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March 18, 2005

The Flattening of Almost Everything #3: Bureaucracy

The communal water spigot on Mrs. Gowri’s lane in Ramachandra Nagar, India had gone dry.  Mrs. Gowri and some of the other ladies tried going through channels to get it fixed; they complained to the local authorities who either did or didn’t pass the complaint up the chain of command.  No water came down the pipe.  Then Mrs. Gowri went to see Jancy Rani, the VISP.  The next day the tap was on again for the promised two hours a day.

What’s a VISP?  It’s a Village ISP, of course.  Ms. Rani is an entrepreneur who got a microcredit loan to buy a computer, obtain Internet access, and go into the VISP business.  Besides “egovernance”, she provides email, web browsing, and basic computer literacy training.  She charges for all these services and grossed about $110 in her first month of operation.

Grameen Technology Center, part of Grameen Foundation USA, worked with local Indian partners to set up the Village Computing Program which provided Ms. Rani with training and the loan.  “egovernance” worked in this case because the Village Computing Program has negotiated an agreement which allows it to funnel complaints from VISPs directly to a high level in the water department AND gives them the right to follow-up on a promise that all complaints will be addressed within two weeks.  A random email without this agreement probably wouldn’t have been as effective.

egovernance is a product, not a charitable service.  VISP entrepreneurs make money (and pay back their loans) because people are willing to pay  to get results.  Their customers can also get and fill out forms online and peruse available government programs.

Bureaucracy is hierarchy at its stultifying worst.  As I blogged previously, hierarchies used to be needed to move information.  Now electronic communication allows hierarchies to be flattened.  It’s a very hopeful sign that this is beginning to be true for the poorest of the poor as well as those of us who have a Blackberry for use when our computers are out of convenient reach.

A high World Bank official (who will remain nameless) told me how use of village computer kiosks is helping to reduce the corruption which is often more than a 100% tax on people who can least afford it in the developing world.  In the story he told, people who wanted to start a business used to pay numerous small (but not for them!) bribes – often just for the right to get through the door of a government office – in order to get the needed permits.  A program which allowed the applications to be filed electronically at village kiosks bypassed the greedy hands in the middle.

My guess is that the requirement for the permits will eventually be lifted once it no longer supports a cottage industry of door keepers.

Fred Wilson has blogged about the Grameen Phone Ladies, another set of micro-entrepreneurs supported by Grameen Technology Center.  He donates the AdSense revenue from his blog, A VC, to them.

You also can contribute to Grameen Foundation USA.

The first post in this series is about the flattening of organizations.

The second is about the flattening of information retrieval.

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