NextBillion Editor

Weekly Roundup 7/25/15: ‘Worm Wars’ and other conflicts from the past week

As you may have noticed, we’ve been experimenting with our approach to NextBillion’s weekend content: our traditional “Weekly Roundup” and our more recently added “Twitter Top 10.” The Roundup has typically been a long-form blog post written by a single NB editor, examining one (or maybe more) compelling event or issue from the previous week. But in order to broaden our coverage of the many sectors we’re following, we’re considering changes to this format.

Today we’re trying out a new approach: Multiple “hot takes” on different stories that have emerged in the past week, covering a variety of sectors – and interspersed with tweets about these and other issues. If readers respond to this approach, we may make it a permanent weekend feature, with our editors producing longer posts and deeper analysis when the need arises during the week.

As always, please let us know what you think.

The American Red Cross just keeps on giving…

Giving us reasons to doubt their effectiveness, that is. The organization, which is chartered by the U.S. Congress, has been dodging questions for years about how it spent $487,640,757 it raised for relief efforts following the 2010 hurricane in Haiti.

We learned a possible reason for that this week, when NPR and ProPublica reported the Red Cross may not know how the money was spent.

And their accountability seems as sloppy as their accounting. In yet another Red Cross bombshell this week, the organization responded to Sen. Charles Grassley’s questions about how the money was spent in Haiti … and at the same time asked him not to tell anyone. The Red Cross wants details of its partnerships to be hush-hush.

Grassley was appropriately indignant, asking why a very public organization wants to keep things so private. It’s time for the Red Cross to own its mistakes and start repairing the damage instead of trying to control it.

– Kyle Poplin

Thin SIM = Fat Target on M-PESA’s Back

After months of suspense and seemingly endless legal obstacles thrown up by competitors, Kenya’s Equity Bank finally launched a mobile money platform to challenge Safaricom’s market-dominating M-PESA. In collaboration with the mobile network operator Airtel, Equity will offer subscribers voice and data access alongside its mobile financial services. For those who want to stick with Safaricom’s (much more popular) network, Equity is utilizing “thin SIM” technology – paper-thin film that’s placed on cellphone users’ SIM cards – to allow them to patch into its mobile banking services.

With the convenience of M-PESA, why would Safaricom users bother – especially when Equity’s thin SIM cards must be purchased for a small fee? Because Equity is offering money transfer services free of charge – a concession made economically viable by the bank’s other banking services, which will also be available via mobile.

Besides being a boon for Kenyan customers, Equity’s move is clearly the biggest challenge Safaricom has ever faced. M-PESA has long blurred the lines between telecommunications and banking – to the endless annoyance of the country’s banking sector. Now that a powerful bank is giving it a taste of its own medicine, it will be fascinating to see how customers – and Safaricom – respond. For a discussion of the many ramifications of this move, check out MicroSave’s LinkedIn Group (a great spot for informed online discussion of mobile money issues).

– James Militzer

Worm Wars: The Replication Team Strikes Back

While we’re on the subject of knock down-drag out fights, this week saw the long-simmering “Worm Wars” burst into more open hostilities. Some brief background: Many organizations have been pushing “deworming” initiatives over the past 20 years, viewing them as an inexpensive way to improve the health – and academic performance – of children in the developing world. The deworming pills are so inexpensive, and the (apparent) benefits so significant, that every year, hundreds of millions of children are given deworming tablets regardless of whether they have worms or not. But these efforts have long had their detractors, who have insisted that the evidence supporting them is not clear.

The deworming movement was largely inspired by an influential late 1990s study done with 30,000 participants in Kenya, which showed a major positive impact of deworming on school attendance. The study also helped ignite the movement to use randomized trials for impact evaluation of development initiatives. But in spite of this legacy, the researchers behind it did something unusual: They shared their entire dataset with independent researchers, so that their findings could be checked in public.

What happened next? Mistakes were found, criticisms and counter-criticisms were leveled, and the drama has rocked the global health world. Our takeaway? The research clearly deserves the scrutiny it’s getting, but whether or not it withstands it, it’s hard not to admire the researchers’ courage. As this fascinating op-ed makes clear, that kind of openness – which you’d think would be the norm in a profession based on constant inquiry – is actually vanishingly rare. And it would be a sad (if predictable) irony if the end result of the Worm Wars saga was to discourage other researchers from following their example.

– James Militzer

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Telemedicine

Every week we run across scores of news stories about telemedicine. A surprising number of these stories contain variations on the theme, “mHealth is emerging, BUT …” These stories inevitably cite the concerns various people – usually medical professionals – have about trust and/or security around mHealth.

Both are legitimate issues, no doubt, and there will be others. Lots of things can and will go wrong as doctor-patient relationships shift from in-person to online. But the hand-wringing among the traditional medical set is starting to seem a bit inwardly focused and static – like a bunch of legacy journalists predicting the “Internet thing” is just a fad.

While we appreciate concerns about the potential pitfalls of telemedicine, it’s a phenomenon that won’t be stopped. It addresses the two biggest medical problems encountered by billions of people around the globe, access and affordability, and any bumps encountered on the way to tackling those are trivial in comparison.

– Kyle Poplin

And For Good Measure – A Few More Tweets

In Case You Missed It … This Week on NextBillion

NexThought Monday – Mentoring for Social Entrepreneurship Education: Building a holistic impact in the MENA region

Feel Better Now, Pay Later: AfriMedico founders are hoping an ancient Japanese drug sales system will work in Africa

The Female Factor: Why enrolling more women as mobile money agents can benefit service providers, customers – and the agents themselves

June’s Most Popular Posts on NextBillion: From microfinance ’haters’ to M-PESA challengers

The Financial Power of the Group: How demand aggregation can enable consumer financing for renewable energy products

Calling All Innovators: Nominate a ‘ridiculously awesome’ health care entrepreneur for the Innovations in Healthcare network by Aug. 14

Education, Health Care
financial inclusion, mobile finance, research