As mobile technology continues to spread throughout the world, the mobile phone is going to be the predominant platform for internet access, especially in developing nations where computers may be too expensive for most consumers. Mobile Web Ghana is supporting entrepreneurs in building out a variety of useful mobile-based applications to make the internet more useful for its African users, as this GOOD Technology post conveys:
Step aside, Silicon Valley and Bangalore. A group of aspiring web entrepreneurs in Ghana are looking to turn Accra into the newest startup hub. The nonprofit World Wide Web Foundation is working with local developers through a training program called Mobile Web Ghana to give participants the business and technology skills they need to leverage ideas into successful mobile web companies.
The program kicks off its second training session today, and graduates from the first session in February have already produced 10 different mobile products. The new ventures range from the socially conscious—like Mobi-Reportabuse, a reporting service for domestic violence victims—to the commercial, including sites for selling event tickets and sharing song files with friends over the phone.
“For most people in Africa, the only possibility of accessing the Web is through their mobile phone,” World Wide Web Foundation CEO Steve Bratt says. “So a web entrepreneur must learn to design services that will work on even the simplest mobile devices.” While the entrepreneurs created their first round of apps in English, Bratt says he hopes to see future services created in local languages.
While mobile phones have become ubiquitous in Ghana and other African countries, very few programs and apps cater to local communities, and securing seed money is difficult. The Web Foundation, whose mission is to “promote the Web as an agent of human empowerment,” is spending a million dollars over three years to lay the groundwork in Ghana and expanding to Nairobi, where they recently launched a sister program, mLab East Africa, to work with Kenyan entrepreneurs.
“Working with entrepreneurs in Africa is simply fantastic,” Bratt says. “I believe that in this region of enthusiastic young people, scare resources and dire needs, the creativity of entrepreneurs like those emerging from our program will produce applications of both local and global importance.”
At the final intensive of the quarter, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a panel for incoming students. Both Gifford Pinchot, BGI President, and Scott Schroeder, Dean of Academic Affairs were present. One of the incoming students asked a brilliant question, one that was actually extremely relevant and timely. She basically asked how the ensured the integration of Social justice into its course work.
Scott answered this question, citing the example that had just taken place, where the faculty and staff of the school had just recently decided to change the entire first-year foundations sequence, so rather than breaking it up into Foundations of Sustainable Business (mainly focused on environmental issues), Social Justice and then Systems Thinking in separate quarters, that you instead take them concurrently, so the three elements are all present in three consecutive courses. You get the same amount of time with each of the three subjects, but rather than segmenting them into separate time frames, you get to experience them all together, weaving the connections between them as you go.
Gifford’s answer to this question actually ended up putting all of my BGI education thus far (two quarters). While I can quote him exactly, Gifford had a way of clearly explaining this in a few pointed sentences. He basically stated that as you learn more about the environmental issues, you discover that they are all actually social justice issues. For example, if the environmental issue is pollution, it isn’t just affecting the environment, but also the communities of people that live within and depend on that environment.
I really like this perspective, because it allows us to view things in a more holistic sense. My initial introduction to environmental issues was through my education in Interior Design, as it related to the relatively new phenomenon of “green building.” However, BGI is allowing me to view the world from more of a Social Justice Lens. I no longer think about things in terms of their environmental impact alone, but now consider social justice impacts as well.
One of the more recent ways that I have personally changed in this regard has been my changed perspective on charitable giving. I used to give money to environmentally focused charities because I thought that they were having a positive impact. However, one of the things that this quarter in Social Justice has taught me is that the amount of money I give to environmental causes is nothing in comparison to the demands that industrialized nations put onto to third-world countries that encourage them to continue degrading their local environment in order to make money to pay off international loans. Rather than put my dollars towards organizations doing environmental reconstruction work, I now am providing funds to third world countries in, what I believe to be, a much more effective way.
