Small Messages, Big Change: How UNICEF works with Mobile Network Operators to Create a Fair Future for Children

By Christopher Fabian, Senior Advisor on Innovation to the Executive Director at UNICEF and Co-founder and Co-lead of the UNICEF Innovation Unit.

I have never really liked the term “developing country” – or “developing economy.” We’re all “developing,” and the idea of a world in some asymmetrical balance doesn’t seem to reflect the complexities of 2016. I do however like the idea of a “developing country” if it’s developing solutions, developing technology, and developing pools of talent that can solve global problems. UNICEF’s Innovation Unit looks at creating partnerships, collaborations, and networks that take advantage of new brains and new business opportunities and builds solutions for children – globally.

Most of the innovations we work on include some level of technology. Technology can be used to strengthen and extend formal systems (government, civil society) that are weak. However, we’ve learned time and again that technology works best when it’s built where those systems are weakest. Building technology in places where it is most needed not only helps solve immediate problems, but also creates communities of problem solvers who are empowered, connected, and able to look towards fixing the next issue, and the issue after that.

UNICEF uses open-source technology — particularly technology driven by mobile — to build services that support children. We have used SMS and basic phones to report on births, understand the spread of banana plague in Uganda and Ebola in West Africa, and connect young people directly to government. We have built android apps to let autistic children connect to their parents and teachers in China, and help report on the numbers and needs of refugee children in Europe.

We also know that investing in solutions for the most disadvantaged children actually yields dividends for everyone – in the form of robust and equitable economic growth, strong and cohesive societies, stable and secure countries, and a healthier planet.

Two billion out of the seven billion people on the planet are below the age of 25; close to 90% of these people live in “developing” economies. Young people are early technology adopters. Giving the most disadvantaged children tools for access to information, opportunity, and choice creates future consumers, scientists, creators, and citizens who will be better prepared to shape the world around them.

Some mobile technology companies are experiencing first-hand how developing solutions for children in marginalized communities creates business opportunities and solves human problems. UNICEF has worked with mobile network operators like Telenor, Vodafone, Airtel, Safaricom, Millicom, MTN, Telefonica, and others to develop and deploy tools for real-time information and youth engagement.

One of these solutions is U-Report — a social messaging tool that enables real-time communication between young people and decision makers using SMS and social media. U-Report reaches more than 1.9M youth in 18 countries and grows daily. It’s been used to increase voluntary HIV testing in Zambia, and to educate communities about the symptoms of Ebola in Liberia and Nigeria. With U-Report we can receive thousands of messages in seconds. We can see hundreds of thousands of data points aggregated and telling an accurate and real-time story of young people’s views and needs. These open-source, mobile-based solutions can allow frontline users – whether health, education, or representing other essential services, to report on critical gaps and needs in the systems where they work. Having this real-time data can help leaders make better-informed decisions.

Many of these improvements in system speed, and in the gathering of information, would have been impossible just a few years ago. As UNICEF, one of our responsibilities is to evaluate evolving technologies and discern their potential for helping children. We can use our ability to motivate and influence government and corporate partners around issues like bandwidth, access, and licensing, and we can do more with strategic partnerships.

We need to continue working with key partners who have networks that will accelerate the development of new technologies that help millions of children access basic health, education and support services, leading to a better future. Currently we’re working with innovators like:
• Airtel to improve access to health and education-related information via mobile services for 17 countries across Africa.
• ARM Holdings to explore the potential impact of wearable and sensor technology on women and children in emerging markets.
• The Philips Foundation, a founding member of UNICEF’s Global Innovation Centre, to leverage their expertise in logistics and product development.

As a way of working faster with technology companies, we recently launched the first global call for applications to the UNICEF Innovation Fund (, which provides capital investments to tech startups in emerging economies. (Companies can submit through 26 February 2016 during this first round and there will be additional calls for applications later in 2016). The Innovation Fund is the first of its kind in the UN. We launched it because we need to move faster towards solutions to the biggest problems facing children. Through the Fund we’re investing in emerging, open source technology solutions to help us find new ways to reach more children with essential services. The Fund will also give us access to a community of developers and entrepreneurs who can be used in the future to build other solutions for children.

We’re excited that Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director, is speaking at the 2016 MWC amongst current and potential partners who share our belief that the technology sector’s focus on emerging markets can deliver expanded business opportunities alongside social impact for children. Innovators who can help reshape the future of child survival and development with smart, simple and cost effective tools are true champions of children. Together we can do great things.


At MWC 2016 UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, will expand the 2015 MWC conversation about technology solutions for the “bottom billion” to focus on why it’s smart business strategy to create quality, affordable mobile products and services that give equal opportunity to all.

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