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Always Blame the Technology (if Blaming your Beneficiaries is not Enough)

November 27, 2012

Have you read this article? It appeared a few days ago in the NY Times (followed by this, yesterday) and has been syndicated widely. If you haven’t read it, don’t bother, here is the short version:

Sex workers used to be forced to live on one sleazy street in Mumbai, where they could be conveniently reached by here’s-a-free-condom programs. Now they started using cellphones, like everyone else, which means they don’t need to ply their trade on that sleazy street anymore which means they are harder to reach by the traditional condom programs. Therefore, technology is bad.

The logic here is familiar: ABB – always blame the beneficiary (“our brilliant program is more difficult to implement because the beneficiaries are not cooperating”) and if that doesn’t work, ABT – always blame the technology. One could even sense just a tiny little bit of patronizing in the argument (“a journalist can handle change that comes with owning a cellphone, but what does a poor sex worker know”, “it’s for her own good that she should stay without a cell-phone”?)

In the New York Times. No word about how the cellphones improve the lives of these women. Less dependence on pimps. Less pressure to live in a stigmatized and dangerous area. Upfront payment using airtime. Direct management of clients. Scheduling. Discretion. Networking. Opportunity.

The concern is that organizations who did not upgrade their business logic since the 90s have a hard time reaching these women. In the New York Times.

I keep insisting on the source because many donors read the NY Times (and everyone should, by the way – I do so religiously). Many of these donors are not tech-savvy and they often distrust technology they don’t understand. They do however care deeply about how programs they are supporting are reflected in the press and I am pretty sure that some of them have just gotten harder to convince to take risk with funding ICT projects involving sex workers in India.

And that is a real shame.

For the record, here is a solution to the dilemma of the fellow organization in Mumbai. The fact that the sex workers use cellphones is an incredible opportunity to reach them with more than free condoms. Why don’t they run a platform like Movercado, collect the cellphone numbers of these women using traditional outreach strategies and start genuine personalized interactions with them. Giving them an opportunity to speak about their needs. Sending them regular and personalized information over time and track the impact of this information. Allow them to network safely and anonymously. Provide them with referrals to consultations or treatment or vocational training. Or shelter. Or counseling. Link them to lawyers. Give them micro-credits to start small businesses. You name it. Not in spite of but all made possible by the humble cellphone they feel so threaten about.

Hey and you know what? They could even send them SMS-vouchers for condoms that the women can redeem at any regular shop for free (Movercado automatically pays the shop using mobile money once the condoms have been given to the client), so that you can keep your here’s-a-free-condom program, but give it a modern twist. And, as a bonus, the local shop will be happy with the business and will stock condoms more regularly.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2012 11:20 pm

    Reblogged this on alternatekev and commented:
    Stunning that even the NYT could get things like this so wrong.

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