In the past decade, Asia Pacific has achieved tremendous economic progress. Many of the countries in this region have surpassed expectations and dominated a diverse range of industries, specifically tech and telecommunications. Despite its immense success and continued growth in those two fields, the region is still battling one of its most pressing issues; poverty.
According to the World Bank, 33% of those living below the poverty line of US$1.9 a day in 2018 belong to South Asia, while 9% are from East Asia and the Pacific. Although these numbers have significantly improved in the past couple of years, there is no doubt that increased telecoms access, education and the building of vital ICT infrastructure can greatly transform the socio-economic landscape and help break the cycle of poverty.
The beginning of the new millennium saw a shift in the mindsets of policymakers who were now thoroughly convinced of the key role that telecommunications and the ICT industry as a whole played in economic advancement, enabling better access to healthcare and education services and creating new sources of income for the poorer population. Additionally, the most evident contribution by the telecoms sector within a country can be measured by its value. As an example, telecoms service providers have contributed more than USD$ 15 billion to the economies of Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh; a number that has continued to increase year after year.
A look at the social aspect of telecoms access will highlight the unprecedented speed at which the internet has revolutionised our society through the wide usage of mobile internet. In terms of health, the adoption and deployment of telecoms technologies greatly reduced medical treatment and healthcare costs, making it easier to expand health services to poorer communities. Social participation thanks to the rise in mobile internet services has helped advance social inclusion, allowing for the dissemination of information and news to marginalised or underserved communities. The increased usage of mobile and internet banking services has opened doors to financial services, especially for people living in countries lacking a solid financial infrastructure.
A clear example of how financial inclusion can reduce poverty is by looking at the unbanked population in Myanmar, which accounts for a staggering 80% of the population. In 2016, Telenor Myanmar introduced Wave Bank, in collaboration with Yoma Bank. This service enabled citizens to transfer money securely in small shops across the country, which can then be withdrawn by their family members in similar shops not too far away after a notification is sent to them via mobile. As a result, every transaction that comes through not only allows them to have an additional and growing revenue stream but reduces the chances of unsecure transactions and helps customers keep money in their mobile wallets. By the end of 2018, Wave Money had greatly transformed the lives of more than 7 million citizens in Myanmar, the majority of whom were previously financially excluded.
Just recently in 2020, Yoma Bank and Telenor Myanmar partnered once again to provide unsecured small business loans to Telenor merchants using Yoma Bank’s digital SMART Credit Business Product. Rituraj Kalita, Head of Yangon Region and National Channel Head at Telenor Myanmar said of the partnership, “Telenor Myanmar is delighted to partner with Yoma Bank, supporting our channel partners with easy access to funds through a simple and trusted process. Our channel partners’ success is important to us as they are instrumental in serving our customers every day, across Myanmar. Together we are empowering societies through both digital and financial inclusion.”
As mentioned earlier, telecommunications play a pivotal role in enhancing social inclusion. By facilitating the involvement of people from diverse backgrounds in matters that affect the society they live in, it allows for opportunities to better themselves and a way out of poverty. In some cases, disadvantaged individuals such as those of a particular race, religion, gender or disability, who would otherwise be severely underrepresented in a rapidly changing world, would now have a chance to gain an education and overcome communication hurdles through access to telecoms.
In Pakistan, the issue of low birth registrations has become a socio-economic crisis. Birth registrations are a prerequisite to necessary documents like national ID cards, passports and even for school enrolments. The launch of the Digital Birth Registration in 2019, a joint effort by Telenor Pakistan, UNICEF and the governments of Punjab and Sindh, has managed to overcome this problem by allowing parents to register the birth of their children online using the app on their mobile phones. This resulted in a spike in registrations from 30% to 90% in less than a year.
Muqaddisa Mehreen, a UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in Islamabad said, “The strategy is to link health, education and birth registration services to register as many children as possible, with a focus on those who are under five years of age. The system is promoting transparency, ease of access and provision of services at the doorstep of families, maximizing the impact of resources to improve the lives of the most vulnerable families.”