Justin Timberlake’s a headliner, but...

Music artists Justin Timberlake and Timbaland perform together at the Los Angeles launch of the new mobile platform. Photo by: United Nations Foundation

This article is produced and published by Devex Impact, a global initiative of Devex and USAID that focuses on the intersection of business and global development and connects companies, organizations and professionals to the practical information they need to make an impact.

When A-list superstar Justin Timberlake took the stage at a United Nations Foundation event Friday in Los Angeles to join fellow artist and producer Timbaland, the crowd had its mobile phones in the air to capture and share the moment.

The event marked the launch of mPowering Action, an online platform for youth in developing countries supported by the U.N. Foundation, Shell, marketing agency Tribal Brands and music-industry celebrities including Timbaland.

While development impact may not have been top of mind while the crowd danced – indeed, Rolling Stone magazine reported that Timbaland’s wife, Monique Eisley, had to remind the crowd they were there for the cause, not just the music – the power of celebrity, song and mobile phone was on full display at the Grammy Week event. That mix is exactly what the mPowering Action partners are counting on to drive development results around the world.

The platform, which will be released as Android and iPhone apps later this month, will allow users to download free music from Timbaland, the project’s first “producer-in-residence,” and Indonesia-born pop star Agnes Monica, among other artists. While on the app, users can post the development needs of their communities and, in the future, access a database of resources in their area.

According to promotional material provided by mPowering Action, for example, a child in India could write in the app that her family lacked resources for healthy cooking. Shell could then donate clean cook stoves to that region and the app would let the child know where to find one.

“Music is a great attractor for young people,” said Herbert Heitmann, Shell’s executive vice president of external communications, noting that his own four children use mobile phones more for listening to music “than calling their dad.”

The data generated by the app would be valuable to Shell and other organizations engaged in development work, Heitmann told Devex Impact.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on social investment, and we don’t always know if we’ve had an impact,” Heitmann said.

Through the app, Shell and other corporations and nonprofits involved in development can hear directly from end-users about what they want and need. That’s important, according to Heitmann.

“We hear every day from stakeholders in London, Brussels and Washington D.C. about what we should do or not do, but more important is to hear from the younger generation” in developing countries, he said.

Jeff Martin, founder and CEO of Tribal Brands, the company that designed the mobile platform, said he hopes other companies, entertainers and nonprofits will choose to join the mPowering Action partnership.

“This first release [of the app] is a call to action,” said Martin, explaining that mobile analytics can provide detailed, location-based data to nonprofits and other development agencies so they can better understand how their products and services are used on the ground.

Martin noted that for young people who don’t have access to smart phones, the application can also be accessed via SMS. Ultimately, he said, the application will be available on 14 platforms, including X-Box and smart TVs.

Aaron Sherinian, vice president of communications for the U.N. Foundation, said the mPowering Action partnership is an opportunity to harness broad-based enthusiasm for technology-based development solutions that cuts across industries.

“The nexus of technology, development and engagement is what we’ve all been hoping to leverage for a long time, and mPowering Action allows us to set a bigger table,” he suggested, one that brings together development professionals, corporations, technology leaders and the entertainment industry. “It’s a milestone moment to look at how the creative community can incentivize conversations not only around development questions but also around development realities.”

Logistical details about the partnership – who is responsible day-to-day for the development and deployment of the app, who will set goals for success – are yet to be announced, said U.N. Foundation’s Sherinian: “We are in co-creation mode right now, so watch this space.”

Stephen Davenport, senior director for innovation Development Gateway, a nonprofit, said that while mobile apps for development are increasingly common – “throw a rock and you’ll hit one,” he said – the idea of incorporating music is both novel and promising.

“The incentive to download the music will get young people involved, so they will hit their target demographic,” he said.

But having a mobile phone is one thing, and knowing about the app in order to download and access it is another, he said.

“How will young people know about this?” he asked.

Davenport suggested that the partnership work through local intermediaries, including government ministries, to leverage existing networks and get the word out quickly.

The U.N. Foundation’s Sherinian said that marketing will be driven initially by celebrity support. For example, during the launch event, #mPoweringAction was briefly trending in Indonesia, thanks to promotion from Indonesia-born pop star Agnes Monica, who performed at the event.

Davenport pointed to other initiatives that have attempted to create “feedback loops” between development providers and end users, including UNICEF’s SMS-based U-Report, which has more than 150,000 users now in Uganda.

“One of the biggest challenges with these types of feedback loops is: Is there a person on the other end of the phone? If you say that you want a cook stove, and you don’t get one, you’re not going to use that app again,” he said.

Davenport also called on mPowering Action to coordinate with local government agencies so the app becomes more about “open government” and less about companies or nonprofits making donations.

With the partnership still in launch mode, however, enthusiasm remains high that the partnership will make an impact.

Avicii, the Swedish-born D.J. whose fans include swimmer Michael Phelps, told Devex Impact via email that his work to end hunger in the United States through House for Hunger, a charity he founded, has motivated him to think globally.

“Hunger is a global problem that hits all countries no matter how strong the economy is,” he wrote. “Being given the ability to help the young globally is an amazing opportunity.”

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About the author

  • Andrea Useem

    As former associate editor and content director for Devex Impact, Andrea created and managed cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea also served as leadership editor at the Washington Post and spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Africa reporting for publications including the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle.