BARCELONA, Spain During a panel at this week's Mobile World Congress, four prominent speakers, including GSM Association CEO Rob Conway, hastened to highlight one aspect of efforts to provide mobile communications to the world's poorest people.
"Connecting the unconnected" in the Third World is an absolute good, the engineers of these projects insist, because it's "not charity." By implication, one assumes that charity is a bad thing.
Indeed, there is strong evidence that the practice among richest nations of sending aid -- "charity" -- to such Third World governments as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Pakistan, has failed. The implication is that poor people who receive charity lose their will to work and luxuriate in their huts on a cushion of handouts.
In reality, studies examining the failure of foreign aid indicate that the bulk of funds meant to help the hut-dwelling poor ends up enriching the already rich -- graft to local dictators, baksheesh to local regulators and kickbacks to Western contractors.
Foreign aid to poor nations has given charity a bad name. But as we lament this truth, we might consider the words of Paul, in First Corinthians, who reduced mankind's ascension to full knowledge to its fundamental elements: "Now, faith, hope and charity remain -- these three. But the greatest of these is charity."
Many versions of Paul's letter translate "charity" as "love," appropriately. For Paul's intent was to praise a selflessness in the human heart that sees suffering among others and instinctively -- lovingly -- reaches out to succor that pain. This impulse, we believe, inspired GSM members Iqbal Quadir, founder of GrameenPhone in Bangladesh, Karim Kohja, who risked his life to build Roshan in Afghanistan and Sigve Brekke, a veritable missionary for mobile communications throughout Asia, to extend the blessings of information technology to these vast, needy legions of the "unconnected."
They knew they might lose money. They proceeded anyway -- though they might cringe at the characterization -- for love. ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure, in his speech, emphasized that "profit is not a crime." Neither is charity, especially when it's applied directly to a profound need and doesn't get ripped off by the middleman.
One of the misfortunes of the current ideological climate, especially in America, is the exaltation of capitalist dogma, as a form of "survival of the fittest" Social Darwinism, above all the other "business models" for human society. Perhaps we should reconsider this orthodoxy. Had "profit" been the sole criterion for every policy in the past, there would have been, for example, no Marshall Plan to stabilize and rebuild Europe after World War II. America never would have built its interstate highway system and Neil Armstrong would never have walked on the moon.
On a smaller scale, Androcles would have left the thorn in the lion's paw; the good Samaritan would have been just another Samaritan, and Tiny Tim would have perished before next Christmas.
Indeed, neither profit nor charity are crimes. But as Paul, even in this mercenary age, reminds us, "the greater of these is charity."