By Richard Heeks
If you had to choose three words to sum up the future of ICT4D, they might well be “mobiles, mobiles, mobiles”. And the way to that future is being more clearly indicated as the promise of mobiles-for-development research comes to fruition; reflected, for example, in the recent 1st “m4d” international research conference.
But such research is starting to throw up some perplexing – even worrying – findings about mobiles. At its bluntest, such research suggests mobiles are doing more economic harm than good, and sometimes making poor people poorer. Let’s have a look:-
a) Kurt DeMaagd’s “Pervasive versus Productive” paper analyses country-level data on mobiles and national productivity as measured by GDP. He finds that, short-term, there is a negative association between investment in mobiles and GDP in developing countries, possibly because “mobiles represent a diversion of resources away from other productive uses”.
b) Kathleen Diga’s “Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction” dissertation (Ch.5) shows at the micro-level that some rural Ugandan households are sacrificing expenditure on purchased food (e.g. sugar, milk, flour) so they can pay for mobile airtime. This includes households that “admit to some days of hunger in order to maintain the mobile phone”. They are also diverting savings into mobile phone purchase and saving for airtime by foregoing attendance at social functions.
c) Hosea Mpogole, Hidaya Usanga and Matti Tedre’s “Mobile Phones and Poverty Allevation” paper at the m4d conference researches mobile use in rural Tanzania. “48% of respondents reported that they sometimes substitute important needs (e.g. education, buying food, and clothes) for mobile phone ownership/usage”. Modal monthly costs of mobile phone maintenance and use were US$10-20: around 30% of respondents’ monthly income. And, in a digital variant on the workload of water-carrying in rural Africa, many respondents were undertaking 3-7 kilometer walks 2-3 times per week in order to recharge their mobile batteries.
Very interesting research. To which one might offer four responses. (more…)