I have been taking part in micro lending through Vittana.org, a local, Seattle-based, micro-lending organization that provides student loans so that students who may not be able to afford an education otherwise can do so. I personally view education as one of the largest social justice issues that we must overcome in the next few decades. By providing others the opportunity to get a quality college education, we as a global society become smarter and will be able overcome more and more of the challenges that we face in the future. By keeping poorer nations in poverty, the industrialized nations may be ensuring their place as global leaders, but they do so at the extremely high cost of the loss of more global innovation and technological advances.
Looking back on the courses and reading this quarter, I have myself becoming much more interested in social justice issues abroad. Which I’m sure is, no doubt, the intention of the course! While there are plenty of social justice issues to be thinking about here in our local communities, we in the United States are much better off in a general sense, and have higher awareness, capacity and funding to address these issues (whether or not we actually do is another issue altogether).
One of the things that has been floating around my head the most, is the fact that “we” (industrialized, wealthy nations) are responsible, not necessarily for instigating the social justice issues abroad, but definitely for perpetuating them. I touched on this in my recent film reflection on the movie Life and Debt, which framed the situation as a modern type of serfdom.
“The worst part about this is that most citizens of developed countries don’t even know that their nation is taking advantage of those less fortunate. We continue to donate to non-profit organizations that are doing good work in poorer nations so that we feel we are doing something positive, yet wonder why it is never enough. That all the aid and money we send doesn’t end up having any lasting effect. The reason is that developed nations continue to collect unimaginable amounts of money in the form of loans and interest that basically negate any amount of money that we could ever hope to spend in aid or charity work.”
Part of me looks at this issue with a sense of hopelessness… that regardless of the work that both non-profit humanitarian organizations, as well as for-profit social enterprises, do to facilitate a more socially just future, that we will never be able to help poorer nations pay off the unbelievable amounts of debt they are in. The only way that these nations will ever truly be able to focus on improving their own infrastructure, social programs, and general well-being of their citizens will be through eradication of national debt.
While I’m not too familiar with accounting and financing, especially on a national or global scale, it seems extremely strange to me that nearly every country in the world has national debt. To whom is all this money owed? It seems to me that a start to fixing this world-wide epidemic of indebted serfdom to other nations or corporations would be to start forgiving it. If every nation (at least of the majority that have national debt) agreed to forgive an equal amount of debt, spread amongst all of its debtors, would the world be a better off place?
To try to explain this to you in the way that I am thinking about it, I’m going to bring the scale down a bit… ok, maybe more than a bit… let’s say there are 5 people in a room. And each person in the room owes a total of $500 to the other people in varrying amounts. Now, rather than figure out who owes who what, wait for them to pay, and hopefully get some interest back, wouldn’t it be easier if they each just forgave, say, $400 of their own individual debt? It basically leaves everyone in the room in the same place they were. They are no longer going to collect money from their debtors, and forgo any interest they may have made on that loan, but now they don’t have the stress that may have been caused by constantly worrying about having to pay back their other lenders in the room.
While this type of plan makes a great deal of sense to me, I imagine it is much more complicated at a global scale, especially when you realize that corporations are involved as well. This might translate into a situation where there are additional people in the room to whom money may be owed, but may not owe anyone else money. They are obviously unlikely to forgive anyone of their debts, because they have nothing to gain in the process. And perhaps the reason that nearly every government is in debt is because corporations continue to take money from them. This brings us back to my first film reflection of this quarter, which was in response to the film The Corporation.
“I knew that corporations were mostly driven by the desire for constantly increasing profits, but couldn’t believe it went as far as the film said! I had no idea that they were legally bound to do so. It is no wonder why our planet and its people are suffering so that a select few corporate executives can pull in big profits.”
