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Nicholas Sullivan talks on his book

Last Tuesday, the question was not “Can you hear me now?” but whether those in the third world will be able to hear you via cell phone. The man posing the question was Nicholas P. Sullivan, author of You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy, as he spoke to a group of students and faculty in Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall.

Sullivan, a graduate of Harvard University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, has been at the forefront of writing about the intersection of technology, business, and globalization in the information age. While working as editor of (Inc.com), the online version of the business trade publication Inc. magazine, Sullivan became interested in the prospect of implementing technology in the developing world.

Sullivan has credentials in the business world which qualify him as a sought-after specialist on investment in emerging markets. He has consulted for numerous Fortune 500 CEOs and continues to work as a business consultant. Sullivan also compiles the Wealth of Nations Index, which annually ranks 70 developing countries, and has led conferences for the United Nations relating to finance, investment, and development in the third world.

His most recent work was in the form of his latest book, in which he chose to document how technology can empower third world populations through the successful new system of microloans.

The concept of Microloans was pioneered by 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus, an economist from Bangladesh and founder of the Grameen Bank. The bank serves as a catalyst in the development of socioeconomic conditions by granting microloans without collateral, which allows the Third World poor to launch their own business ventures and improve their lives.

Economist Iqbal Quadir created an offshoot of Grameen Bank in GrameenPhone, a cooperative effort by corporations and poverty-stricken rural inhabitants in Third World countries to reverse the pattern of top-down development. NorIntel, a Norwegian cell phone company, works in conjunction with Grameen Bank to give rural farmers, herders, and fishermen microloans in the form of cell phones. The phones give them a new advantage in the market — access to information about geographical price variation and the ability to find the best price. The phones also enable farmers to share information about the weather.

The ability to view weather predictions, Sullivan said, is often crucial, “especially in Africa, where decisions about irrigation can mean the difference between a thriving or a dying harvest.”

Cell phones given through GrameenPhone have also enabled “mobile banking,” giving people who do not access to banks the ability to safely store money on their phones in the form of minutes.

In his lecture, Sullivan stated that GrameenPhone’s innovative use of technology has translated into income gains for tens of millions of people in the Third World.

NorIntel’s partnership with GrameenPhone has been nothing but beneficial. GrameenPhone is now the company’s most profitable investment, proving to other companies and stockholders that humanitarian corporate citizenship can be lucrative as well as philanthropic.

Sullivan believes that in the future, the role of entrepreneurs is crucial to solving poverty on a global scale.

“We’ve seen that governments can’t do this — or aren’t going to,” he said.

Sullivan believes that native entrepreneurs, armed with an understanding of local culture and infrastructure and backed by international funding, can change the course of big business by changing how the less affluent citizens of the third world interact with the market. In addition, entrepreneurs looking to improve conditions in the third world must be willing to be a catalyst in working with the system and not expect to sweep in and blindly reform the system from a Western perspective.

“Think in terms of introducing something to an existing system and taking it to the next level,” Sullivan said. “This is about development from the bottom up. This is access to technology creating access to information — and a chance at a far better life overall.”