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Archive for April, 2011

In my last 2 posts, I wrote about reality (how rural youth in Africa are currently harnessing ICTs to generate income), and possibilitysome new technology uses and concepts that I learned about at the “Can youth find economic empowerment via apps, m-payments and social media?” Tech Salon, hosted by ICT Works and the UN Foundation Technology Partnership.

This third and last post of the series explores some of the broader aspects that need to be in place or considered when looking at youth economic empowerment and the role of ICTs.

During our Tech Salon conversations, someone reminded the room that a large population of well-educated youth with no prospective jobs (think Tunisia or Egypt) is one thing. A large population of (rural) youth with low education levels is another.

Francis Fukuyama kind of sums this up based on Samuel Huntington’s ‘Political Order in Changing Societies,’ written some 40 years ago: ‘increasing levels of economic and social development often led to coups, revolutions and military takeovers rather than a smooth transition to modern liberal democracy. The reason, he pointed out, was the gap that appeared between the hopes and expectations of newly mobilized, educated and economically empowered people on the one hand, and the existing political system, which did not offer them an institutionalized mechanism for political participation, on the other. He might have added that such poorly institutionalized regimes are also often subject to crony capitalism, which fails to provide jobs and incomes to the newly educated middle class. Attacks against the existing political order, he noted, are seldom driven by the poorest of the poor; they instead tend to be led by rising middle classes who are frustrated by the lack of political and economic opportunity….’

So if the behaviors of these two basic groups (for simplicity’s sake let’s assume there are only 2 basic groups) are quite different, also the approaches to supporting the two groups are quite different, and their views of and reactions to economic crises also tend to be quite different. The first group (the newly educated middle class) is in a better position to access ICT-fueled economic opportunities, whereas the second group likely needs to strengthen its knowledge of things like savings, basic skills, and assets. Context, as always, is critical, and there will not be one single recipe that addresses the economic and development needs of the ‘youth bulge’.

Youth bulge. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some would say that economic opportunities created for the newly educated middle class will mean eventual trickle down opportunity to the rural poor — in which scenario app development, Facebook, microtasking and such might be seen as key enablers for economic empowerment for certain youth. But how can we more immediately support those who are not part of this newly educated middle class. And what about the countries that don’t have a large population of well-educated middle class tech-savvy youth? What are some key things for supporting economically disadvantaged rural youth?

Financial Literacy

Financial literacy for both children and adolescents is one key element. Financial literacy helps drive reasoning, conceptual skills, and leads to better engagement later with formal and informal sectors.  At an early age, say around 8 years, financial literacy should include basic skills like counting, math, logical reasoning, value. Later on, financial literacy needs to move into understanding loans, down payments, interest rates, credit. In terms of ICTs, yes, mobiles could offer tools for youth to save and to build assets, but youth need to know the importance of building assets in the first place. Aflatoun is one example of programs that focus on financial literacy and the importance of saving. The educational children’s program Sesame Street also does its part. As background, this very interesting mPesa report says that around 21% of mPesa customers use the service for saving/storing money.

Life skills

A colleague at the Tech Salon noted that financial literacy and financial education need to be wrapped up into youth life skills education, also covering aspects like reproductive health, hygiene, emotional health. Youth need financial literacy but they also need basic literacy and increasingly media literacy. They need to know more about career development and to get help making good career choices; help understanding: What is real? What are their realistic expectations for a career? What does the current labor market look like? What do they need to do to prepare for a particular career or job? What are their real options? ICTs could be educational tools here, and not necessarily new ICTs. Television or radio can be just as, or more, effective.

Local Context

It’s also critical that program designers and implementers who want to improve the economic outlook for youth ensure that their program designs and interventions fit with the reality on the ground. Eg, what are the language, literacy, connectivity and gender considerations? What tools are readily accessible to the population they are working with? Who is left out? What tools and information channels do people trust? (Radio is still probably the most widespread ICT for educational purposes in rural areas). We need front-end research, participatory user input, and contextual analysis. We need to talk to actual rural youth where we are planning programs, and incorporate their thoughts, aspirations, realities and suggestions into program design.  We need to consider long-term sustainability and local partnerships. We need to think about how the different approaches support the building up of sustainable local economies. All this hard work up front is the most important in program design. And, as several people noted, often agencies only have 30 days or so to design a good proposal for funding.

