On-the-Record Briefing on the GSMA mWomen Program

Melanne Verveer
   Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Alec Ross
   Senior Advisor for Innovation 
Cherie Blair and Rob Conway
Washington, DC
October 7, 2010

MR. TONER: Good afternoon. Welcome to the State Department. This morning, as you know, Secretary Clinton delivered remarks at the launch of the GSMA mWomen Program, discussing international support for increasing women’s access to mobile technology. This program is a joint effort of the GSMA Development Fund and the Cherie Blair Foundation to promote mobile technologies as tools for women’s empowerment and international development.

So joining us today to expand on her remarks and answer any questions you may have are Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State Alec Ross, Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation and former First Lady of the United Kingdom, and Rob Conway, who is the CEO of GSMA.

So without further ado, I’ll hand it off to Ambassador Verveer. Please.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Thanks, Mark, and hello to all of you. As you just heard, the – Secretary Clinton announced that the United States is joining in a partnership with the Cherie Blair Foundation and GSMA, which is the association for the mobile phone company industry around the world. The initiative is called mWomen and it is to leverage mobile technology as a powerful tool for global development, particularly to empower women. The potential for applying this technology to transform the lives of poor women in the developing world is unlimited.

We have seen in the past the power of the green revolution to agriculture, the power of microcredit to lift up the lives of the poorest women the world over, and to raise their economic standards. And today, through the application of mobile technology, we have just begun to tap the potential for this enormous tool that we have already seen, in many ways, what it can do. It is being used to teach literacy. There was a head of an NGO, Tostan, from Senegal. She spoke today about how efforts to promote literacy at the village level in Senegal were tremendously raised because of the incentive that mobile technology provided, the cell phone provided to the poor women in terms of texting and the kinds of dramatic changes they’ve seen in rising numbers of literacy.

It’s being used to promote vital health information. One of the executives of a cell phone company in Afghanistan talked about a recent incident where a physician was gotten to attend a birth in Afghanistan just in minutes of time, which could have resulted in a different kind of outcome, a sad outcome, but because of what the technology provided, he was able to assist at a birth. And this is in a country that has the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

It’s being used to protect women from violence, including in the United States. There have been efforts over many years, through the associations here, of the industry to provide this as a tool that enables women to feel more secure. And it’s being used for economic empowerment. Another one of the speakers today was a poor farmer from India who talked about how she uses the cell phone in ways that have dramatically changed her life, increased her profits. She can stay in better touch with her customers in the lily plants that she sells and find out where the markets are so she’s not spending her whole day going from market to market. So it short-circuits a whole lot of activity that might otherwise provide her with costs instead of raising income.

And of course, you all know about the potential for mobile banking. M-PESA in Kenya is one of the primary examples today, but there are growing efforts, and we haven’t even begun to see what the possibilities are there. And we know that investments in women are among the most effective investments that can be made in global development, and enabling women to access this new tool is vitally important. But there is a gender gap, which you’ll hear more about in cell phone usage, particularly in middle and low-income countries. And part of what today’s announcement was about is how we are going to close the gender digital divide if the potential of poor women is going to be released. Cell phones can really become a powerful equalizer of opportunity.

The Secretary has been promoting public-private partnerships. She is a strong promoter of innovation, and of course, for the empowerment of women. And all of those elements come together in today’s announcement. As a result of the commitments of the mobile technology companies, USAID, State Department, the kind of partnership that has been announced today, there is the great hope that we will, at least 50 percent, be able to close that gender digital divide in the next several years.

So I will end there and turn this over to my colleague, Alec Ross, and he will provide you with another dimension.

MR. ROSS: Thank you. So very briefly, I wanted to provide some – a little bit of big-picture context to today’s announcement as well as give some, I think, interesting data about why mobile and why the State Department engaging into mobile space.

Today is another example of what the Secretary of State is pioneering in 21st century statecraft. During her Senate testimony, she talked about a world where we were no longer bound by vast distances or national boundaries, where information and communications technology are allowing communications, commerce, and collaboration to take place in ways that never had previously. And she’s spoken at great length about how technology, mobile telecom specifically, are an on-ramp to modernity.

So why the focus specifically on mobile telecoms? Well, one important reason for it is that it’s economically significant. There was a study released by the World Bank that showed that for every 10 percent increase in adoption of mobile telecoms, there are corresponding – there’s a corresponding .8 percent increase in GDP.

The day that she became Secretary of State, there were an estimated 4.1 billion mobile handsets on the planet. Today, there are roughly 5 billion, so a nearly 20 percent increase in 18 months, 75 percent of which are in the developing world. But despite that rising tide of mobile technology adoption, a gap exists and persists. And if technology is an on-ramp to modernity, if the ability to compete and succeed in an increasingly technology-rich, knowledge-based economy means access to these tools and the effective skills to use them, then we need to bridge the gap.

