IT and Micro-Finance Can Push Back Poverty

During a speech at ITU Telecom World, professor Muhammad Yunus says small loans and wireless phones can raise the quality of life in Asia

Nobel Peace Prize laureate professor Muhammad Yunus aims to build on his pioneering work combining micro-credit and information technology in a project outlined in an address at yesterday's Telecom World opening ceremony.

The "ICT Empowerment Network" will be a joint project between Grameen Bank, the ITU and vendors including Cisco and Qualcomm, which will collaborate to bring ICT solutions to poor people.

"If you can bring micro-credit and information technology together, you will have great synergy," Yunus said in a media briefing prior to the official opening. He described the project as a "loose network" and suggested that other partners would join in later. "This is just the beginning and it will encourage other companies," he said.

Yunus started the Grameen Bank project in Bangladesh in 1976. Today it provides collateral-free loans to five million clients, of which 96% are woman. One of its most successful initiatives has been the "village phone" project, where woman entrepreneurs provide a wireless payphone service in rural areas.

He noted that the 300,000 "phone ladies" bring in 19% of the revenue for Grameen Phone, one of many companies in the Grameen group and Bangladesh's largest mobile operator with more than 10 million subscribers.

One of the projects announced within the ICT Empowerment Network will aim to bring the village phone concept to rural communities in Indonesia next year. Qualcomm and Grameen Technology Centre will work together to test the model in conjunction with CDMA operators.

Meanwhile, Cisco will aim to build on its network academies through the new project. ITU, Grameen and Cisco will team up to provide graduates of the ITU's Internet Training Centers with business plan mentoring and micro-credit start-up capital to launch ICT-related businesses such as computer repair shops or Internet access.

A newly formed consortium known as Enclusion has also joined the Empowerment Network and will aim to develop low-cost ICT access solutions. Enclusion's main project is to expand the reach of existing GSM networks using cheap VHF radio.

Professor Yunus stressed that all of the projects would be sustainable and are not seen as charity. "We're talking about business opportunities with a social aspect," he said. "Money is not the important thing, it's the intention of the companies wanting to do something."

"My feeling is that people, even the poorest, have unlimited capacity. It's just that society has never tried to unleash their potential," the Grameen Bank managing director noted.

The newly launched ICT Empowerment Network represents the first concrete area of collaboration flowing from a broader agreement signed by Professor Yunus and ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi earlier yesterday. Grameen will aim to tap into more than 3,000 microfinance organizations to support the project, while the ITU will leverage the support of its 191 member states and some 650 private sector members.