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USAID Wins Award for Best Government Mobile Development Policy
February 28, 2013

Opportunities open for women who have access to mobile phones

By Kathryn McConnell
IIP Staff Writer
February 27, 2013


The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) February 26 received the Best Government Policy for Mobile Development Award at the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. USAID is the first bilateral donor agency to establish a mobile solutions team.

“This award not only recognizes the critical global leadership role USAID is playing in this arena, it emphasizes the important role mobile phones play in international development,” said USAID Chief Innovation Officer Maura O’Neill. “We see it as a symbol to push new boundaries and dedicate ourselves to scale some of our current initiatives.”

GSMA is an international association of mobile telephone system operators and related companies that was formed in 1995 from the Groupe Speciale Mobile, which came together in 1982 to design a pan-European mobile technology.

Also at the Mobile World Congress, USAID, GSMA and partners Qtel Group and AusAID announced winners of a design challenge to make it easier for women in emerging economies to use smartphones.

GSMA, which hosted the congress, represents nearly 800 mobile operators in more than 200 countries. The Qtel Group of companies is the largest telecommunications provider in the Middle East, and AusAID is the Australian government’s development aid agency.

One mobile initiative O’Neill described is the “Better Than Cash Alliance” that USAID has with several countries and private companies. The alliance, launched in September 2012, accelerates the move toward electronic payments, particularly by mobile phones, to enhance efficiency, accountability and transparency, she said.

In another initiative, USAID has expanded private and public sector partnerships through the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action to deliver timely health messages via mobile phones to expectant and new mothers.

O’Neill explained that USAID strengthened its partnership with GSMA mWomen to close the mobile phone gender gap in low- and middle-income countries.

The mWomen Challenge aimed to simplify smartphone user screens and help overcome technical and literacy barriers that some women face, USAID said. Three teams of designers won a total of $40,000 for their entries.

The first-place winning team from the United States designed “Sahel Shake,” which provides women with more airtime, battery management widgets, and inexpensive phone-sharing and emergency SMS features.Second place went to a Canadian team that designed “mpower,” which has a darker screen to prolong battery life and an easy-to-use interface.

Third prize, reserved for entrants from developing countries, went to the Kenyan designers of “Simplified Grayscale Power Efficient Interface,” which employs visual icons for users with low literacy.

“We launched the design challenge to create the best ideas from developers around the world for reimagining how women engage with mobile technologies,” O’Neill said. “We are eager to see their designs catalyze the industry … and kindle a new movement to address to mobile needs of women everywhere,” she added.

The speed of mobile phone adoption is unprecedented, according to USAID, with 6 billion phone subscribers worldwide.

In emerging markets, phones with basic voice and text capabilities are the standard, USAID said. But smartphones are expected to have a stronger presence in these markets over the next few years, giving users access to banking, market information and other services and their benefits.

“We live in a world where you don’t need to build a bank to serve families with savings and loans services — you can simply use a phone,” according to USAID’s mobile money team.

Yet there is a gender gap in low- and middle-income countries, where 21 percent fewer women than men have access to this potentially life-enhancing toll,” USAID states.

Mobile phones are “the game changer in development,” O’Neill said.” We are very excited about this award and the momentum it provides USAID and others who care deeply about giving every person in the world an opportunity to create a free and prosperous life.”