Earlier this week, the Washington DC based Grameen Foundation unveiled the Village Phone Direct Assistance Center — a new initiative to continue its ongoing efforts to combat poverty worldwide through enabling and improving access to financial services and information.
To give you some quick background: the Village Phone is an initiative pioneered by Grameen Telecom in Bangladesh, through which the Foundation works to create a link between the telecommunications sector and the microfinance sector. This in turn enables microfinance clients to borrow the money needed to purchase a “Village Phone business” — a small phone booth that uses a cell phone in other words.
The Village Phone Operators purchase a cell phone starter kit and then rent the use of their phone to the community on a per-call basis (they charge by the minute.) The initiative is particularly significant because it operates in places where no telecommunications services previously existed, spurring the development of economic growth and social relationships that were formerly seriously hindered by the lack of any local communication devices.
The Foundation explains that prices are kept affordable and the relationship aims to be heavily symbiotic, with the village phone operator earning enough to repay his loans and hopefully even make a profit, and the villagers themselves finally being able to make phone calls without taking the day off work and trekking miles out to do so.
Village Phone Direct, is a grassroots approach to the original program, through which microfinance institutions can work directly with local telecom providers to set up village phones businesses, without waiting for the Foundation to roll out a national Village Phone replication program. A Direct program is already operating in the Philippines.
The Foundation’s new Village Phone Direct Assistance Center features a how-to manual, a message board, customizable templates and other information that will help MFIs work independently with local telecommunications providers to develop Village Phone Direct programs for their clients.
When politicians spout rhetoric about how infrastructure must be developed in order for developing countries to move forward, it often conjures up mental images of huge railroads, dams and telecommunication grids — huge projects that require massive funding, which ordinary people like me usually feel overwhelmed by and dissociated from. Initiatives like Village Phone are perhaps easier for the individual to grasp, and contribute to, in a directly meaningful manner.
So the next time you leave your cell phone at home and spend your day feeling sorry for yourself because you’re so ‘cut off’ from everyone around you (and I’ve definitely been guilty of falling into this category of wallowers,) take a moment to think about people who consider themselves lucky to even see a phone once a month. Perhaps you’ll carry on with the rest of your day feeling just a little less frustrated and a little more connected.