Note: I wrote this blog for The United Methodist Church and it is posted also at http://www.ministrywith.org/blog/view/108
Isolation is a contributing cause of systemic poverty. When people are isolated from societal developments – whether political, environmental, health, economic or otherwise – poverty and conditions of poverty, including disease and oppression, thrive. But there is good news: innovations in information and communication technologies are reducing isolation in parts of the world and opening up opportunities for ministries with the poor that will attack conditions of poverty at their roots.
Current statistics show internet access in Africa at or below 10%. However mobile phones are now held by over 50% of this same population, and most people who do not own a mobile phone have access to one. That is significant because innovators like Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS have foundways to increase functionality of mobile phones, and adapters of this technology are using it to overcome socio-political issues that undermine life itself.
FrontlineSMS technology allows mobile phones to connect to computers without requiring access to the internet. Mass messages can be sent to a database of mobile numbers. Recipients of messages can respond and their information can be assimilated into a database for immediate use.
The first large-scale use of FrontlineSMS was by a coalition of Nigerian NGOs that sought to monitor their own elections. Since then, it has been downloaded by over 19,000 users in 80 countries and has been adapted to multiple uses, in the medical, legal, educational and credit fields. As its use grows, so does the fields it impacts.
“FrontlineSMS turns a laptop computer and a mobile phone and cable into a two-way text messaging system which allows non-profits working in developing worlds to run automated text message services with rural communities…Healthcare workers, farmers, human rights activists – whomever you’re trying to work with – type a message and send it to those people.” (Ken Banks)
There appears to be enormous potential for FrontlineSMS technology to be used in connection with United Methodist ministries. Consider the United Methodist hospital that has run out of a life-saving medicine and has a patient in critical need. Broadcasting an SMS to other locations can quickly identify supply as well as those with vehicles to transport the medicine. Or, consider the ongoing healthcare education needed to eliminate malaria deaths in Africa. Two-way messages can provide both the resources and education needed by communities that are fighting this and other deadly diseases.
As FrontlineSMS and other technological innovations reach those whose families have lived for generations on the margins, new ministries will evolve, not simply from the outside, but from within the communities themselves. New communication tools allow the voices of the marginalized and oppressed to speak for themselves and to serve as powerful instruments for change.
In the hopes of demonstrating these and other opportunities that can emerge when our faith is made evident through our works, the United Methodist Church is exploring ways to be early adopters of this technology to our ministries in isolated communities. Change the World 2012, a Rethink Church event, will deploy FrontlineSMS in pilot programs across Africa and in the Philippines. It is our hope that by expanding communications and giving voice to those who are isolated, the church will foster local leaders and new ministries that get at the root causes of poverty.
I’ll be writing more about this initiative as it develops this year. Stay tuned.