When we hear the phrase “developing nations,” certain stereotypes sometimes run through our minds – or at least they used to run through mine.
Any mention of Africa would bring about images from television of villages with huts made of either mud or clapboard and people living in primitive conditions with few hints of technology. My view of “developing nations” has changed over the years as I’ve met people from those countries or, at the very least, who have traveled to those nations. I’ve also read news accounts of advancements in places such as the Philippines and in various African nations that helped me better understand our neighbors on other continents.
But it was still difficult to fully grasp both the communications challenges and opportunities available in these nations until I attended the recent Game Changers Summit in Nashville. This series of meetings and workshops, hosted by United Methodist Communications (UMCOM), provided some eye-opening presentations by people on the ground in these areas talking about serious issues surrounding health, education, natural disasters and, of course, ways to show the love of Christ.
Thanks to opportunities I’ve had over the course of my life to speak to former missionaries, politicians and high-power business people with ties to what some people call the Third World, I had some small bit of knowledge. But others may be surprised at just how much has been accomplished to connect sub-Saharan African, for example, with the rest of the world via improved technology.
Lest you think differently, cell phones are not just built for Americans and Europeans.
Here are a few highlights from the meetings I attended.
It’s one thing to see news accounts of Ebola or to read about the fear that arises when this potentially deadly disease breaks out. It’s another thing to talk to people who were on the ground and who lived through the anguish such an episode carries with it.
It was truly inspiring to hear Phileas Jusu from Sierra Leone talk about the anxiety that arises when a health outbreak such as Ebola surfaces and how the United Methodist Church played such a large role in helping calm fear and prevent further spread of the disease.
So, what did we, the church, do? Neelley Hicks, director of the ICT4D Church initiative (Information and Communication Technologies for Development), explained that it became imperative to find out how to get reliable information to people amid the crisis. While it’s true that computers are not as prevalent in Sierra Leone or in Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire or other African nations, cell phones are in wide use.
Another person I met at the conference, Julu Swen from Liberia, helped decipher what ultimately became the best way to transmit information to the masses: text messaging. With help of UMCOM personnel in Nashville, messages were crafted that provided up-to-date information about the Ebola outbreak as well as spiritual messages twice a day to boost morale. Finally, helpful hints about prevention, such as bowing to each other instead of shaking hands, helped prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.
And much of this was accomplished by working with Muslim and Christian leaders, including United Methodist Bishop John Yambasu from Sierra Leone, to provide the voices of the advice in an area where government corruption is rampant. In short, people may not have believed the government, but they would listen to, understand and put to use instructions from their spiritual leaders.
One presenter, author Ken Banks, shared stories about how he used SMS technology and how such technology is being used to do everything from
reporting about elephants breaking through fences near residential areas, the monitoring of elections in Nigeria, sharing supply levels of medicines in networks of clinics and helping workers avoid potential dangers in Afghanistan and other countries.
I think there were two huge takeaways from his discussion:
Technology has a place everywhere – He pointed out that in his travels he had seen boys craft ways to charge cell phones by pedaling bicycles and with other tools at their disposal. In effect, businesses had cropped up thanks to the demand for technology and the new ways to supply power to those tools.
We sometimes get carried away with what we can do instead of what we need to do – His point is that SMS technology may be “old” in comparison to others.
But while other technologies may struggle because of connectivity or other issues, it seems to be the most reliable. When people can count on something working, they use it.
A quote from Banks that I find most memorable: “Technology needs to bring dignity as well as development. … Create an environment for people to help themselves.”
Dr. Revi Sterling, who developed the first ICT4D master’s program in the United States, presented information about gender inequality. She pointed out that women bear the brunt of poverty around the world, and she shared insights into how culture sometimes keeps women from advancing in a society.
For example, in some areas of Africa, women are not encouraged to have cell phones because having one symbolizes power and knowledge. And there are some cultures that fear women with cell phones have a higher rate of infidelity – that’s right, in the 21st century.
Sterling encouraged us to make a better argument for women to have access to technology – an argument or arguments that tell the positives of access within the context of a society instead of what we are familiar with in industrialized nations.
Thayne Richards from the company OuterNet, shared details about Lighthouse, a process that allows for tens of thousands of books and documents – including the Bible – to be available to millions of people.
It works by connecting it to the Internet and, in effect, downloading reading materials – including textbooks on a wide range of subjects for all ages in numerous languages. That information is stored and located in areas where there is no Internet connectivity. Computers then are networked with the Lighthouse product, similar to a server. What results is the user seeing books and manuscripts on their screens as though they were looking at the Internet.
It’s a tremendous way to bring information to people in remote areas – a true library from the sky.
These are but a few of the topics discussed at the Game Changers Summit. Here are some other topics addressed by our worship leaders.
The Rev. Micki McCorkle, the Great Plains Conference’s small membership church coordinator, once called me a “Methonerd” on Facebook. I think she meant it as a complement, but regardless, it fits. I didn’t grow up in the United Methodist Church, but I’ve been a member for about 18 years. One reason for me embracing the church is the connectionalism we enjoy.
I had a chance to see that in real life – and on a global scale – at the Game Changers Summit. I had the opportunity to talk to communicators and pastors from Africa who had real life-and-death stories to share. I talked with people from the Philippines who talked about communicating after a catastrophic typhoon. I talked with a representative from Inveneo, a company that helps build infrastructure for communications and other technologies in the developing world.
A common thread through all of those conversations was the mission of the United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world – either directly from UMC members or people who work with the church in various ways.
It’s easy to be focused on our neighborhoods and our local churches. That is, in many cases, where we can have the most impact. But we truly are a worldwide church – one of only a handful. What we do, collectively, as United Methodists matters. Our efforts, whether directly or as a result of our giving to wider missions of the church, improve circumstances. They help lead people to Christ. They ease suffering.
They save lives.
So, I encourage all of us – the guy writing this included – to live up to the challenge given the summit participants by Rev. Kiboko: Be a game changer for Christ.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference. The opinions expressed in his blog are his own and may not be representative of the conference or the worldwide United Methodist Church.