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`Social motivation without sustainability has no value': Akhtar Badshah

By Frederick Noronha

Akhtar Badshah, executive director and co-founder of Digital Partners Global - a development organisation that showcases, assists and brings in funding to support good ventures -- sees "enormous potential" in digital technologies and the digital economy helping poor communities leapfrog out of poverty

Akhtar Badshah (47) is executive director and co-founder of Digital Partners Global. Located at the World Trade Centre in Seattle, this development organisation is currently being led by expatriate Indians.

For the past two years, Badshah has been part of the team that organises the annual Baramati Initiative meet in the small, dusty town of Baramati in Maharashtra. The goal: to discuss how ICTs (information and communication technologies) can be harnessed for development. Held at the end of May, these meets have drawn a wide range of people experimenting in this field.

The web venture that Badshah is associated with -- www.digitalpartners.org
-- is sometimes marketed as UN secretary general Kofi Annan's "favourite
site".

Badshah sees "enormous potential" in digital technologies and the digital economy helping poor communities leapfrog out of poverty. This year's meet drew in social entrepreneurs, members of the development community, ICT entrepreneurs, government officials and others.

An architect by training, Badshah studied in Ahmedabad and did his PhD in MIT where he taught architecture for eight years, focussing on urban development issues.

"I believe in serial social entrepreneurship, and like to start non-profits and shut them down when they've done whatever they were intended to do. We brought in (the concept of) corporate citizenship to India. CII has taken over. Groups like Bombay First, Chennai First, Sambhavana in Karnataka, Colombo First and groups in the Philippines have also been formed to take up such tasks," says Badshah. Excerpts from a recent interview:

Frederick Naronha: This must take up a lot of your time. What motivates you?
Akhtar Badshah: It actually takes up all my time. This is all I do. It's an organisation I co-founded.

Most of my adult educated life has been spent in architecture and in the development field, after my education at MIT. One thing I firmly believe is that one way to overcome abject poverty is to promote entrepreneurship. `Entrepreneurship' may not be the right word here. What I'm referring to is the little chap (who opens up) some little stall (to earn a living).

Today, IT allows us to create micro (business) ventures in a far more effective way. That's the belief system that brought me into this effort. We believe we can make a difference by using IT and creating entrepreneurship.

FN: How do you judge the response?
AB: This is not an easy job. But the fact is that you can have two such events (like the annual Baramati conference), and get an enthusiastic response.

If you ask whether we are able to raise the resources we need, the answer is `No'. Three years ago (during the dotcom boom), if we had to raise $50 million it would probably have been no problem. Today, you need to educate people that this is the right thing.

FN: Do you feel that India is ahead in the IT-for-development debate?
AB: Absolutely, there's no question about that. You can see the kind of expertise and the kind of dedication. India is a bastion in terms of IT-for-development. That's why Digital Partners took on India as the first challenge. All the resources are there. India has poverty problems, and is badly in need of development. It also has the IT skills, and the infrastructure by way of communication technology. There's the brainpower too. There's also tremendous (but not noticed) local entrepreneurial energy.

FN: Could you tell us about Digital Partners?
AB: It's based in Seattle and its primary support comes from individuals in the hi-tech industry. This includes expatriate Indians, Kellogg, Open Society Institute, the UN, the World Bank, USAID. Project-level funding is directly driven by individuals. We have chapters in Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, San Diego, and are going to launch in Washington D C. We also plan to launch Digital Partners in Ghana, to look after West Africa. In addition, we are looking to work out of Mexico.

FN: What are your activities like outside India?
AB: Right now, it's limited. Our process is based on people applying for mentorship. We have mentorship programmes in Africa and Latin America.

FN: How do you fight the pessimism that predominates the Third World situation?
AB: I don't take `No' for an answer. I've done a PhD in environmental design for architecture from MIT. Nobody says cities will improve globally. But maybe that's the wrong question to ask. Take the case of Mumbai. It's amazing to see that the city has not collapsed. With a population of over seven million living in slums there should have been rampant disease. There is hardly enough space for roads; transport shouldn't have moved. Yet, the city works!

We at Digital Partners are not coming out with projects and saying, "This is what you must do". On the contrary, we want to identify what people are doing (at the local level) and see what will work. For example, drishtee.com (that provides rural Internet access), Gyandoot (extending e-governance services to villagers), SEWA (the women's group from Gujarat) or SKS (working in micro-credit) in Andhra Pradesh.

There are obviously many others that we don't know about. We learn of such initiatives at conferences like this. Our job is to showcase, assist and bring in funding to support good ventures whenever possible.

FN: Of late, in the last year or two, there has been a sudden influx of funding in the IT-for-development field, from donors. Could this not attract the wrong kind of attention?
AB: I'm not so sure about that. Even in the last two years, there were a lot of projects that got funding that should not have. Projects which would never have been sustainable. Projects that should have been killed up-front. During the dotcom boom, anyone with an IT idea found people saying: "Great, let's support it."

Today, there is a lot more checking. So better projects will get funding. Social motivation without sustainability has no value. It is one thing to feed a destitute and very hungry child. But you've got to go to the next level so people understand how to feed themselves. If you've made a very sick child better but not healthy, you've not done your job.

FN: What are Digital Partners' plans for the future?
AB: Our competition (for grants for innovative IT-for-development projects) carries on. Our next competition begins in July 2002. We also have the `global-classmates' initiative, which is a Web-based platform to support class-to-class collaboration across borders and cultures (see www.globalclassmates.org). We're hoping this will break down cultural barriers. We would love to see a school in Lahore and Delhi talk to one another, and (children) grow up without biases of the past. We've pilot-tested two schools each in India (Delhi and Baramati) and the US.


Contact: www.digitalpartners.org

(Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist based in Goa-India interested in developmental issues)