There is a good chance you are reading this blog on your mobile device.  If you are in a developing country, the chances are even greater. That’s because across the developing world, people are leapfrogging the need for computers and are accessing the Internet straight from their more affordable smart phone or tablet.  In fact, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recently reported that twice as many people access the Internet through a mobile device than through a fixed line.

USAID harnesses the power of mobile phones to achieve results Credit: USAID

But it doesn’t end there.  The near ubiquity of mobiles in the developing world – on pace to soon surpass population numbers – has allowed citizens to engage in formal economies and tap into global networks in a manner that was unheard of just a few years ago.  Even the most basic mobile phones are becoming important channels for people to conduct financial transactions and access key information on healthcare, education, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

The mobile phone will indeed transform development outcomes. For this reason, we were the first bilateral development agency to launch a dedicated Mobile Solutions team, as part of our Office of Innovation and Development Alliances.  We created it to help us do business better and expand opportunities for individuals, families and communities around the world.  Our efforts began both organically and deliberately.  Across USAID’s Bureaus and Missions, mobiles were springing up. We were inspired by our pioneering colleagues who saw a need, an opportunity, and seized the moment.

After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, when most people’s savings lay buried under mountains of rubble, Priya Jaisinghani and I visited and imagined how to get a whole new, mobile-based financial system up and running as quickly as possible.  Kay McGowan saw an opportunity to reduce corruption in Afghanistan by allowing more police officers and government employees to be paid via their phones. Christopher Burns saw the huge gender gap in mobile phone ownership among the world’s poor and initiated conversations with the mobile operators’ association, GSMA, and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women to ensure women weren’t left behind in the mobile revolution.

Sandhya Rao and Richard Greene knew that too many mothers and children still were dying during childbirth.  Working with Johnson & Johnson, they conceived a way for pregnant or new mothers in the developing world to receive simple health text and voice messages.  Understanding that many poor farmers own a phone, Judy Payne realized this meant that helpful information like market pricing on inputs and commodities, delivered via mobile, could help raise their incomes.

From the beginning, we designed for global scale, realizing that these collective pieces had the power to be truly transformational.  With mobile phone ownership exploding in the developing world, we knew we had the opportunity to rethink how we use mobile technology to achieve faster, cheaper and more sustainable development results.

Today, the Mobile Solutions team is tackling policy and regulatory issues, addressing access and affordability, and boasts an internal mobile enthusiast group and is busy recruiting partners from the private and donor sectors.  That is why I’m incredibly proud to announce that today USAID received the ‘Best Government Policy for Mobile Development’ award at GSMA’s Mobile World Congress 2013.

This award not only recognizes the critical global leadership role USAID is playing in this arena, it emphasizes the important role mobile phones play in international development.  We see it as a symbol to push new boundaries and dedicate ourselves to scale some of our current initiatives, including:

  • The Better Than Cash Alliance, launched in September 2012, is accelerating the move towards electronic payments, particularly mobile, in order to enhance efficiency, accountability and transparency.  The governments of the Philippines, Afghanistan, Kenya, Peru and Colombia have made public commitments to achieving this shift.  Internally, USAID has led the U.S. government by issuing an agency-wide order to move away from the use of cash and by working with our implementing partners to drive millions of dollars toward mobile payments.
  • To broaden mobile access, USAID has strengthened its GSMA mWomen partnership to close the mobile phone gender gap in the developing world.  We have helped build the business case for mobile network operators to design products and services that meet the needs of women and their families.   And we’re encouraged by the work Asiacell has done in Iraq, launching a new product line designed for women that includes the freedom to choose off-peak hours, a free service to block any number from calling or texting, and discounts on female-focused value added services.  In less than 9 months, 1.2 million new female subscribers joined the service, an increase of 25% over the total female subscriber base.
  • We’ve even held a Design Challenge with GSMA, AusAID and the Qtel Group, to make the smartphone user experience more intuitive for technically illiterate populations, particularly women. Given the pace of smartphone growth in the developing world, we’re hoping to get ahead of the curve by encouraging the mobile industry to design more compelling interfaces that address fundamental access issues.  The winners of this challenge were announced today.
  • The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) has ramped up since its launch in 2011.  Our work with private and public sector partners to deliver timely health messages via mobile phones to expectant and new mothers has sparked quick adoption in Bangladesh and South Africa.  Over 140,000 women have been reached, with a target of over two million mothers in Bangladesh alone by 2015.  To date, mHealth providers in 111 organizations have applied to download MAMA adaptable messages in 49 countries.

These are just a few examples of the incredible work USAID and our partners are doing to advance mobile policy, and a true testament that we remain on the cutting edge of development.  As we continue to utilize technology to maximize our impact, we invite public and private partners to join us in tackling the global issues that affect us all.