Monday, 1 October 2007

Information Poverty In The Information Age

It is an illusion that we live in a world overflowing with information. Instant information like supermarket shelves packed full of cheap food is a developed world phenomenon.

In Ghana research has concluded that if mothers start breastfeeding within one hour of birth, then 22% of babies who die in the first 28 days could be saved. “What is so exiting about this research is that the solution does not need costly medicines, we just need to get across the simple message,” said Secretary of State Hillary Benn. AIDS education is also of enormous importance in the Third World, but often the problem is again in getting that ‘simple message’ across to those that need it.

After the earthquake that hit Pakistan last October, many in remote areas died due to lack of knowledge of where aid was available. Perhaps you remember the TV crews that managed to reach these victims when by contrast, the aid didn’t.

In 2004 the island of Hispaniola was hit by hurricane Jeanne, warnings were issued on the Dominican Republic side the day before the storm struck and fatalities were kept down to 23. In the neighbouring Haitian side there was no way to effectively spread the warning, and over 2,000 died.

It would be easy to carry on with other examples of information poverty; the tragedy is that it would cost so little to rectify this situation. To give one example an airdrop of cheap solar powered single station transistor radios in the remote regions of Pakistan, after the 2005 earthquake, broadcasting the information regarding available aid, would have saved many lives.

We in the developed world exist on a diet of electrical power and information, yet for us it is not usually the matter of daily survival or life and death it often is for those in the Third World. The sad fact is that the technology to rectify this problem is both cheap and readily available for the people of Third World, what is lacking is the will in the Western World to deliver it.

In Ashford Kent, engineer Graham Knight heads a small charity called BioDesign. Their concern is to rectify this situation, mainly with the supply and distribution of small solar electrical panel kits to the Third world. Sunlight, the source of solar power, is one commodity that the Third World usually has an excess of, yet power is a commodity that is a scarce resource. BioDesign supplies the basic solar panel parts required that enable people to use their energy and local available materials, e.g. plywood backing and wire, in order to build completed units to the required size and power output. In doing this they gain the skills and education that will lift them out of the poverty trap, as well as having job satisfaction and the knowledge that the finished articles will have many applications. They are used to recharge mobile phones, power radios, charge batteries for lighting and run fans, in addition to other applications.

The BioDesign ethos is to help people out of poverty by giving them access to the life saving educational information and skills that all of us in the developed world have at our fingertips. Unless the situation changes quickly, you are now more aware of the information regarding breastfeeding in Ghana than most of the Ghanaian mothers to be and no doubt you are also more aware of AIDS than the many of those living in the third world.

Battery transistor radios are universal throughout the Third World, but rely on batteries that are expensive, and of uncertain quality. The means of mass communication for news, entertainment and most importantly, education, are potentially there but as the African nations become even poorer, the numbers able to access these radio broadcasts are falling.

The photo shows a BioDesign solar panel. In Africa this would be assembled by one of the small local companies that receive the solar panels and then fitted to the owner’s radio, the cost being the equivalent of two sets of batteries. The solar panel users are soon financially better off, and in addition the problems regarding environmental pollution caused by the batteries disposal is solved, as they are no longer used!

Mobile phone coverage, due to satellite operation, is good in much of the Third World and the opportunities provided by this coverage are many. In one Bangladesh village there was no power and no phone until a loan scheme provided a mobile phone and a solar panel for charging. These were rented out to a woman in the village who makes a minimal charge for calls, so covering her overheads and making a small profit. The village now has a lifeline to and from the world beyond.

Solar lighting also enables hospitals, homes and businesses to operate in safer conditions when it gets dark, as often the only other available source of light is from paraffin lamps which are fire hazards and give off toxic fumes. In India alone the average household without access to electricity uses around 120 litres of expensive paraffin a year, which equates to around 310 kg of carbon released into the atmosphere, multiply this by millions and I am sure you will get the picture. In the poorest and remotest areas of the world, where paraffin is not available, the inhabitants have to use wood for lighting as well as cooking and these are usually the areas where wood is a now a scarce resource. Were you aware of the fact that inhaling smoke from indoor fires is the fourth greatest cause of death and disease in the third world?

In the use of solar energy we have a win, win situation. I have wondered why governments do not support 100% companies such as BioDesign, but I am sure that if sunbeams could be turned into weapons of war then we would have had solar power long ago…

Jesus ministry was to the poor the sick and the neglected, and His followers were commanded to follow Him and He told us that as much as we have done it for them, we have done it for Him. To see just what is being achieved for the disadvantaged by the small-scale solar power in Africa described above, please log on to go to the video section and run ‘Power to the people-part 1.’

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