Envisioning a world in which personal mobile technology can connect every human being in every village in every country to the tap roots of knowledge, markets, services, and community
Last week was the last week of the UN General Assembly meeting, when all New York is gridlocked and grumpy and the foreign policy community is over-loaded with invitations to events, meals, and meetings. I shuttled back and forth on the train between New York and my classes in Princeton, but the three events I chose to attend tell us quite a bit about the trend-lines in global affairs.
On Monday night, The Atlantic co-hosted a dinner moderated by Steve Clemons on the technocratic sounding topic of "financial inclusion," which brought together a hedge fund director, heads of various NGOs focusing on women, development, and microfinance, UN officials, bankers, telecom entrepreneurs, and others. "Financial inclusion" essentially means banking the unbanked, which is most of the world's poor. That often starts with mobile money, which has taken off with Kenya's M-PESA (the M stands for mobile and pesa is Swahili for money, which the program allows Kenyans to send by cell phone). But once you are getting and sending your money via cell phone you can also, at least theoretically, put it into a bank account and start saving, paying on lay-away, using a credit card, buying insurance -- in short, doing all the things that those of us who are connected to the financial system at least at a retail level take for granted.
Tuesday night was a dinner sponsored by the Cherie Blair Foundation for women as part of the Clinton Global Initiative on a related subject: "Women + Technology: the 21st Century Solution." Again, it was a distinctly "tri-sector" event, including guests from the private sector, the public sector, and the civic sector; from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the young and compelling Kiva president Premal Shah to various entrepreneurs working on a sustainable business plan to sell (and have local distributors sell) pumps, drip irrigation, solar lamps, and various other development technologies to poor families. Some of the most compelling presentations focused on how mobile phones could help women make money, improve their health and that of their family, feel more secure and independent, and even connect to fellow victims of trafficking and other abuse in a way that affirmed their dignity and common humanity.
Wednesday morning was a breakfast hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which now has 72 Global Agenda Councils on issues ranging from aging to rebuilding fragile states. What was most interesting here was Klaus Schwab's articulation of his overall vision for WEF, which is of a grand multi-stakeholder coalition. WEF is of course best known for Davos, but it now also holds annual meetings in the Middle East and in China, as well as sponsoring all sorts of smaller meetings and projects in between. Time will tell as to the actual results, although as befits the world's leading business conference, Schwab is very focused on metrics. But what he sees most clearly is WEF's ability to connect the business leaders who pay to hob knob in the Swiss Alps with NGO leaders, philanthropists and foundation heads, spiritual and cultural leaders, young economic and social entrepreneurs, national and international government officials, academics, policy experts, journalists -- whoever it takes to get good ideas and implement them.
Several themes cut across these events. One was the tension between firms and funds operating on a "double bottom line" of social as well as economic value versus those simply seeing a profit to be made in large, untapped markets. Strikingly, a representative of Developing World Markets, which describes itself as "an asset manager and investment bank dedicated to making socially positive investments" to "promote sustainable economic and social investment on a global scale," said he had $1 billion under management, which is real money by anyone's count. But other ventures still need a lot of philanthropic funding to survive; still others will only engage if the traditional single bottom line adds up. A second theme was a shift from a "culture of owning and earning to a culture of feeling and belonging," suggesting that many people are willing to pay for and invest in the value of connection itself and the sense of purpose and collective enterprise it provides (although plenty of people, rich and poor, are still keenly interested in owning and earning). Third, even very poor people will only pay for technology if it works reliably and is tailored to their needs. The top concern of consumers of mobile money transfer and banking services, for instance, is not price but security of transactions. If security can't be guaranteed, they will stick with trusted methods. Fourth, all of this is hard. For every example that works, a myriad more do not, and the devil is still in the details.
At this point I can just about hear some of my more critical readers and friendly realist interlocutors crying selection bias -- e.g., I am arguing these issues are salient because I am interested in them in the first place and so of course I chose to attend these events rather than events focused on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, meltdown in the Middle East (though for my views on Palestinian statehood, see my Financial Times article), the European debt crisis etc. That's obviously true. But ten years ago I wouldn't have had this array of events to choose from. Dinners on banking via cell phone and empowering women might have been connected with meetings of the World Bank, but UN meetings would have focused much more on geopolitics than development, at least for developed country audiences. When those meetings occurred, they would not have included hedge fund managers and entrepreneurs together with government officials and NGOs. Remember, the Clinton Global Initiative did not exist yet. And many of the people WEF is reaching out to would have assembled at the World Social Forum at Porto Allegre, not Davos.
All of these shifts flow from a deeper vision of a global tree of life: a world in which personal mobile technology can connect every human being in every village in every country to the tap roots of knowledge, markets, services, and community. That vision is social, developmental, digital and global. It's a powerful motivator. And it's pushing out the foreign policy frontier.