So then, with such a bleak outlook, what is one to do? Perhaps my model above isn’t a practical solution, but maybe there are models at other scales that could be employed. For example, microlending has been employed in helping individuals access opportunities they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. While I don’t know that there is any hard evidence that it is entirely successful (there are a number of cases that obviously haven’t been) I think it is still in its infancy and has a fast growing fan base. Perhaps this is a financing model that could be employed on a larger scale. Local governments (perhaps of cities and towns) could put social improvement projects up for microfinancing at a global level. This type of system would generally have a lower interest rate than lending through the IMF and other large profit driven organizations. If the program became successful enough, as the world economy started to improve, small villages, towns, and municipalities throughout the world could end up borrowing their debt from thousands of individuals who support their ultimate empowerment and who are willing to offer reasonable terms on their loans.
A microfinancing project of this scale would take a tremendous amount of effort to get started (especially given the current state of the economy) but I could see it having a great impact for hundreds of thousands of communities around the world… who knows, maybe even some day entire countries!
Life + Debt was a great film; especially when followed by a lecture from Fran Korten on the trouble of lending through the International Monetary Fund.
As with the other videos in the Social Justice course, I learned something new that I was completely unaware of… another way that developed nations like the U.S. take advantage of poorer nations through the International Monetary Fund and other international organizations.
I didn’t realize what a negative toll globalization has had on poorer nations. When richer nations subsidize and sell goods on a massive scale to other nations, especially products like food, they deteriorate the local markets by selling goods at lower prices. I had no idea that the United States was flooding the Jamaican market with produce, meat, milk powder and various other items at prices less than what they even cost to produce.
As one farmer in the film put it:
“When it’s ready for harvesting, you see imported potato, right in front of your home, being sold… It’s an insult to our dignity… not being able to produce and sell in your own market at home.”
The film explained the link between lower cost imports, and the requirements put on the Jamaican government by the IMF to open up to this type of international trade. It is really unfortunate that the IMF provides loans not to help countries build and improve their infrastructure, but only to keep them indebted. Debt is a powerful mechanism that keeps not just individuals, but entire nations in a cycle of perpetual serfdom. In order to pay off their debt, they must continue to borrow. However, in order to continue to borrow, they must be open to outside trade which continues to deteriorate their economy, as local businesses shut down, unable to compete with lower cost foreign goods.
Not surprisingly, the United States came up with another “improvement plan” for Jamaica, promised to provide hundreds of individuals with employment opportunities — as they were, of course, no longer able to work in fields, dairies, farms, or other agricultural positions.
This idea, instituted in the 1980′s was known as the “Free Zone” It was described in the film as follows:
“The Free Zone operates in a theoretical thing that is not even part of Jamaica. It is a separate entity so the goods come in in a container and go through guarded gates. After it leaves the Free Zone, it goes back onto the ship, never, in effect, having touched the shores of Jamaica. So those factories are not liable to local controls. They’re not liable to things like income tax or certain duties, taxes, anything like that. The Free Zone is to give the opportunity for people to operate without the controls or the laws or the systems that normally govern a country’s operation.”
This zone was created, in essence, as a place to take advantage of cheap labor on a large scale. With few other options, many Jamaicans went to work in these factories creating goods to be shipped back to the United States and Europe. However, as time went on, the factories began to exploit the worker’s rights, requiring more work in less time. Without any local oversight to protect the workers, they were at the mercy of the company in order to secure their paycheck… yet another example of modern-day serfdom. If the employees had anywhere else to go, they would. But with a declining economy, fewer jobs and less money, they had little choice.
And, because the “Free Zones” were provided to Jamaica as a “service,” they incurred a large amount of debt to provide these jobs to their citizens. All the while, the corporations and countries that were operating in the Free Zone basically operated for free. The low wages that they paid to the workers was far less than the amount of money that the Jamaican government is paying back at high interest rates.
However, as globalization continued and labor began a commodity to be sold at the lowest price, factories began closing down as cheaper labor was found in Mexica and Asia. Now being shut out of the factories, many Jamaicans have nowhere to go for work. Foreign companies continue to sell products cheaper than they can make locally, and now pull out of places like the Free Zones leaving them with little to no employment opportunities.