And the way to bridge the gap is through the kind of partnership that was announced today between government and between industry. You’ll hear more shortly, more about the industry groups, more about the industry association that’s helping to bring this together, but it’s notable that it touches 115 countries. And so I think it says a lot about Secretary Clinton’s leadership that in launching this, we’re starting with a global footprint of 115 countries from which we’re going to work.

Thank you, and I look forward to any questions you have.

MR. TONER: Mrs. Blair.

MS. BLAIR: Well, good afternoon, everybody, and I’m delighted to be here in the State Department. It’s very exciting for me.

I think today has been an extraordinarily exciting and significant day, and significant for many reasons. Firstly, I think significant because of the potential for scale in what we’ve launched today. It was about a year ago when we were talking about the gap that there is between the rich and the poor in access to technology, and there is a gap, and sometimes it can seem it’s pie in the sky to bridge that gap. But actually, the mobile phone is the bridge.

Why is that? Because the mobile phone is not only – I know everybody in this room – I’ve seen some of you looking at your mobile phones – vital to us, but it’s also vital in the developing world. Anyone who goes to Africa today will know that you see people using the mobile phone all over Africa, all over India. And yet the poorest of the poor are not getting equal access, and the poorest – and by the poorest of the poor, I mean women. And that is extraordinarily important that women get a fair share of the mobile technology.

When I first started talking about this in the United Kingdom, one of the women journalists in one of the papers said, “Ah, we all knew Cherie Blair was completely mad.” I mean honestly, of course we know that mobile phones are important for women like us with busy businesses and managing our kids. But really, in Africa, how can that possibly be true? Well, today an illiterate widow from the Gujarat province of India came to the State Department and stood up and spoke in her own language about how a mobile phone had transformed her life as a lily pad farmer. A mobile phone that she can’t use SMS on because she’s illiterate, but which she can use to gain information about access to markets.

Today, the story that Melanne has already referred to about what happened in Afghanistan, what she didn’t tell you about the girl who nearly died in childbirth giving birth to her first son was that first son was the grandson of the Taliban leader in that community. And he would have lost his precious grandson and, one would hope, his precious daughter, had it not been for the fact that Roshan, the mobile phone company, had built a mobile facility in that area.

Why does it make a difference? Because suddenly he realizes next time he’s asked, “Can we make mobile phones available to women in your community,” he’s not going to see that as an alien thing that’s going to impose something that’s dangerous on his community; he’s going to see it as what it is, a lifesaver. So a very significant moment for an individual mother and child, but actually also a very significant moment for a much wider community.

But it’s also significant today because of the sheer partnership that this movement and women represents. It’s a partnership between an industry, the mobile phone industry, who have already – we’ve already – and we’ll hear a bit more from Rob about this, but 20 of the big mobile players in the world signed up to make technology available. It’s a partnership with NGOs. I have my own NGO which is concentrating on women’s economic empowerment, but I know from my experience as wife of the prime minister in the United Kingdom that there are many, many NGOs who already have fantastic schemes, fantastic ideas, which they are communicating with small communities and small groups. This enables those ideas, those apps, if I can use the technology, to become available on a much bigger scale, a much wider scale. This is a cooperative venture that is concentrating not just on women’s economic empowerment, but on helping mobile health, on helping literacy, and on helping, as Melanne said, with finance, making finance available.

So the partnership and behind that partnership stands the significant power in the world, the U.S. State Department, who are lending their weight, who are lending their expertise, who are lending that incredible clout that Secretary of State Clinton has, behind this program. I have absolutely no doubt that the 300 million women across the world who we identified as having the possibility of getting access to mobile phones, which at the moment being denied it: the 23 percent of women – gap between women in Africa and men in Africa gaining access to global technology; the 24 percent gap between women in the Middle East and men in the Middle East gaining access to mobile technology; the 37 percent gap in the same in South Asia. I have no doubt that with this combination of partnership between the industry, between the NGOs, and between the governments led from here in the State Department, that we will reach our goal of reaching 150 million women over the next three years.

So I’m really excited that you’re here to get this message out to a much wider audience. And thank you for coming.

MR. CONWAY: Representing the mobile industry, we know how transformative mobile phones can be. And one of the things when we sort of embarked on this journey with Cherie and Cherie Blair Foundation and leading us to this great day today was we didn’t understand that there was this gender gap.

