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Aadhaar model has powerful lessons for Africa: Mark Suzman

Q&A with the President of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Sai Manish  |  New Delhi 

Mark Suzman, President, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Mark Suzman, President, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Mark Suzman, President of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, on a visit to India for the summit tells Sai Manish that India's model is generating significant interest among nations across the world. Here are excerpts from an interaction with Suzman held at the foundation’s office in New Delhi

What came out your meetings at the summit in Gujarat?

One of the major discussions revolved around agricultural finance and how to extend more credit to small and marginal farmers. From the BMGF’s perspective, we are looking to work with the on two key issues – sanitation and This is where some of the work we are doing in India could be a model for Africa. For instance here in India, the work that is being done on and is generating a great deal of interest among African countries. A seed fund in collaboration with the can be set up for the purpose. The second area of discussions was sanitation especially non-piped sanitation for fecal sludge and septic management.

Can a model like be implemented in Africa?
We are still looking at it whether it will be exactly like Our model of working is that the project has to be demand driven. Governments need to think about what would be most useful for them. We think the model has a lot of powerful and positive lessons. Especially now, when is being grafted to payment systems. There is certainly a lot of interest from a lot of countries over

Is there a model for implementing in Africa in the works?
The model doesn’t exist as yet. But Africa has a lot of interesting models around mobile payments. East African nations like Kenya and Tanzania have some of the most evolved mobile payment systems in the world in terms of volume and its share in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). They have had significant poverty reduction effects. But all of these have been done independently by the private sector. A universal identification can be of great help when it comes to direct cash transfers from the government. This is where we feel the model could come in handy in terms of reducing waste and ensuring that the targeted benefits reach the intended beneficiaries.

How would the go about providing universal identification numbers to Africans?
We don’t have a universal plan for Africa. It involves country specific discussions. This where the can be helpful because they talk with multiple nations at once. For instance we have a project with the Central Bank of West African States. These countries have a common currency. We have spoken to them on having interoperability of payment infrastructure across these nations. Then we could have universal identification numbers that could help track payments across these markets. But it’s still in an early stage. Digital has as much potential to be disruptive for the poor as any other intervention.

And is an like model intrinsic to achieving that objective?
I wouldn’t call it intrinsic as there are a lot of other things you can do without a universal identification number which will still produce significant public goods. On the other hand there are clear benefits a universal identification number provides in having a common platform through which different services could be provided to people. It is predictable, reliable and becomes trusted over time. In East Africa, we have an incredibly successful mobile payments system. But it could be more than just that. Now you got to retrofit other services to the mobile payments ecosystem. But the system is bottom up where you can layer on various services like direct cash transfers and mobile payment systems. is a more successful model that helps reducing costs and improves efficiency. But we wouldn’t necessarily prescribe a specific route to get to the same destination.

What bearing does the recent ransomware attacks have on peoples’ trust in the digital economy?
It’s a question we ourselves are debating. The technology that exploits payments systems is in constant race with technologies that enable efficient payment systems. If trust is lost in digital payment systems then it doesn’t come back so easily. I don’t think we have any off the shelf solutions other than the fact that it is a critical part of what we do. We have to ensure that we don’t accelerate ahead of our ability to maintain that trust especially for the poor unless they go back to hoarding cash.

What would you rate higher: artificial intelligence or human ingenuity?
On a personal level I hope artificial intelligence doesn’t keep pace with human ingenuity! But there is exciting progress happening in the space of artificial intelligence. My boss is on record along with others like on having some concerns on the long term potential while others are more optimistic. I am not an information technology person so I will just leave it at that.

There has been global interest in a project your foundation was working on to edit mosquito genes to stop them from reproducing. Can that model be used in India where vector borne diseases are a rampant problem?
Tackling malaria is one of our top priorities and that is where this vector control programme stems from.  One of the solutions you can use for tackling diseases like malaria, dengue, chikungunya and zika is controlling the population of mosquitoes. We have supported research in a couple of different models.  One of them is in the field of dengue control in South East Asia. It involves the use of bacteria to control disease bearing mosquito population and the programme is in its field trial phase. The second is gene drive which involves making use of modern gene editing technologies. It involves modifying the gene of the mosquito that prevents it from carrying disease causing viruses. We supported scientific research in this field which indicates that there is significant potential. This is purely in the laboratory stage at the moment. There is a long process that needs to take place including scientific safeguard, regulatory environments under which this project could be run. As with any new technology, one has to make sure that there are no unintended consequences. If it continues to show the promise it is showing right now in its research phase, it would have potential benefits for India. But we are many years away from it.