Michael Manly, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica states the problem quite clearly in how it relates to the country’s debt and its relationship to the IMF:
“Private capital is not going to come in and help you with your infrastructure. To help you develop an adequate education system. To help you develop a good health system. Private capital is not going to come and take a chance in developing your agriculture so that you can really do a lot of the feeding of yourself. It is understandably only interested in how it can make a quick buck.”
Poor nations have no choice but to borrow from the IMF, because private lenders are only interested in making profits. Unfortunately, this borrowing only leads to further globalization, more imports of foreign goods, and further degradation of what little economy they have.
“Look at every IMF country today and tell me which has a really good hospital service, which has a good education system, which has anything… All of them are trapped in that old colonial crisis of finance.”
The worst part about this is that most citizens of developed countries don’t even know that their nation is taking advantage of those less fortunate. We continue to donate to non-profit organizations that are doing good work in poorer nations so that we feel we are doing something positive, yet wonder why it is never enough. That all the aid and money we send doesn’t end up having any lasting effect. The reason is that developed nations continue to collect unimaginable amounts of money in the form of loans and interest that basically negate any amount of money that we could ever hope to spend in aid or charity work.
We must come up with a better solution that gets to the root of the problem. Rather than continue to perpetuate a cycle of national serfdom, we must eliminate high interest rates on international borrowing and support programs that allow poorer nations to build their education systems and improve their own economies by allowing them the ability to provide their own goods and services without being undersold by subsidizes imports.
This film was a great example of how the power of community thinking can lead to a number of solutions when a country is in crisis.
Starting off with a history of what Peak Oil is, there was an interesting graph showing the three highest uses of oil, in barrels per person in the U.S., per year. It turns out that food (through production and distribution) actually requires more oil at ten barrels per person, than do cars at nine barrels and houses at seven barrels. This was followed up by a statement that was a little surprising to me. The film stated that we (the world) are consuming five barrels of oil for every one that is discovered. While I knew that we were using more than we were finding, I didn’t realize that the difference was this high. It makes me more concerned about our ability to implement other energy solutions fast enough.
The film focused a lot on how things were actually accomplished, for example their farming techniques and how the government divided up land to farmers. One of the things that was lacking, in my opinion, was more of a focus on how the community was involved, especially given the title off the film. I felt that the film expressed that local communities were important, and that they helped support the movement to agriculture, but didn’t really get beyond just stating that fact. There was no analysis into how exactly the community got involved, no real examples of specific communities and how they handled “The Special Period,” and no analysis of how an integrated community made the outcome any different than it might have been otherwise. It seems like the message of the film was less about community, and more about the process of changing the way people think; how the government made smart choices and gave people the freedom and land they needed to develop their own food sources.
There were, however, some great mentions of the process of societal change, and how it came about. One of the biggest examples of this was that they realized that not everyone knew how to farm. They took knowledgeable, experienced farmers and led local workshops with everyone in the community to provide the skills needed for a mass of people to be able to successfully run their own miniature farms and gardens. This level of community interaction of free education and sharing of trades was an integral piece of their success in my mind. They taught the rule that “you hire nature to work for you; you don’t work against nature.”
“It was necessary, and result of a change of mind, a change of scale. And it was a big effort. But how much money they saved… you have to realize, they did it because they had to, but from a few years point of view, there were so many benefits.”
My favorite quote of the whole film, comes very near to the end. Roberto Perez, of the Foundation for Nature and Humanity states:
There are infinite small solutions… you fix one little problem here, one little problem there, and life gets better. You think globally, you act locally. This is very important.”
I would recommend this film, as a short documentary that can show the outcome when a society chooses to change. However, I think what is missing is a deeper look into how communities were such an integral part of this change. It does provide a sense of hope that change is possible, but given that a majority of the change was made possible by the government allowing people to use land free of charge, and free of taxes, I am doubtful that such a solution would ever be possible in an industrialized nation such as our own, where corporations and other other entities would never let such an opportunity to make money pass by for free, even when faced with no other options.