x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Clinton Global Initiative takes multbillion-dollar technological approach to social betterment

The Clinton Global Initiative is an international group dedicated to improving the lot of the world's poorest, particularly through the use of technology.

Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Thani, the chairman of Ooredoo Group, says his company has been bringing internet-connected consumer electronics to poor, underserved individuals. Taylor Davidson / Clinton Global Initiative
Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Thani, the chairman of Ooredoo Group, says his company has been bringing internet-connected consumer electronics to poor, underserved individuals. Taylor Davidson / Clinton Global Initiative

In this digital world electronics makers obsess over creating fanciful features just as much as consumers crave using them. But some technology is quietly being harnessed to make a significant social impact in areas such as the Middle East, Africa and India.

Recent innovations were discussed late last month during the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual meeting, where leaders of governments, businesses and non-profits tackled pressing social issues. Since 2005, when the former US president Bill Clinton established the CGI, the organisation’s members have committed more than US$76 billion to improve the world through approaches that include the deployment of technology.

“Technological advances have fundamentally changed the world,” says Regina Dugan, the senior vice president of advanced technology and projects at Motorola Mobility.

“Often this requires that we believe in a new future and then set our sights on building it,” she addd.

“Sometimes that requires we believe in seemingly impossible things.”

New initiatives announced this year include a kiosk that provides safe drinking water but also features solar panels to produce sustainable energy and wireless communication. This so-called Ekocentre is part of a large-scale collaboration involving Coca-Cola and NRG Energy, among others, and is set to roll out in parts of Africa and Asia but may also come to the Middle East following a discussion set to take place with government officials from the UAE this month, says Dean Kamen, the president of Deka R&D, another partner.

A separate project already tested in the field involves a telemedicine programme run by the chip maker Qualcomm, which gave three underprivileged health clinics in Cairo access to mobile phones and tablets so they could take photos of skin diseases and send them to doctors off-site elsewhere in Egypt or in other countries for diagnosis. The company now plans to launch a project in Morocco this month, where pregnant women having an ultrasound scan can have the images transmitted to remote doctors by a mobile device instead of via mail.

“What really excites us at Qualcomm is the effect that connectivity is going to have on underserved communities all around the world,” says Peggy Johnson, the company’s president of global market development.

Mobile health programmes have also attracted the attention of telecommunications companies and other organisations within the Arabian Gulf, including Etisalat in the UAE. “It’s a topic that’s of interest to governments, NGOs, pharmaceutical companies and nations that are interested in health provisions and improving how that’s done,” says Matthew Reed, the Dubai-based principal analyst for the Middle East and Africa at Informa Telecoms & Media.

“Looking in this region, you can certainly see operators pretty interested in health or e-health,” Mr Reed adds.

All told, there are more than 6 billion cellular connections in the world today. But about 5 billion people are poor, not Web-connected and unable to access mobile apps that might provide free social services.

“The only way we’re going to connect the world is if the cost comes down,” says Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer for Facebook.

In August, Facebook in partnership with Samsung and other major tech companies announced the launch of Internet.org to help increase online access to underserved communities.

Ooredoo, a Qatar-based telecommunications company, was awarded one of the first licences to do business in Myanmar this year, after a hotly contested tender in a country where fewer than 10 per cent of people have mobile phone service and about 85 per cent of the population still lives without electricity, according to Abdullah Al Thani, the chairman of Ooredoo Group. The company plans to have its network set up by the middle of next year and help bring internet-connected consumer electronics to poor, underserved individuals as it has done in other countries.

In Indonesia, for instance, one young woman ran a small business where she sold chocolates and candies to kids until an agent provided her with mobile phones to retail as well. After a couple of months, she learned about mobile phone transfers, how to receive money from abroad and how to open and operate a savings account.

Ooredoo, for its part, trained her to use an iPad for two weeks, after which she became not only a mobile phone sales agent but also a micro-bank within her city. Her monthly earnings have since increased from $20 to about $250, says Mr Al Thani.

“That is the base of the pyramid we need to tap into,” he says.

Yet some panelists criticised businesses for trying to profit from the poor, while others noted that new products, such as the latest iPad or any tablet for that matter, would not be able to help people in every environment.

Hewlett-Packard (HP), for instance, created a mentoring programme in South Africa a few years ago for women with HIV/AIDS to help newly infected female patients. While the company leveraged its IT designers to create a database to track information about the efficiency and effectiveness of the programme, HP avoided using a tablet as part of the mentoring interaction.

“The latest technology does not work everywhere,” says Gabi Zedlmayer, the vice president for sustainability and social innovation at HP.

“You have to work locally with the local requirements.”

One programme designed for a basic 2G phone, which is generations behind models that run on faster 3G, 4G or LTE cellular networks, includes a mobile wallet that provides basic banking services to Indians who may not otherwise have access. “This will work on the most simple phones,” says S D Shibulal, the managing director and chief executive for Infosys, which developed the technology.

“This platform has enabled millions of people to join the financial system and work outside the cash economy,” he adds.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is working with Souktel, a mobile service provider in Palestine, to create technical training just using 2G phones. In Tunisia, the software company helped created an SMS-based service for youths who looking for jobs or technical training.

Now, Microsoft is taking these types of programmes to Iraq.

“We’re seeing an enormous impact in the region,” says Akhtar Badshah, the senior director for citizenship and public affairs at Microsoft.

For Ooredoo’s part, Mr Al Thani argues that the company is trying to work with poor individuals, on the ground, and is part of solving the challenges they face.

“Whenever you tailor any business to [a poor customer’s] needs I think you are going to make business,” he says.

“You are making profit, and at the same time, you are creating an economic solution.”

business@thenational.ae