How can we end poverty?

Let's ask those in poverty

End poverty. That's the top priority of the Global Goals announced in late September. Ending poverty in all its forms by 2030 is no gimme – even if the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day has been cut in half, five years ahead of schedule.

"Aid as it exists today doesn’t work, and simply throwing money at the problem is futile," Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel wrote in their book More Than Good Intentions – explaining that more than a trillion dollars have been spent by the world’s wealthiest nations over the past 50 years… and yet three billion people still live on $2.50 per day, adjusted for the cost of living – which doesn’t go very far.

Here we are, still trying to punch out poverty despite a wealth of resources and a unique capacity for empathy. In this next 15-year push for a knock-out blow, we’ll need to better understand the needs, wants, and decision-making processes of the very people we’re trying to help.

"Fighting poverty is hard and it's hard to get it right. It’s part of a complex web of causes and effects," VOTO Mobile CEO Mark Boots said. “Organisations can have the right intentions, but if they don’t understand the people they’re serving, and their needs, investment and effort can be very much less effective.

VOTO Mobile is a social enterprise that since 2012 has used mobile technology to connect people in poverty directly to the governments and NGOs that serve them.

Our goal from the start was supporting this sector to become more responsive to the people it’s serving, and reducing poverty by making socially-focused investments more effective,” Boots said.

The World Bank used it to measure citizen satisfaction with medical care in the state of Ceará in north-east Brazil. It found that recent users of medical services had significantly higher than average levels of satisfaction. The provincial Ministry of Health wasn't facing a quality issue, but a branding issue. In northern Ghana, responses to mobile surveys from hundreds of marginalised citizens – women, youth and people with disabilities – made investment in education a priority for the Ministry of Local Governance and Rural Development. And in Afghanistan, VOTO is being used to gather story leads from women citizen journalists, which are then relayed to editors at the New York Times, the BBC, and other media giants.

More than two and a half million people, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, have interacted with some form of VOTO's services. While VOTO technology can be used with a smartphone, it’s designed for full functionality on any basic feature phone. That’s the hardware owned by the social enterprise’s end users, who typically live in rural villages – plus, unlike smartphones, which sometimes require multiple charges in a single day, a basic feature phone with a full battery can run for a week, making them a perfect tool for life off the grid.

VOTO is able to not only call phones anywhere in the world, offering voice prompts that can be created in any local language, but can also receive phone calls and text messages from mindful citizens in Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, India, and a handful of other countries with more on the way.

Low literacy rates are no great obstacle with Interactive Voice Response (IVR) surveys – a preferred outreach strategy. VOTO typically sees IVR response rates of 20 to 30 per cent, where the industry market average response rate to SMS surveys is just two to three per cent according to Boots. The right incentives help, of course. Boots and his team have done A/B tests to figure out which types of incentives work best in the regions in which they operate – a large prize with a chance to win, for example, or a smaller prize that’s guaranteed.

"Afghanistan, where respondents are predominantly Muslim and gambling is discouraged, offering a chance to win prepaid airtime actually reduced response rates," Boots said. “But we've found intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than external, financial incentives. We always make a case, often in person, for why participating in a survey is in that person’s best interest, how it will benefit them or help others.”

On its own, VOTO won’t solve poverty, something Boots readily admits. But that isn’t the point. VOTO is a service that, given the explosion of mobile subscriptions in emerging markets, is poised for rapid growth. That will allow more and more international development institutions, social enterprises and not-for-profits from every sector to hear the voices – the demands – of the those at the bottom of the pyramid who have too long been excluded in development work.

"Within the next two years, we plan to roll out local services in more than 20 countries in Africa," Boots said. “Our goal is to integrate our platform with mobile network operators in advance, so that an organisation, or local content experts, could come along with an idea for a mobile service and then within a matter of days, rather than months or years, quickly and cheaply launch that service to deliver either information content or gather feedback in the way that they know best.”

The above article by John Converse Townsend first published on in Nov, 2015.