09/24/2012 10:08 EDT | Updated 11/24/2012 05:12 EST

Using Technology and New Media to Save Children's Lives


An open response to The Global Conversation Question posed by Mashable and the UN Foundation at the Social Good Summit 2012: How can new technology and new media create solutions for the biggest problems facing my community?

Dhaka, Bangladesh -- I have worked for Save the Children for more than 20 years. Before becoming the CEO here in Canada I worked "in the field" across Latin America, working with our partners on health, nutrition, education and child rights programming. Our mission has always been to reach the most vulnerable children, the ones most in need. Often the children we work with live in remote communities. I have been on hundreds of jeep and small plane trips into jungles, high up mountain ranges and across desserts. While it has been a privilege to go to these places, I also know how difficult it is for these remote communities to have access to the basic services that we take for granted when we live in and near urban centres.

Today I am in Bangladesh, visiting our health and nutrition programming outside of Sylhet. We are visiting the MaMoni Project that focuses on providing health and nutrition care to moms and children under five. I have brought with me guests from Canada, celebrity chef Roger Mooking from Food Network's Everyday Exotic, blogger Annie who is known online as @phdinparenting and youth blogger Orysia Andryo. This is a first for Save the Children Canada. We haven't organized this type of trip before and that we are doing it at all confirms that social media is a vital tool for the global development movement. It is our hope that through the social media presence of our guests we will be able to get Canadians thinking and talking online and off about children's right to food and how ending global hunger is within reach.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, their child and maternal mortality numbers are still too high and millions of children are stunted by malnutrition. Bangladesh clearly demonstrates the need but it surprisingly also demonstrates the hope. Even though it is one of the poorest countries, Bangladesh has seen a significant improvement in child mortality, health and nutrition in spite of their economic challenges. In fact, when you compare the development improvements to those of their neighbour India (a country that has benefitted from significant economic growth) Bangladesh's development outcomes are proportionally better.

This is what our team and I will be witnessing and sharing with Canadians. We will "reporting" from the field during a crucial week for the global development conversation, the opening session of the 67th annual United Nations General Assembly; a time when the world gathers to talk about the state of the world and the goals and challenges of development. The online communities who follow Roger, Annie and Orysia will hopefully be engaged and in turn will engage their networks in this important conversation.

It would probably surprise many Canadians how important technology, particularly cell technology and the internet, is to the practice of development today. While in Canada Save the Children mainly uses the internet as a communications tool for fundraising and public engagement, cellular technology is vital to providing health care and teaching communities about public health priorities, among other things. In the developing world this technology revolution is saving lives.

Every day cell service is reaching the world's most remote communities. These communities often have limited health facilities if any, but a frontline health worker with a mobile phone can be called in an emergency, she can reach a doctor or nurse in a hospital to help diagnose illnesses or determine the need for more skilled care for the patient. She can also provide basic patient check-ups and follow-up and submit patient data via text to a doctor based in a clinic hundreds of kilometers away.

Public health is one of the least glamorous but most important aspects of health care particularly in areas that are underserviced. Teaching people something as simple as proper hand washing, or good nutrition and the early signs of malnutrition can save lives and save resources. Save the Children is working in Bangladesh to help design, build and bring to scale a platform to provide lifesaving audio and text health messages about postnatal care, safe delivery, vaccines, breastfeeding and family planning and nutrition as part of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) Project.

The objectives of MAMA are to reach 500,000 pregnant women and new mothers within 3 years, and to provide them with health sustaining and even life saving information. The MAMA model depends on the combined resources and expertise of both the public and private sector to fund and sustain the initiative. Every hour, a woman dies due to maternal complications, 80% of these deaths are preventable. MAMA will use Bangladesh's extensive mobile phone penetration to deliver life-saving messages to pregnant women and new mothers.

Climate change poses a major threat to Bangladesh. Already it is a country that has an annual monsoon season and has experienced severe flooding that has stranded hundreds of thousands and put thousands of families in harms' way. The importance of mobile phones during emergencies has been seen time and again. We have already witnessed people surrounded by flood waters calling for help from rooftops and trees. Images from camera phones are some of the first transmitted around the world during times of natural disaster. Mobile phones make responding to a crisis more efficient helping our emergency teams to more quickly coordinate the relief effort and to track our response so that we are even more accountable to the communities we serve and to our donors.

New Media is still new in Bangladesh. Internet and its offspring social media have not spread like cell phones and text messaging. Bangladesh does rank 52nd in terms of Facebook users which suggests that new media is growing. For Save the Children's EVERY ONE campaign we have a fan page which has over 4300 people and engagement is quite high. It is a means to educate and mobilize communities in developing countries around important issues like health care access.

Canadians understand that mobile technology (cell and smartphone) and the internet are (for good or for bad) a necessity in their lives. It helps us work, schedule our time, connect with family and friends and yes it saves lives in developed countries too. In countries like Bangladesh it is all that and more. Save the Children along with our partners are pioneering innovative ways to use this technology to improve how we do our work, ensure greater accountability and to save more lives. How we tackle the digital divide between the world's rich and poor will, in and of itself, become an important indicator as to whether or not we solve the world's development gap.