty but the fact that spam offering photos of such delights was clogging up the trending Twitter stream (#giveandtech) of a conference on philanthropy and information technology held in London on September 15th was evidence that the potential of mobile phones to drive a revolution in development is the hot idea in the aid community at the moment. (Spammers tend to target only hashtags that are gettting a lot of attention.)

The conference was a collaboration between the Indigo Trust, the Institute for Philanthropy and Omidyar Network. (Indigo Trust is one of the foundations of the first family of British philanthropy, super-market founders the Sainsburys, set up by tecchie family member Fran Perrin and her husband Will, both of whom were technology advisers to Tony Blair’s government.) Also participating were the aristocracy of the information and communication fo development world, including Ushahidi, Twaweza and Frontline SMS. From holding governments to account to providing health services, the conference buzzed with ideas about how mobile phones are changing the world.

We share much of this enthusiasm. Yet a word of caution is appropriate. A decade or so ago, the development world thrilled at the potential of microfinance to end poverty. Excessive claims were made that were not sufficiently scrutinised and microfinance is now going through a painful period of reflection and restructuring as a result. Could the tech for development crowd be heading for a similar fall?

In a tremendous talk at this year’s Global Philanthropy Forum, Reuben Abraham of the Indian School of Business presented evidence that SMS messaging intended to help fisherman in India is, in fact, benefitting the affluent middlemen who rent out boats rather than the poor fishermen who are the intended beneficiaries. A similar warning was sounded by development blogger Owen Barder at this conference, when he pointed out that the middle classes in developing countries have better access to social media tools than the poor. Is there a danger that this less needy group will make better use than the poor of new technological and social media tools for making governments accountable, and as a result direct public spending to providing things they want, rather than to helping the neediest?

The answer is that we simply don’t know. Yet. Such is the excitement around the potential of mobile technology that government and philanthropic donors are sure to pile in to this hot new sector, seeding new ideas and new technologies. Hopefully a few of them will complement that with some funding for boring old impact evaluation.