Mobiles fight poverty: Iqbal Quadir on

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While the media team is on holiday, we continue to bring you some of TED’s oldies but goodies. During the two week break, we will post noteworthy talks that contain ideas still worth spreading.

Today we travel back to 2005 for Iqbal Quadir’s talk on how mobiles fight poverty. Iqbal Quadir explains his digression from his New York investment-banking career to return to his native Bangladesh in order to catalyze the country’s development. Quadir looks to European history to determine the formula for evading poverty: the empowerment of citizens coupled with the devolution of authorities. Foreign aid has actually been detrimental to citizens of poor countries because aid disproportionately empowers the government, which becomes reliant on foreign governments’ charity rather than citizens’ tax revenues. One way to circumvent this scenario is with mobile phones. Connectivity leads to productivity; therefore an instrument of connectivity such as a mobile phone will bolster productivity and concurrently combat poverty.

In 1997 Quadir partnered with GrameenBank to create GrameenPhone. The company leveraged GrameenBank’s existing network to provide poor villagers with micro loans to purchase mobile phones and sell minutes to fellow villagers. Today GrameenPhone is the largest cellular network in the country and maintains nearly 30 million subscribers. GrameenPhone just announced a 10% year-over-year revenue growth for the second quarter of 2009, and has received approval from the Bangladeshi SEC on its IPO application. GrameenPhone significantly contributes to the national economy of Bangladesh as one of the country’s largest taxpayers and raises Bangladesh’s annual GNP more than foreign aid, exemplifying Quadir’s contention that the key to development is businesses, not aid.

In 2005, Quadir partnered with Dean Kamen to bring to Bangladesh electric generators that run on cow waste to continually output one kilowatt of electricity, which can light 70 energy-efficient light bulbs. Access to light bulbs at night translates into increased productivity for villagers. Furthermore, following the template of GreameenPhone, the energy machine empowers villagers as entrepreneurs who can sell electricity to fellow villagers. Quadir continues his mission to bring entrepreneurship and economic development to poor countries as the founder and director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, conceived in 2008. The center is a hatchery for 12 student fellows’ incipient ideas for world development. Quadir will guide the fellows in developing and implementing their ideas for bottom-up, technology-based entrepreneurship-for-profit businesses in the developing world.

For more on the use of mobile phones in developing countries, check out Jan Chipcase’s talk on

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