Cell Phones Boost Pakistan's Literacy, Economy
The success of this mass literacy initiative augurs well in a country like Pakistan, where the mobile phone penetration is among the highest in the developing world, and the number of mobile subscribers has rocketed from less than 2 million to more than 94 million (58% penetration) from 2002 to 2009. It is also significant because Pakistan also has the dubious distinction of having the fourth largest number of illiterate adults in the world, after India, China and Bangladesh, according to a recently released UNESCO report. India and Pakistan also have the worst gender gaps in literacy rates, exceeding 22%.
The Daily Galaxy website has reported that a project, called Celedu, is starting its work in some rural villages in India, but hopes to expand far beyond that. Its initial offerings include cellphone-based games and quizzes that can teach basic literacy skills. For example, a child in India can play a game of Snakes and Ladders on the phone by answering multiple-choice questions about which words begin with a particular letter in the Hindi alphabet. Each correct answer allows the child's marker to advance through the game board, providing a fun and competitive approach to learning the written language.
"The biggest disease in India is illiteracy," which affects 400 million people there, says team member Rafael de Cardenas of Sloan. A PC-based version of the program, called Tele Akshar, "has already taught 54,000 women in 300 villages," he says, and the cellphone version should be able to reach far more people, according to Daily Galaxy.
In addition to education and healthcare, access to financial services has been fairly limited in Pakistan, particularly for the rural poor. The total banking sector serves around 6 million borrowers and 25 million depositors, implying a penetration rate of 3.6 percent and 15 percent respectively. In terms of access to microfinance, which means the availability of small loans, micro deposits and micro-insurance services to low income households, the current penetration rate is only 10 percent. In other words, 85 percent of Pakistan's population does not have access to any financial services at all, which inherently creates an uneven and an inequitable economic world, where the majority of people are financially marginalized. This situation drives the poor to rely on informal sources of funding like the unscrupulous moneylender, where the calculus of the relationship works to the detriment of the borrower. Well regulated banking and microfinance sectors are, therefore, absolutely necessary to give hope to the poor in breaking the vicious cycle of dependence and poverty.
Now, a number of telecom operators have now joined hands with financial institutions to extend the reach of financial services to the previously un-served masses, according to Babar Bhatti who operates "State of Telecom Industry" website. A successful example is Easypaisa, a telenor and Tameer Microfinance Bank joint offering that offers quick and easy remittance capability for the migrant workers wanting to send money to their loved ones.
The dramatic growth of cell phone usage in the developing world has created tremendous opportunities to deliver some of the basic ingredients of human development to the people, including education and health care. It has spawned a whole new field of research called "Information and Communication Technologies For Development" abbreviated as ICT4D. The UNESCO female literacy pilot helps establish some credibility for the advocates of ICT4D.
At MIT's Legatum Center, whose director Iqbal Quadir was the founder of Bangladesh's GrameenPhone, improving the delivery of health care in rural areas has been one major focus of their research efforts. Patients in a remote village, for example, now may have to spend a whole day or more traveling to the nearest clinic in order to be tested, diagnosed and receive treatment or a prescription drug for their health problems. But a new open-source software system developed by students who formed a nonprofit company called Moca could provide a faster way, according to a report in Daily Galaxy.
Using a menu of questions downloaded to a cellphone - and, if necessary, a picture taken with the phone's built in camera - a patient can transmit enough information to a doctor or nurse in a remote location to get a preliminary diagnosis, and to find out whether the condition warrants a trip to the clinic or not. "In developing countries, 80 percent of all physicians are in urban areas," while most of the people live in the countryside, according to Moca team member Richard Lu, an MIT graduate student in biomedical informatics.
A GSM Association study conducted by Deloitte and Touche in 2007 estimated that the mobile industry created 220,000 high-paying jobs in Pakistan and accounted for 5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and approximately 6% of the total taxes collected by the Central Board of Revenue. The study also found that Pakistan’s economy and society is benefiting from rising mobile phone usage and low tariffs, which lowers the cost of doing business and improves productivity, while helping families and friends to connect to each other at home and abroad.
Several studies by ICT4D researchers in Pakistan and other developing nations have concluded that the use of cell phones have helped reduce poverty and improve incomes of small vendors and service providers, such as beauticians, fishermen, taxi drivers, delivery people and small shopkeepers.
As the mobile broadband roll-out with WiMax, 3G and EVDO takes off in Pakistan, the mobile internet can become a reality, opening up vast opportunities for delivering more advanced capabilities for education, health care and business for the ordinary people. The availability of more powerful and inexpensive entry level smart phones and applications will help as well.
One example of telemedicine efforts is a Cisco project in Pakistan, where a trial combines satellite and WiMAX connectivity to mobile units to provide earlier cancer screening to rural patients.
Many critics and cynics have long dismissed the growing use of cell phones in Pakistan as just a waste of time and money. Based on the efforts of ICT4D believers, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the mobile phone in developing world could prove to be a an extremely useful tool providing a huge boost for human development, productivity and prosperity of the people at the bottom of the pyramid.
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