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Forging ahead on the digital frontier

Philippines, March 3, 2011

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In late February I attended the Mobile World Congress, the mobile telecommunication industry’s annual conference — a mass of more than 60,000 people from all over the world, descending upon one small corner of Barcelona to talk all things mobile. I was there not only to soak up the technological innovation, but to introduce Mercy Corps’ work to this constituency of key mobile technologists.

Even amidst the newest Android system and cutting-edge gadgets, I was most struck by how Mercy Corps was one of very few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in attendance. As a critical player in mobile initiatives that bring financial and information services to poor and underserved communities globally, we saw our attendance as a commitment to advance the scale, scope, and sophistication of our work. This further foray into the digital frontier is an addition to a series of “firsts” that are shaping how mobile technology can make emergency aid and financial services more effective for the poor.

In the Philippines, we’ve formed a strategic partnership with the first purely mobile savings and thrift bank in the world. BPI Global BanKO, a joint venture between Bank of the Philippine Islands, the oldest bank in the Philippines; Globe, a leading telecommunications company; and the Ayala Corporation, provides savings, loans and other affordable financial services products to the “last frontier” of the unbanked population in the Philippines. BanKO is the first bank to provide these essential financial services using mobile technology as the central delivery mechanism (in place of a traditional model centered on brick-and-mortar bank branches). This allows BanKO to offer financial services in a way that is affordable, secure and convenient for poor people.

In Haiti, Mercy Corps managed the first large-scale mobile commerce disbursements in that country’s history. Mercy Corps is working with telecom agency Voilà and Unibank to deliver Mercy Corps cash-for-work and economic recovery payments using mobile technology. As part of a program in St. Marc, Mercy Corps allowed program participants to purchase rice, beans, corn flour or cooking oil using an “electronic wallet” stored on the mobile phone. This cashless process, in lieu of a traditional voucher program, allowed for a safer, more convenient, integrated, and tailored exchange — and was successfully carried out with more than 2,000 people in a few short months.

We view these types of innovations as reflective of the work we will continue to do — using appropriate technology to positively impact our programming and the lives of those in the communities where we work. At technology Congresses, after emergencies, and across our global platform, we will continue to forge ahead, explore integration of new technologies and produce many more “firsts” that have the ability to produce positive social change.