Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Showing posts for "Technology and Development"

Missing Pieces: Syria’s Conflict, Latin America’s Cities, and More

by Isobel Coleman

Syrian government loyalists hold up placards during a protest outside the U.S. embassy in Damascus, July 11, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters).

In this week’s Missing Pieces, Charles Landow highlights the latest developments in Syria and Pakistan, as well as interesting scholarly work on other regions and issues. I hope you enjoy the selection and look forward to your comments.

  • Syria’s Political Perspectives: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has managed to retain power through six months of rebellion and the fall of three fellow Arab autocrats. The New York Times last week offered a fascinating glimpse at a central reason why: many Damascus elites support Assad’s regime and deny that their country is in upheaval. The piece explores the views of clients at a fancy Damascus salon, where the debate centers not on democracy but on nail polish. Some agree with the government that protesters are seeking to foment division. Others are minorities, such as Christians, who fear life under Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority in a post-Assad era. The article gives a starkly different perspective from most news reports on Syria, making it a valuable read. For a longer but no less worthwhile look at the country’s revolutionary stirrings, see Wendell Steavenson’s “Roads to Freedom” in the August 29 issue of the New Yorker. It offers a nuanced portrait of several leading revolutionaries, ending on an optimistic note for Syria’s future. Read more »

Envisioning Smarter Development

by Isobel Coleman

A woman gets her eyes tested at a free eye-care camp in Mumbai, India, February 15, 2009 (Arko Datta/Courtesy Reuters).

I recently caught up with Jordan Kassalow, a former CFR colleague who founded the non-profit VisionSpring nearly a decade ago. Kassalow, an optometrist by training, recognized that one of the great opportunities to improve economic productivity in the developing world is by getting simple reading glasses—the kind you can buy off the shelf at any drugstore in America—into the hands of the working poor, those earning less than $2 a day. Some 560 million people around the world are visually impaired yet have no access to eyeglasses. More than 70 percent of them just need the mass-produced, non-prescription type. The majority of the visually impaired are middle-aged laborers—the economic backbones of their communities, raising children and supporting elderly parents at the same time. As their vision blurs with age, they lose their livelihoods, which hurts their families and their communities. A recent study by the University of Michigan confirmed Jordan’s hypothesis: once workers have eyeglasses to improve near vision, their productivity rises by 35 percent and their incomes rise by 20 percent—a gain that can last for twenty years.

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Missing Pieces: China, Genetics and Development, and More

by Isobel Coleman

A high speed bullet train runs past a railway bridge past carriage wreckage (below) after two trains crashed and derailed in Wenzhou, China, July 25, 2011 (REUTERS/China Daily Information Corp – CDIC).

In this week’s Missing Pieces, Charles Landow, associate director of CFR’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative, highlights a wide range of stories and studies. Please let us know what you think of the selection, and feel free to suggest additional materials that you find interesting. We will put relevant items in a future post. Enjoy!

  • China’s Train Tragedy: A flood of commentary and analysis has followed last weekend’s crash of two high-speed trains in Zhejiang province. The disaster has intensified longstanding concerns about safety and corruption in the rush to build a high-speed rail network, which Beijing hopes will fuel China’s development and generate valuable technologies for export. Chinese authorities at first sought to bury the story–literally–before Premier Wen Jiabao visited the crash site and promised a transparent investigation. CFR’s Liz Economy writes in a sharp blog post about Chinese citizens’ skeptical reaction to the official handling of the crash. She advises the government to be forthcoming lest it sacrifice both export opportunities and its own legitimacy. A piece on Bloomberg chronicles the fallout across the spectrum of Chinese opinion. And a Financial Times article puts the crash in the context of China’s ambitions and struggles with high-speed rail. Read more »

Saudi Arabia’s Social Media Battles

by Isobel Coleman

A screenshot of Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmed's Twitter page on July 11, showing his current number of followers, displaying Tweets from others with updates on his post-arrest status, and featuring a link to an open letter to King Abdullah delivered by the Sheikh in a recent sermon and uploaded to Facebook.

The Financial Times recently published a fascinating article by Abeer Allam about how Saudi clerics are embracing social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. While some of the early adopters of social media, not surprisingly, were liberal clerics, it is now the conservatives who are coming on strong.

One well-known conservative, Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmed, has nearly 16,000 followers. Sheikh Ahmed uses his online presence to rail against anything in Saudi society that smacks of reform. He gets particularly agitated by attempts to break down the Kingdom’s strict system of gender segregation. (In an apparently unrelated development, reports came in over the weekend that Sheikh Ahmed was arrested for denouncing the Kingdom’s lengthy detentions without trial of terror suspects. A #freealahmad hashtag soon appeared on Twitter.)

A few years ago, Sheikh Ahmed gained notoriety for harshly denouncing King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) for allowing female students to study alongside men. Despite King Abdullah’s patronage of the university, Sheikh Ahmed deemed it a “source of unbelief” in Saudi Arabia, claimed its president and faculty were nonbelievers, and decried its lack of “religious surveillance.” For this outburst against KAUST, and by extension against King Abdullah, Sheikh Ahmed was fired from his official government position, which might help explain his uptake of social media. With many official outlets for his views now closed, he promotes his conservatism in the free-for-all world of Twitter and Facebook.  Last summer, when the government approved the appointment of women as cashiers in several Panda shopping centers, Sheikh Ahmed issued a fatwa against it saying it was “prohibited because it is part of the Western project that is imposing itself upon our society.” He called for a boycott of Panda stores, and the government backed down, removing the women. So much for trying to address the high levels of female unemployment in Saudi Arabia.

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Other m-Health Developments

by Isobel Coleman

A mother uses a mobile phone inside a ward of a government hospital in Manila, Philippines, July 23, 2008 (Cheryl Ravelo/Courtesy Reuters).

Every week, I’m learning about new and effective ways that mobile phones are being deployed to address intractable development challenges. I’ve written previously about how cell phones are combining with mobile money to provide poor people with access to financial services, increasing savings and creating entrepreneurial opportunities even in remote areas. They are also being used to promote various health initiatives by providing information to those who most need it. Now I’ve just come across an exciting new development combining m-health and m-money to address the scourge of fistula in Tanzania. Due to limited transportation, poor infrastructure, a lack of skilled birth attendants, and poorly equipped medical facilities, thousands of pregnant women in Tanzania develop fistula during childbirth. Approximately 3,700 women are diagnosed with obstetric fistula every year in Tanzania, but only 1,000 women are treated. Although fistula surgery is free at some health care facilities, women still face daunting transportation costs. In 2009, UNFPA partnered with Tanzania’s largest provider of free fistula surgery, the Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania (CCBRT), to use mobile technology to overcome these transportation barriers.

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Anne-Marie Slaughter: Elevating Development in U.S. Foreign Policy

by Isobel Coleman

This week I hosted a meeting at CFR with Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton and director of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State from 2009 until earlier this year. The meeting was part of our Women and Development Series sponsored by ExxonMobil. Afterward we sat down for a video interview:

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Seizing the Mobile Health Opportunity

by Isobel Coleman

A baby from Kayapo tribe receives medical attention during the third day of a medical expedition of the "Expedicionarios da Saude" in Sao Felix, Brazil, April 23, 2011 (Ricardo Moraes/Courtesy Reuters).

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today unveiled an interesting new public-private partnership called the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA). Over the next three years, this alliance, which includes the State Department, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, USAID, and Johnson & Johnson, will use mobile phones to improve the health of women and newborns in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa by providing women with access to important and timely health information, customized to their stage of pregnancy or the age of their baby. Women will be able to use their phones to register their due date or baby’s birth date and receive SMS messages or voice recordings that are linked to their stage of pregnancy or baby’s growth. For example, expecting mothers could receive information on locally accessible foods that provide critical nutrition during pregnancy, or reminders about vaccinations their children will need as they develop. This information can empower women living in isolated, rural settings to improve their own health and the health of their families.

MAMA—and m-health (mobile-based health solutions) more generally—is another example of how cell phones are being used for a wide range of development purposes. As I mentioned in an earlier post about mobile banking, ninety percent of the world’s population now has access to a mobile network. They are using this access not only to stay connected with family members and friends, but also to manage their money, access important health and business information, and lead more productive lives.

M-health has great potential that is only beginning to be tapped around the world. In Pakistan, Mobilink and the Ministry of Health launched a program in 2008 to provide Lady Health Workers in rural areas with low-cost mobile phones to increase efficiency and patient access. This has enhanced communication between LHWs, their supervisors, patients, hospitals, and ambulances, improving the quality of maternal and infant health care services in rural areas throughout Pakistan.

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The Transformative Power of Mobile Banking

by Isobel Coleman
A Kenyan farmer sends a text message to inquire about the latest corn prices from her field in Thigio, 22 miles from Nairobi.

A Kenyan farmer sends a text message to inquire about the latest corn prices from her field in Thigio, 22 miles from Nairobi. (Antony Njuguna/Courtesy Reuters)

Sometime during 2010, the 5 billionth person in the world got a cell phone. More than 90 percent of the world’s population now has access to a mobile network. In 2010, people around the world sent more than 6 trillion SMS text messages—a tripling in the past three years. Much of that growth has been in the developing world. In the past five years, developing countries’ share of mobile subscriptions has climbed from a little over half to more than three quarters.

The rapid spread of cell phones in developing countries—even in remote areas—has been astounding, and transformative. Wherever I travel, from remote villages in Afghanistan to rural Rwanda, everyone seems to have a cell phone—something simple, practical, and rugged that can make and receive calls and send texts. While these “unsmart” phones might seem archaic to a “smart phone” user, they are lifelines to the modern world for many in developing countries. And they are being applied in increasingly innovative ways for all sorts of important economic, political, and social activities, from voting to checking which market is offering the highest prices for crops to getting school test scores and health information.

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