A new article at the Philippines tech journal i.t. matters talks about the use of cheap GSM phones by the very poor, and the role of the local Catholic church in setting up commerce networks. "Alleviating poverty with technology's help" gives some real-world examples of our recurring argument that the proper application of information technology can be a powerful development tool. Moreover, it shows the utility of building upon existing information and communication networks -- in this case, the church -- as new technologies are introduced.
Tondo is a slum on the western edge of greater Manila, literally built upon a former garbage dump. Over 2,500 families live there, in a mix of official low-cost housing (dating back to the mid-90s) and squatter-city shanties. In February of this year, the parish priest, F. Benigno Beltran, introduced a kind of online commerce to the community:
...for Nestor's family of six, some things never change -- like having to live on just a kilogram of rice for an entire day, and to contend with a cloud of noxious gases from the garbage mount that can blanket the entire community.
This time, however, there is one glaring difference: these impoverished families have started using technology to get by each day on slightly better terms.
Using a simple GSM cellular phone to buy basic goods like rice, cooking oil, dried fish and detergent, their order takers-cum-purchasing coordinators haggle for the lowest price among factories and wholesale suppliers in Bulacan just north of Metro Manila, as well as in Pampanga and Bataan, Central Luzon.
In many respects, this is a local example of a widely-recognized phenomenon: the disintermediation/reintermediation of commerce through information networks. Because communication and information networks need not be restricted geographically, participants are better able to find competitive prices and services that they would otherwise have not known about. The prices the Tondo residents can get with this project were always there, but the residents -- for reasons of access, knowledge, income or organization -- simply couldn't find them.
Families from two more nearby regions have been added to the program, which has grown so much that the traders are looking to move to PCs as their main tools. Fr. Beltran and his associates are also working on a much bigger program, one that will "establish networked communities of Faith in economic action wherein the spiritual and economic dimensions are seamless integrated for the spiritual and material benefit of the individual and his community." That is, they're planning to build a nationwide information network into the existing nationwide religious network. The project, called SEKTRAN, is rather ambitious, as it will network the country's 100 diocese and combine warehouse cooperatives, person-to-person commerce, and both professional and religious instruction. In essence, it will build a parallel economy, connected to but not really a part of the larger Philippines economy.
SEKTRAN strikes me as an example of a model that will see use all over the world, and not just in Catholic countries. Overlaying electronic commerce and communication networks onto existing religious networks gives both immediate legitimacy to the technology and a new vitality to the religious communities. It gives participants a greater degree of trust in the system, as well as an alternative to secular markets perceived as materially or spiritually corrupt. It also takes advantage of the simultaneously geographic and networked structure of many organized religions. Religions with formal hierarchies (e.g., Catholocism, Mormonism, Shi'a Islam) would probably be able to embrace this kind of project most swiftly, but there's no reason why less rigidly-structured faiths couldn't adopt it, too.
Slum residents buying food over text messaging networks is a terrific example of the utility of information networks for development -- but this story may be giving us a glimpse of something even bigger than leapfrogging.
A very successful pattern for consumer co-ops where families bargain together is reasonably nearby in Asia:
... but not based on quite the same notion of "religion" :)