Opportunities

Preparing up individual youth is still only one side of the coin, as another colleague added. At the end of the day youth need jobs to go into. So yes, there need to be programs that help youth develop (skills, assets, access) but there also needs to be economic development at a broader scale that allows youth to either become entrepreneurs or to work for others, formally or informally. What are the broader job markets or the financial systems and services that youth can access?

There is also the question of whether youth want to be self-employed. A Tech Salon participant commented that informal employment and entrepreneurship are not always the most desirable future for youth. Many youth would prefer a steady job with benefits and security — this is still the measure for success and prestige in many countries. The issue however, as another participant pointed out, is that there are simply not enough steady jobs for youth, so they are forced to be entrepreneurs.

Forbes refers to this with reference to Haiti: ‘In countries with high structural unemployment, entrepreneurship has less of an impact on growth than development economists previously thought. In Haiti, where 75% of the population is unemployed, people turn to entrepreneurship as a last resort. In Port-au-Prince and throughout the country, the term “entrepreneur” has a different meaning than it does in the developed world. Entrepreneurship is borne out of necessity, not the desire to act on business opportunities.

In the absence of a formal economy, Haitians become “necessity” entrepreneurs and must take to the streets and markets to earn their living. The road outside of Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture airport is lined with salesmen pushing a variety of products, from loaves of bread to toiletries. Children sell sugar cane, produce, and potable water while women walk from market to market selling products along the way. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a non-profit research organization, economic growth is not driven by these “necessity” entrepreneurs, who decrease in number as the economy develops. The key to fostering growth is to support “opportunity” entrepreneurs, who choose to start new enterprises in response to market needs.

Barriers

Urban and rural conditions and access to technology and employment in the two contexts are drastically different; this needs to be remembered in the ICT and youth economic empowerment discussion. It often gets overlooked amidst all the tech hype and tech incubator excitement. The difference between the fast-paced urban tech scene and a more remote rural community is vast. And not all countries possess a fast-paced urban tech scene. In addition, it can’t be assumed that just because a developer is from Nairobi, he or she knows the context well enough to develop applications or create opportunities that are fitting for youth in, say, Kilifi. Co-design and participant input are still critical. Urban developers could better understand rural contexts by spending time there.

Girls’ access to opportunities. We know that girls have less access to technology and typically less access to education. How can we support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education) and other opportunities for girls? How can we convince parents to allow girls to participate in programs and access technologies and other opportunities? How do we find more women role models for girls, both in technology and in work and other areas that take girls outside of the home and allow them access to income, which will also allow them to have more power? How do we create safe spaces for women and girls to access technologies? Often they do not feel safe in Internet cafés or are not permitted to frequent them. In addition, less girls and women own their own mobile phones than men. How can we work to help overcome all the barriers that girls face?

Access to information about existing opportunities. In some countries, Kenya for example, there are government-supported initiatives for youth employment and entrepreneurship, but many youth don’t know about them or how to access them. ICTs can play a role in connecting youth to information about opportunities for jobs, financial services and further education. Different media (radio, television, print, SMS and other) can be used for public education and financial literacy. In addition, media can help inform the population of what governments have promised by way of programs and opportunities for youth employment, and in this way support governance and accountability around youth employment.

4 basic ways…

By the end of our hour-long conversation at the Tech Salon, we mostly agreed that there are 4 basic ways to think about the intersection of youth, technology and economic empowerment:

  1. Technology as a job unto itself
  2. Technology to facilitate asset building
  3. Technology for learning and skill building
  4. Technology to access info about employment opportunities
We agreed that if they are to support youth economic empowerment, ICTs need to be contextualized and they need to be one part of a broader, holistic, and sustainable system. And I think that about sums it up. In case you missed them, check post 1 on ways that rural youth are currently generating income through ICTs and post 2 on some of the newer ways that ICTs could enable economic empowerment. If this topic is of interest, check out the Making Cents conference this September.
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Last week’s Tech Salon, hosted by ICT Works and the UN Foundation Technology Partnership, asked “Can youth find economic empowerment via apps, m-payments and social media?” I did a bit of reality checking and wrote in my last post about some of the ways that youth in African countries are harnessing ICTs to generate income. And it’s not really through apps, Facebook and mPayments.

So if developing apps isn’t the key to unlocking youth’s economic potential, is there another way that ICTs can support youth economic empowerment? At the Tech Salon we discussed a few other options.

Microtasking

Samasource’s work with “microtasking’ looks pretty interesting. TxtEagle, another microtasking initiative, just raised 8.5 million in start-up funding.

