An Address: The Next Human Right?

The flag of the Universal Postal Union, the UN agency that coordinates postal policies for member nations.
The flag of the Universal Postal Union, the UN agency that coordinates postal policies for member nations.
Food, shelter, clothing. These are considered basic human rights. But what about a personal address? Is that a human right, too?

That’s the contention of Charles Prescott, a former Direct Marketing Association official who is in the midst of forming a new transnational organization to promote universal “addressability.”

“The consequences of existence, or lack thereof, of an address – especially in the developing world – are dire,” Prescott says. The new group he is organizing (the name isn’t finalized yet – the International Address Data Association is being considered) will promote the adoption of a Universal Postal Union resolution calling for all countries to adopt formal address systems, including change-of-address systems that are available at an affordable cost.

Prescott notes that the cost of change-of-address systems range widely at present, from just a few cents per name in the United States to as high as ~80 cents per name in The Netherlands. If costs are too great, businesses won’t bother using them.

In the U.S., highly addressable mail isn’t that big of an issue, although it’s probably true that a great many catalogues and other printed materials end up in landfills because they’re not addressed to the correct location and never find their way to their intended recipients.

But it’s a huge issue in the developing world. “Address coordinates which can be associated with an individual are extraordinarily important for fostering economic, social and political development,” Prescott emphasizes. But how does this play out in parts of the world where the address descriptions are vague … or non-existent?

I recall when I visited Mumbai, India in the late 1970s, I stayed in a dwelling known as Motiwala Mansion in the Mahim District of the city. Its address was simply “Opposite Shree Cinema.” I asked about the address of the movie house across the street and was told that it was “Opposite Motiwala Mansion.” How’s that for confusion in a city of millions if you don’t know where either one of these buildings is located?

Even more challenging are the slum districts that pepper the world, where addresses basically don’t exist. Today, with the explosion of mobile technology, cell phones reach into every nook and cranny of the world. In fact, cell phones are ubiquitous in the favelas, back alleys and other transient communities that have sprung up in and around every major third-world city. These phones can track the coordinates where someone is living, thereby tagging him or her with an “address” of sorts.

Sound far-fetched? It’s actually happening today, such as with one Brazilian department store chain that is extending store credit to people residing in these localities – once their physical location is known.

But Prescott contends that mobile phone coordinates represent only a partial solution – one that doesn’t allow for the delivery of physical mail. It also doesn’t solve other barriers existing in some countries that have a direct bearing on the economic opportunities for poorer people. One example: the need to show a birth certificate to register children in school … hobbled by the inability to obtain that birth certificate without having a formal address.

Obviously, any new push for a universal “address” initiative faces challenges. As illustrated by the Mumbai example above, addresses will need to be developed using systematic logic that is consistently applied from community to community inside a country. That’s a lot easier said than done.

But as an evangelist for providing every person on the planet an address as a basic human right, Prescott is clearly serious in his endeavor. The advisory board he’s formed includes key thought leaders from business organizations, academia and government in the United States and Europe. This initiative bears watching.

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