We know that men, for example, in these countries, developing markets have enjoyed the benefits of mobile and the power it can bring in terms of both starting businesses or increasing the value of their businesses, the ability to move money, the security, the safety, the ability to communicate with their friends and family and so forth. And it was very interesting that with Cherie’s great help here, to have the vision to look at a study which said, “Is there a gender gap in the world in terms of usage of phones?” And the number was 300 million that we could estimate in the world that women who should normally have access to the mobile phone did not. And when you understand the transformative nature of that phone, it made no sense that these women did not have that phone.

And I think that was the turning point for us to say, “We’ve got to change that.” We cannot have those women not have access, because what we know is that the mobile phone is a great leveler in terms of bringing people up to a constancy of economic and social benefit. We know it’s a great enabler that they start on a journey, and that journey starts in a very small way. It could be just knowing that they can communicate to know that their child is safe. But it moves then one day to where they’re actually learning in a distance learning way or doing the unthinkable or once unthinkable for them starting a business.

Or in the case of the lady today who was growing lilies, that it transformed her business and she now had an extra 2,000 of the local currency that she didn’t have before. And that opened up other opportunities for her. So it wasn’t – we’re not talking about something that’s abstract. We’re not talking about something that can’t be put into real terms. This is profound stuff. And I think, for our industry, it became very, very important that we couldn’t look at that gender gap and not do something about it. And I think – and I’m just delighted that Ambassador Verveer and Cherie Blair are here to help us get that message out, because I want our community – and I don’t mean operators alone; I mean our suppliers, the whole community.

And so we had Mary McDowell from Nokia, who is responsible for, actually, the low – what they call low-cost mobile phones throughout the world. They embrace this. And so we’re on a real journey now to connect. And what we have now set, as Cherie has said, we’ve set a goal. So of these 300 million women, we’re going to aim to connect 150 million of them in three years. We’ve got 20 of the leading companies in the mobile space have committed to this. And you can tell I’m committed. I’ve got a huge team of people that will work on this thing. So I think we will make a difference and I look forward to coming back to you one day, because, like Cherie, I was – I’m delighted to be in the State Department speaking here today. But I want to come back and actually, hopefully show you stats that say we are making a difference in the world around us. So thank you.

MR. TONER: We’ll just open up to any questions you might have. If you want to go ahead and we’ll –

QUESTION: Sure. I was curious what role government plays in this movement and how important that role is, in a question to whoever.

MR. TONER: I’m going to call everyone up to – maybe they can just stand here and answer.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Make it easier. Well, certainly there are issues where governments can be an impediment to unleashing access to this technology. In pricing, for example, there are costs that are – accrue frequently in terms of regulatory costs or tax schemes that could be done away with to make this a real doable approach for poor women, so diplomacy really factors in considerably in working with other governments. As has often happened with microcredit, for example, in terms of financial regulations, to work with governments so that they can recognize the kind of benefits that would accrue to their country to economic progress and all kinds of social development if some of these impediments were taken away. So that’s certainly one area.

Another area is creating an enabling environment or an ecosystem that makes it more possible for the industry representatives to come in and grow a market where they might not even necessarily think it would be anything they would approach given the difficulty or their bottom line. But by creating an enabling environment to address some of the cultural norms or some of the other kinds of social issues, it makes it far easier to ensure that there will be greater adaptability, usage, and success out of opening that market with the poorest people. So there are a number of things that government can do, and part of our coming together today is to ensure that we will do our part in promoting that to the best way that we can.

MR. TONER: Go ahead (inaudible).

QUESTION: Just one more.

MR. ROSS: I would just add one thing to that if that’s okay. And that is to point to something that the Secretary announced yesterday, which was the winners of an Apps 4 Africa contest as an example of another thing that drives people to mobile telecoms, which is if you look at the data for why people sometimes don’t adopt technology, it’s because they don’t necessarily always believe that there are things attached to it that are in their economic self-interest. And so one role that government can play is to direct certain of its development activities to develop products and services that are obviously in the self-interest of the people whom we’re trying to bridge the gap with. So by directing some of our development focus, development dollars focus into the space that can help address some of the adoption issues.

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. Just on the cultural norms issue that Ambassador Verveer has touched on, I see that one of – that’s one of the key barriers on the fact sheet is these traditional attitudes about women and property. Do you have any specific programs that you’re launching either through the private sector or through government to deal with that?

MR. CONWAY: One of the things that we heard from Roshan, which is actually an operator in Afghanistan, is the targeting of tailor-made programs that address those needs and how in each market you’re going to need to shape the way you not only provide the phone, but how the phone will be used and how you create tariffing plans and create an attractiveness that allows the women in a certain market or country to be able to use that. It will vary country by country, and what our role will be as GSMA is to share best practices, provide tool kits, and one of the things that the gentleman today from Roshan said is that this is not competitive for him. He’s absolutely willing to share that. And I think it was the minister from –


MS. BLAIR: Liberia.

MR. CONWAY: Liberia was there and asked could she receive the benefits of that for her country and, of course, we made the point: We will share that with the operators of Liberia. So this is not a competitive matter. This is – we will share the best practices in the world, get it right to the people who need it and be able to move it in the market that way. And by the way, can I share just one particular point that I thought was immensely profound today? There was Tostan and it’s a group that was working in –


MR. ROSS: Senegal.

MR. CONWAY: Senegal. We work together, by the way. (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: Good team


MR. CONWAY: And what was profound – of course, we always know this – is people want the phone. All right? So this is not about sometimes you know how you go into a place and you want to give people something and they go, “Well, I don’t know if I want it.” Right? Or, “Maybe I don’t want it quite the way you’re trying to give it to me,” or, “Maybe I’m not going to use it in quite the way you want me to use it.” The phones are different.

So the example she was talking about was she had a donor in Senegal, and the issue was they thought they’d build a library, okay? So they asked the people, wouldn’t you like a library? And the answer was, kind of, no. And long story short is how about a phone and learn to have a phone and actually learn – what became learning how to text and actually gain language skills via the mobile phone. That was very attractive.

And so what you end up having here is they want the phone. Our challenge is let’s get the phone to them. There is no doubt they will make good use of that phone.

MR. TONER: Samir – oh, go ahead, please.

MS. BLAIR: Okay. I was going to add, I think that when you talk about the cultural practices, nothing succeeds so much like success. And when people see that this actually brings positive improvements for individual families and individual people’s circumstances, it makes a difference. And some of the stories we heard today were about how once using – once individual women and individual groups get the mobile phone, then other people want the benefits that they bring.

And in Senegal, what was the example, of course, they were giving is also how using the mobile phone can just allow you to reach out to people you couldn’t otherwise reach to. And the example she gave about that was about mosquito nets and how they’d set up an SMS network where they took community leaders – 400 community leaders across the country to whom they could send SMS messages. And so through that, they could send SMS messages about, for example, why you need to get your children immunized. Through that, they could send SMS messages to say we are delivering to your village mosquito nets to help protect mothers and children. And in one week – she didn’t say this today, but I know because I know the story – in one week, by doing that, they were able to deliver 75,000 mosquito nets around Senegal because they were able to send out SMS messages and then the word was then cascaded down locally. Before that, they had to send people out on bikes to the individual villages. You can imagine how much longer that takes.

And when you see that’s the sort of information I can get on the mobile phone, of course, you want more. Wouldn’t you when it’s a matter of life or death for your child?

MR. TONER: Go ahead, Samir.

QUESTION: I have a question. You said your goal is to provide 150 women – 150 million women –


QUESTION: -- within three years. Will they be using these phones free of charge or they have to pay?

MR. CONWAY: The first matter is access. So it’s not about necessarily ownership, although it would be great if all the 150 million can get ownership; it’s really about giving them access. Each operator will determine the best way to do that. Roshan today, for example, had a program where they had significantly discounted the program for women, so that it became very attractive for women to participate from that perspective. So I think each operator will find the mechanisms that work in those markets. But crucially, it’s about giving access because also, as Roshan pointed out, even if the phone costs 15 U.S. dollars, that could be way beyond the capacity of that woman or that family to afford it.

So what you do is you have a community phone, and so Roshan then enables is that you can actually buy airtime, okay? And then these phones, as Mary McDowell from Nokia pointed out, you’ll have multiple SIMs, so that people will have their own SIM and they come in and they plug in their personality – it’s their number – and they – and by the way, they own something, which is tremendous. Because what happens is they now have a SIM, which is them; it’s their number. They take the SIM and they put it into the phone, and that phone can handle three SIMs. And in essence, the phone now has three personalities, all of that family; again, transformative from that family perspective.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: If I can just add to that the fact that cell phones can be economically empowering to a poor woman as a business in and of itself. She uses it, obviously, for plenty of other ways, the way the woman from India talked about her lily plants and what it had done to enable her to have far greater economic success. But in many places, purchasing the cell phone, often through a small credit provision, becomes her business. And then she sells the time on that cell phone at a very small rate, but enough to cobble together a better income than she’s ever had. So there’s a lot of entrepreneurism that manifests itself in this kind of operation.

And some of the commitments that were made by the mobile companies today actually involve ICT training, microcredit access, et cetera. So it’s a larger pool of arrangements.

MR. TONER: Any other questions? That’s it? All right. Well, thank you very much for coming down here and joining us. Thank you.

PRN: 2010/1437