Txteagle is a commercial corporation that enables people to earn small amounts of money on their mobile phones by completing simple tasks for our corporate clients.

The types of tasks Txteagle’s African workers have done are:

  • enter details of local road signs for creating satellite navigation systems
  • translate mobile-phone menu functions into the 62 African dialects (for Nokia)
  • collect address data for business directories
  • fill out surveys for international agencies

Txteagle seems similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, except that workers only need a simple mobile phone – no computer or Internet access is needed.’

I hadn’t been paying attention to the microtasking phenomenon, so I did a little digging after the Tech Salon. Microsoft Research did an interesting study called Evaluating and Improving the Usability of Mechanical Turk for Low-Income Workers in India. They found some issues with the interface and make up of Mechanical Turk that made it difficult for low-income workers to benefit and provided some suggestions to improve micro tasking and make it accessible for low-income workers or those with lower education levels. When they improved the interface and instructions (in local language), test subjects’ ability to complete a task rose dramatically. “The most striking result of our study is that there exist tasks on MTurk for which the primary barrier to low-income workers is not the cognitive load of the work itself;  rather, workers are unable to understand and navigate the tasks due to shortcomings in the user interface, the task instructions, and the language utilized.”

I’m sure we’ll be hearing lots more about microtasking (and I’m probably really late to the party here). It seems more reasonable that rural youth could access microtasking work than that they would develop their own apps.

De-skilling

Others at the Technology Salon talked about de-skilling and the job potential that can open up for youth when technology or better access to information allows them to take on roles formerly reserved for more skilled professionals. It seems this is going on quite a bit in the health sector, for example. The de-skilling phenomenon has been around for awhile but I hadn’t seen it as a way for youth in rural areas to access jobs and income, so I thought this was quite interesting.

I’m not sure how much de-skilling is being seriously looked at as a way to connect youth to jobs, or how many youth it’s employing in the rural areas, but it is something I’ll be keeping an eye on and learning more about. I’m thinking that many of us have been looking at de-skilling as a way to engage community volunteers in improving other aspects of community development, eg., allowing community health workers to do their volunteer work more efficiently; but not so much as an income generator for youth.

Job matching and mobile marketplaces

My Finnish colleagues sent me some other examples of mobile (SMS) initiatives that could support economic empowerment and that are good for pushing thinking on how rural youth could tap into opportunities. I think the key is that for now, anything aimed at rural populations needs to be SMS based, as mobile internet is still very uncommon in most rural areas. There’s no harm in planning for the day when most people have Internet-enabled phones, but for now, we’ll probably want to work with what people have, not what we wish they had….

  • Google SMS Applications allow you to use some Google services via SMS text message.
  • Esoko consists of mobile updates for farmers and traders delivered by SMS that include market prices and buy/sell offers, bulk SMS functionality, websites for small businesses and associations, and SMS polling technology. Their blog (which I spent some time on today) is great for sharing how they are going about getting Esoko to function well. Again it’s clear that the technology is the tip of the iceberg….
  • Tradenet is a fully mobile integrated buy and sell portal in Sri Lanka. It has agricultural prices as well.
  • Babajob is a job matching service from India that is fully mobile integrated.
  • Cellbazaar is an SMS marketplace in Bangladesh.
  • Tagattitude is a service that allows international mobile money transfers and purchases; eg., remittances.
  • Souktel’s JobMatch uses SMS to connect employers with youth looking for jobs.

What else?

In addition to micro tasking and mobile applications, there are some more formal technology education programs such as the CISCO Networking Academies, not to mention plenty of locally created computer and technology academies and schools that formally train youth on ICTs with the aim of generating employment. I wonder though how many of the local training academies are focused on more traditional aspects of technology (eg., if you walk into one of these, do you see a room of oldish desktop computers?) and how many are also combining computer education with mobile, and advancing their education and training curricula as technology advances? Colleagues in Egypt told me that some initiatives exist that train up young people to repair cell phones. I’m wondering if this is widespread in other places as well. In any case, formal training opportunities are still difficult for youth in rural areas, and especially girls, to access.

In Kenya the government is promoting community digital centers through an initiative called the Pasha Centers. These centers are linked to youth structures in the constituency areas. Colleagues of mine reported that youth are accessing loans from the government youth fund and starting cyber kiosks, and mPesa centers that are promoting mobile banking.

On top of the government or NGO programs, the mobile phone industry itself opens a job market for young men and women who know how to set up phones, register SIM cards, etc., and there is a whole side industry, obviously, around mobile phones. But again, the more formal opportunities are in the capital or in secondary cities which can still be quite distant from where rural youth live.

