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State Department Sets Out to Figure Out Mobile Money

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, July 23 2010

As part of its ongoing quest to figure out how it might apply modern technologies to the world's toughest problems, the U.S. State Department will bring together its employees, outside government staffers, and other interested parties for a discussion and experimentation session on "mobile money" on August 2nd, at State's George C. Marshall Center.

What the State Department is up to on the tech front if one of the most interesting stories coming out of the DC innovation space, with the necessary caveat that very much of what is happening in so-called 21st century statecraft should have a giant "beta" labeled slapped across it. That's not something that folks inside the State Department don't know, and in the interest of making better mistakes faster, they're pulling together these events.

Elana Berkowitz is part of the Innovation Office working under Secretary Clinton, newly assigned to State after a stint helping to write the National Broadband Plan at the FCC. She describes the promise of mobile banking as part of a broader State effort at increasing financial inclusion around the globe. "For us, part of the potentially transformative impact of mobile money is that we have so many people around the world who don't have formal bank accounts, or formal financial identities," she says, "and yet we're seeing such an explosion in mobile in the world, to the point where there are 1.7 billion people who don't have access to financial services, but do have access to a mobile phone."

Mobile finance is one aspect of the State Department's high-tech push where other in-depth is being done around the world, inside and outside government. The Gates Foundation and USAID recently announced a $10 million new fund to figure out how mobile banking might help in the rebuilding of post-earthquake Haiti. And on Tuesday, the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, or CGAP, put out a report assessing " Microfinance and Mobile Banking: The Story So Far."

The first part of the day will go towards hearing from experts about examples of mobile banking in the field, from Afghanistan to Colombia. Then there will be chance for people to play around with some mobile banking tools before discussion turns towards the application of mobile banking to some of the major world issues already on the State Department's agenda, from food security to remittances. Also working on the push inside State is María Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, who before coming to State was the President and CEO of the microfinance leader ACCION.

Curious about what the U.S. State Department is doing with mobile banking around the world? Not sure what to make about all this talk of digital diplomacy? If you're in DC, you've got a chance to feel it out in the flesh. The August 2nd event is open to the public; you just have to RSVP. And the event will also be livestreamed.

(Here's an old but related post, by yours truly, on one instance where Kenya's M-PESA mobile money system was called into duty by independent media during that country's 2008 post-election chaos.)