Several of the readings in the Emerging Markets for Digital Media course this term question the value of mobile phone use among the poor in developing countries. Richard Heeks blogged last year about research suggesting mobiles are doing more harm than good. Kurt DeMaagd did a study (link unavailable) sought to demonstrate the rapid adoption of mobile devices has not resulted in a corresponding increase in productivity around the globe. And Kathleen Diga’s study “reveals” some Ugandans are choosing to pay for airtime instead of food items.
Why must the use of mobile phones among many of the most poor and isolated demonstrate some sort of measurable advancement in order to be justified? I doubt people here in the U.S. would question why a welfare mom owns a cell phone. And I’ve never hear anyone wonder why a senior citizen on a fixed income would choose to pay for phone service. So why the attitude towards those in developing countries?
I believe there are two reasons for this misguided criticism. First, mobile phones’ roots are in the Information Communications Technologies (ICT) sector and therefore promise and/or set expectations of greater productivity. Second, we take communications for granted. With well developed postal and landline infrastructures few westerners find it difficult to communicate from afar. Getting a message to a family member in a timely manner is a given.
With almost three-quarters of the bottom billion living and working in rural locations, the ability to communicate across even relatively short distances can be difficult. Many African countries are characterized by poor postal infrastructure. And the lack of landlines is well known. With this in mind, it’s surprising that we cannot just appreciate the value of human connection that mobile phones make possible.
The report written by Katrin Verclas and Sheila Kinkade co-sponsored by the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Group Foundation highlights several case studies that speak to the benefit of mobile phones on a pure human level. The World Food Program (WFP) initiated a mobile-phone based system to notify Iraqi refugees in Syria about the availability of food aid. The WFP alerts are sent to eligible families about food rations and directs them to a pick-up location. Haitham El Noush, program officer at the WFP Damascus: “We are finding the program to be very effective. You give good news to people on their mobiles. People reported that they felt happy when they received the text messages from us, and told us they felt that someone cares about them.”
In another scenario mobile phones proved instrumental in helping manage the crisis after the December 2007 presidential election in Kenya. A text messaging “nerve center” was particularly useful after the government ban on live broadcasting of incidences of violence. Reading text messages such as “Over 400 people with no food or water holed in Huruma PCEA church in Eldoret for three days. Help needed immediately” and “I humbly ask for security in the church we are in now, Elgon view, Eldoret as we have heard of the killing in Kiambas church” makes me question why there is any suggestion that mobile phone use in developing countries must somehow be justified by proving higher productivity or financial wherewithal.
Of course it’s important to recognize the significant role mobile phones play in fostering economic growth and opportunity among the world’s poorest. Not surprising, in many countries they have come to symbolize economic status. But it would be wrong to think of their value only in terms of economics.