May 19, 2009

Hope meets phones

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kiwanjaIt’s been another landmark day in the short history of FrontlineSMS:Medic. For those of you who don’t know, today saw the launch of their latest initiative — Hope Phones — which, generally speaking, encourages people to dig out their old phones and give them a new lease of life in the hands of a community health care worker (CHW) in a developing country.

Hope Phones

Hope Phones will make use of the nearly 450,000 cell phones discarded every day in the United States, and allows donors to print a free shipping label and send their old phone in to The Wireless Source, a global leader in wireless device recycling. The phone’s value allows FrontlineSMS:Medic to purchase usable, recycled cell phones for health care workers.

According to Josh Nesbit:

Hope Phones lets you give your old cell phone new life on the frontline of global health. That’s powerful. Just one, old Blackberry will allow us to purchase three to five cell phones for health care workers, bringing another 250 families onto the health grid via SMS. Old phones can help save lives

Why it’s not about the phones

What really excites me isn’t the simplicity of the idea, or the great execution, or the branding (more kudos to our good friends at Wieden+Kennedy), wonderful as all those things are. It’s not even the number of retired phones this could rejuvenate, or the impact that all of this could have on the ground, incredible as it promises to be.

No. It’s all about mobilisation. To take and adapt a phrase:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed students can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has

FrontlineSMS:Medic, and Hope Phones, has come out of nowhere, and it’s challenging our perceptions of what’s possible. Sure, global health is a seriously big beast to deal with, and few of us — if any — will ever have the muscle needed to tackle that particular monster. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. Indeed, there is a lot we can do.

Photo: Mobiles in Malawi/Jopsa.org

Talk is cheap

While large multinational donors and governments battle it out, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, people need help. Every day. These people can’t wait. And people like Josh, who have spent time on the ground understanding how rural hospitals tick, know all too well the impact that a simple cellphone can have in the hands of a committed CHW. With little more than passion, drive and an amazing ability to mobilise and motivate, Josh has pulled together an incredible team of equally committed individuals — students — from universities all across the United States. While adults generally critique and find reasons not to do things, they’ve gone out and done.

We all know what we can’t change. The real challenge therefore is not only figuring out what we can, but acting on it. Talk, like politics, is cheap. Lives are not.

It’s about time we challenged old models. And that time is now.
Ken Banks is founder of kiwanja.net, a site that helps nonprofits use mobile technology to serve their communities’ information needs. See his profile page, visit his blog, contact Ken or leave a comment. Follow Ken on Twitter at @kiwanja.

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