Though use of apps, mPayments and Facebook may not be so widespread at the moment in the places I’ve traveled and where my colleagues are working, as outlined in post 1 of this series, and it’s not at all common for rural youth to develop applications themselves, there do seem to be some other possibilities for ‘youth economic empowerment’ that have a mobile or ICT component. I’m sure there are things I’ve missed out as well, that could be quite inspiring.

The question is how to connect these new opportunities with the young people who are typically excluded: youth in rural areas, especially girls. How to scale up the opportunities while ensuring that they are adapted to local contexts, which can vary significantly. Do youth in rural communities have the education levels and skills to access microtasking and to take advantage of ‘de-skilling’ opportunities on a broad scale? Do they know how and where to access microtasking jobs. How are the connections being made with these opportunities? Who has access to these kinds of jobs? How can rural youth find out about these opportunities?

In my next post, I’ll cover some of the other considerations for youth economic empowerment that we discussed at the Tech Salon.

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Last week’s Tech Salon, hosted by ICT Works and the UN Foundation Technology Partnership, was on the topic ‘Can youth find economic empowerment via apps, m-payments and social media?’ Fiona Macaulay from Making Cents and I gave some of the opening remarks to get the conversation started (and Wayan Vota kept things lively as usual).

The premise of the Salon was that ‘today’s youth population is the largest in the history of the world, and 90% of these young people live in developing countries. The global youth unemployment rate is the highest on record, and we’re seeing discontent and disenfranchisement play out on the news each day. In fact, the revolution in Tunisia started with an under-employed youth committing self-immolation in frustration…. Technology-based models hold great promise for increasing and improving economic opportunities for young people: low barriers to entry for youth-built apps, the widespread use of Facebook and its promise as a marketing platform, the ubiquity and ease of m-Payment systems like MPESA – these should be a recipe for youth economic empowerment.

During the Salon we explored 3 key questions:

1) How are youth starting businesses or getting jobs in growth-oriented ICT sectors around the world?

2) How are organizations and programs utilizing technology to reach and engage young people?

3) Where should we be cautious or enthusiastic with technology with respect to youth economic empowerment?

This is the first of 3 posts on those questions, starting with Question 1:

How are youth starting businesses or getting jobs in growth-oriented ICT sectors around the world?

I was pretty skeptical about the potential for apps, Facebook and m-payments to resolve the youth employment/income crisis, at least in the context of the rural communities in Africa where I’ve worked over the past several years. So leading into the Salon, I did an informal survey among some colleagues working in Africa to find out how they observed youth making money using technology, and to see whether the idea above had any legs. My thoughts were pretty much confirmed – in the places we are working, some youth are using technology to generate income, but not so much apps, mPayments and Facebook.

In Egypt, colleagues said that youth are repairing cell phones, serving as DJs at wedding parties, setting up photocopy shops and internet cafes, selling phone calls and airtime, running shops that provide children and young people with the opportunity to play games, and using computers to make flyers and posters for certain producers and products in the communities. They also provide satellite connections for poor families to access national and international TV channels – this service is not legal but generates good income for young people.

In Kenya you’ll find youth managing Mobile Phone Kiosks popularly known as ‘Simu Ya jamii’ (community phones). These double up as phone charging points. Pirated music is big business for some youth and phone unlocking services are increasing. One colleague noted that youth are not really creating applications, but in some of our programs, they are involved in piloting new applications, and thus influencing their development. In Zambia, you don’t see much of this type of activity in rural areas, according to a colleague there. But there are village telcos being operated by youth groups and some village groups are setting up banks of solar chargers to support solar lighting. (Cool result: When they set them up at a schools, encouraging women to come each day to charge their lights, they found that school attendance increased).

In Burkina Faso it’s common to see youth selling telephone scratch cards, renting out their phones, offering video services to film at private events, charging up phones for a price. In Senegal, some take phones from one area to another to charge them up for a fee. All over Africa you see video pirating and movie houses, video game houses, video downloading to mobile phones, music on flash drives and flash drives that plug into radios in cars and in collective transportation vans and busses.

There is ‘negative’ business also

Some would place ‘pirating’ and stolen satellite connections here. There is also transactional sex by girls to obtain mobile phones, which are a status symbol. We hear in some communities that adolescents with mobile phones are ‘bad.’ In Cameroon girls said that some boys only use phones to scam people and to steal. Mobiles can also facilitate prostitution. One colleague commented that in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) she has seen girls on motorbikes offering themselves by presenting their phone number on their back. We heard from youth in Cameroon that mobiles are commonly stolen and traded. Some parents in various countries do not like movie and game houses, associating them with porn and western culture.

Are youth in rural areas creating ‘apps,’ using ‘apps’ or tapping into ICT development or programming opportunities?

Not really, from what I have seen and what colleagues tell me. There are some shining stars here and there, but this isn’t very widespread yet, and the youth who are developing apps and such tend to be well-educated urban youth. This 2009 study on how the African Movement of Working Children and Youth (MAEJT) uses ICTs is quite interesting in this regard.

How do youth obtain and use mobiles? (MAEJT study, 2009)

In Egypt, colleagues said Facebook and Twitter groups around specific issues are common among young people in communities. But using ICT specifically for generating income is not. There is inadequate awareness among poor communities on how to make this happen. Although many youth have access to cell phones, ICT is still expensive and non-affordable for many others. Most of the families who have phones in their houses do not have a direct line, which means that they cannot get access to internet through cheap lines. Internet is still very expensive. Getting jobs through the internet is only common among advantaged, well- educated youth, not disadvantaged youth.

In Nairobi, Kenya, iHub and NAiLab have a big pool of developers and there is a lot of action. In rural Kenya, however, access is limited. There is a lot of interest from the youth who have started to catch on though, so colleagues felt it was possible that there could be some type of rural-urban mentoring or connections to help rural youth get on board. In rural Zambia, according to colleagues, sheer poverty means that very few additional resources and capital are available to take on new ideas. There is still very poor mobile phone coverage in some areas, and many young people have already left for urban areas. My colleagues in West Africa did not report seeing any youth developing apps or using Facebook combined with mPayments to generate income. In Kenya, Cameroon, Uganda and some other places, innovation hubs and labs are generating opportunities, but these again seem to be available to secondary- or even more often university-educated youth from urban areas and capital cities or large cities outside the capital.

So, is this bit about apps, mPayments and social media all hype? I’ll explore that a bit more in post 2 of the series. In post 3, I’ll cover the longer term considerations for ICTs and youth economic empowerment and some broader aspects that need to be kept in mind.

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From the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, March 22

The organization where I work has been present on the border between Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia for awhile now, supporting Ivorians who are escaping the conflict as well as the Liberian communities that are receiving people from Cote d’Ivoire.  (See another good map here.)

What is it like for those who are fleeing Cote d’Ivoire? An account came in by email this morning from our disaster specialist who just returned from Nimba County, located on the border. He told of a woman he had met who arrived in Liberia completely naked, with three children under the age of 6.  She had fled the violence in Abidjan on a Red Cross truck. Then she’d walked, carrying her baby, from the Western town of Daloa to the town of Giglo, passing near Duekoue (where a massacre is said to have taken place). She then continued on to the Liberia border; about 250 km. She had been travelling with her sister and her sister’s 2 children but her sister didn’t make it to Liberia.  She’s buried in the forest. My colleague described the woman’s children as so distressed they can barely speak.

My colleague went on saying that ‘Some people told me that armed men came to their villages and attacked them.  They saw neighbors killed by gunfire, just metres away from them.  Other people told me they fled to small houses in the bush, for fear their villages might be attacked.  But it didn’t make any difference.  When armed men came to the village and found no one there, they’d simply come into the bush, find people and kill them. The people I talked with told me the clashes were the result of ethnic problems.  Their ethnic group was being persecuted by others.’

He describes mostly women and children crossing the border from Ivory Coast and only a few men.  ‘I don’t know what happened to the men and boys.  Some young people told me their brothers and fathers were fighting for one of the sides in the conflict in Ivory Coast.  But no one seems sure of what is happening back in their home countryMany people who have fled Ivory Coast are staying with relatives just over the Liberia border.  Along the border area, many people are of the same ethnic group so there is no trouble with the newcomers.  However, every day, as the fighting grows more intense, more and more people arrive in Liberia.’

The term ‘endgame’ has been all over the headlines for the past 3 or 4 days now, but the ‘end’ of Gbagbo doesn’t mean that things will go back to normal for most people any time soon. Last I heard there are a million people displaced internally and 200,000 externally. I rather doubt it’s the ‘end’ of the crisis for them.

There was a saying people used a lot in El Salvador, though I hear it originates in Africa:  When the elephants fight, it’s the ants who suffer.

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