Empowerment: It's the users, stupid!

Empowerment (em-pou-er-ment)The process of transferring decision-making power from influential sectors to poor communities and individuals who have traditionally been excluded

It's been an interesting last few days. I've just finished giving talks at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and the ICT4D Group at Royal Holloway. Both may be 'London-based' universities, but they were both totally different audiences. The SOAS crowd were more academically-focussed, whereas the ICT4D audience were more rooted in the practical application of mobile technology, not solely the theory underlying it. I think you can probably guess where I felt most at home.

Saying that, one of the more interesting questions came from someone at SOAS, where I was asked how I defined empowerment in the context of my work, who it was exactly it was being empowered, and who was claiming it. It was an interesting discussion, and something I've touched on in the past (see "Whose revolution is it anyway?" from the May 2008 archive). The talk reminded me of my seminar days at Sussex University, where Development Studies students were rewarded for (often severe) critical analysis of thirty-five years of international development failure. Not only were the students wary that they might be hearing about something that may actually be working, a couple of staff members joined in for good measure. There's nothing like being challenged, that's for sure.

To remove any doubt about who it is being empowered, and who's claiming the empowerment, I generally put my end-user hat on. Speaking from their perspective makes it generally much harder to argue. I've had enough contact with a growing number of FrontlineSMS users over the past three years to know what it means to them. If FrontlineSMS had helped just one of these NGOs I'd have been happy. The truth is that it's helping many, many more.

If the SOAS crowd were expecting a technical or theoretical answer to their question, they were about to be disappointed. I've always tried to remain user-focussed, and all of my FrontlineSMS blog posts are based on feedback to explain and demonstrate impact. During conference presentations I only briefly introduce the FrontlineSMS 'platform' (essentially a laptop, a phone, a cable and a pile of code). What most people are interested in hearing is the meaningful, practical, tangible kind-of stuff that happens when people start figuring out the kinds of things they can do with it. This is where the rubber meets the road, and this is what formed the basis of my answer.

To me, the empowered includes NGO fieldworkers in Afghanistan who receive daily security messages and alerts. During a recent Taliban attack FrontlineSMS was...

... essential for us getting the word out quickly. E-mail was down, voice was spotty but SMS still worked. We also had female staff at a school near the incident and were able to tell them to stay put till things quietened down. All my staff made it home safe today

It also includes patients and staff at St. Gabriel's Hospital in Malawi where, in the words of the staff at St. Gabriel's Hospital, FrontlineSMS has "adopted the new role of coordinating a far-reaching community health network serving 250,000 Malawians". And in Aceh, two FrontlineSMS-driven projects - one run by the UNDP - is successfully helping increase income-generating opportunities for smallholder coffee farmers and their families. Many more agriculture-based projects are on the way.

In Iraq, Aswat al-Iraq news agency have implemented FrontlineSMS as an information dissemination tool within a number of locally based news organisations who were struggling to come to terms with local mobile operators. According to the agency:

The effectiveness of FrontlineSMS is evident as we can create, manage and update the profiles of the clients' groups we created. We now send messages to at least eight countries using different operators in Europe and the Middle East, with the messages delivered to all the numbers at the same time. We are keen to continue using FrontlineSMS as we predict that the demand for our services, via the software, will grow in the future

And in Azerbaijan, another local NGO - Digital Development - are using FrontlineSMS to reach out to voters in the forthcoming Presidential elections (the software is being used to encourage youth participation in the electoral process. Not every country has a Barack Obama). According to Digital Development, "FrontlineSMS has been a game-changer for the 'Civil Society Coalition of Azerbaijani' NGOs and the 'Society of Democratic Reforms in Azerbaijan'. The ability to properly manage our text messaging campaigns has added 100% value to the effectiveness of our work". Earlier this year Digital Development pledged to sign up 80,000 voters via SMS to swing 2008 presidential elections through innovative get-out-the-vote activities, including their "Count to 5!" campaign (pictured).

Many of these users, of course - NGOs, and the communities they're reaching out to - don't care what underlying technology delivers a message, or the theory underpinning the application of mobile technology in a developing country context. As long as they get a message and as long as it's useful, timely, relevant and actionable, that's all that counts.

And, using FrontlineSMS, that's just the kind of message increasing numbers of NGOs find themselves being able to deliver.