Avoiding the Digital Divide Hype in Using Mobile Phones for Development

Published on: Dec 23 2011 by Lindsay Poirier
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To all of you digital divide warriors out there – nice work. With over 483 million mobile phone subscriptions in low-income countries – an estimated 44.9% penetration rate, few will deny the success of your efforts to expand mobile technology in the developing world.

Rapid mobile growth rates further exhibit success in dissemination, and stats such as, “There are more mobile phones than toilets in India,“ and “There are more mobile phones than light bulbs in Uganda,” make us smile and feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

While it’s true that, in most cases, these numbers exhibit stimulation in local economies, there are some fuzzy lines when it comes to determining what these numbers mean in terms of mobile phone access and development. The data shows that mobile technology is expanding, but does this necessarily mean that access to technology is coinciding with the expansion?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is somewhat blurred. UNDP’s report, Mobile Technologies and Empowerment, attempts to thoroughly and accurately depict the current contexts of mobile technologies in the developing world and then goes on to recount and suggest effective means for applying them to promote sustainable development.

Practitioners can throw out all sorts of promising data about mobile phone subscriptions, but the fact is that these numbers do not equate to mobile phone ownership. In fact, according to the report, only 10% of the population in the world’s least developed countries has an individual mobile phone subscription, and 40% of the population in these countries is not even covered by mobile phone networks.

Why is ownership so much lower than penetration?

The report goes on to point out that costs for mobile technology ownership in the least developed countries remain high, potentially amounting to 15.75% of monthly average per capita income. In such cases, “mobile phones [can] actually undermine development if they only create further expenses for poor people.” While the poorest individuals in a country may not be able to afford a mobile phone, others may have more than one subscription, boosting penetration percentages. Access to mobile phones becomes even blurrier when considering that an estimated 80-90% of the people in these countries can access a cell phone within their community regardless of financial status.

I hope that this doom and gloom spiel on the current standings of mobile technology didn’t dampen your spirits too much. Knowing where we stand in terms of mobile technology penetration is pivotal to successful M4D initiative development. Now that we’ve clarified the context of mobile penetration, it is possible to highlight some considerations for mobiles in development.

1) Like it or not, the digital divide still exists. Don’t ignore it.

With relatively few individuals in developing countries actually in possession of a personal mobile device, expansive development initiatives need to avoid the expectation of ownership. The report asserts:

Given the still relatively high cost of mobile phones and services in developing countries, specially in the LDCs, projects targeting broad development goals such as democratic governance, health, education, and justice, for instance, should not fall in to the “digital divide” trap and emphasize ownership of devices.

2) A mobile in the hand is worth nothing without effective means for use in the bush.

By themselves, mobiles do not have the power to alleviate poverty. They should therefore always be part of larger development programs that address broad development goals. Getting phones in the hands of individuals is meaningless if the users do not understand the ways in which they can be leveraged.

The point here is that mobile phones alone are not a solution to any problem, but, with well-developed planning, they can be effective tools for solving a problem. UNDP’s report describes numerous instances where mobile technology was effectively used as a tool for addressing a broad development goal within the context of the developing world.

The advantages that mobile technologies can provide over other ICTs in developing countries are irrefutable. They’re less expensive. They enable two-way conversation. They don’t require high literacy. The list goes on.

There’s no question that mobiles can play a significant role in the developing world, but their implementation requires consideration of concrete contexts and plans for sustainable goal achievement. UNDP’s report describes these contexts and provides considerations for implementing mobile technology in order to empower people in developing countries.

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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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3 Comments to “Avoiding the Digital Divide Hype in Using Mobile Phones for Development”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post! Would love to see ICTworks identify the many arguments made in favor of M4D and review the literature on whether those arguments have an empirical basis.

  2. Anonymous says:

    who are the ‘digital divide warriors’? sometimes it sounds like you’re talking about mobile operators, sometimes NGOs. these are very different.

  3. toilet man says:

    With regard to your comment “Rapid mobile growth rates further exhibit success in dissemination, and stats such as, “There are more mobile phones than toilets in India,“ and “There are more mobile phones than light bulbs in Uganda,” make us smile and feel all warm and fuzzy inside.”

    I realize that you’re coming at this from an ICT standpoint, but it really shouldn’t make anyone feel warm and fuzzy inside that there are more mobile phones than toilets in India or than light bulbs in Uganda. It should raise grave concerns as to the huge public health and quality of life issues, related to these lack of services, that are so evident throughout the developing world.

    I often cite the “more mobiles than toilets” phrase in India to highlight the disaster that the water supply and sanitation (WSS) sector is in that country in providing such fundamentally basic services to its massive population. What we do need to do in the WSS sector is learn how mobile phone service providers have managed to target their plans such that slum dwellers and rural households can have access to phone services (pre-pay, commercially viable service providers, and other tailored arrangments) to see how such approaches can be emulated in the grossly inefficient water sector for rolling out financially viable WSS services to the urban and rural poor.

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