Thoughts on Poverty and Mobile Technology

Ling and Donner’s perceptive of media growth in poverty stricken countries help put things into perspective. It’s hard to see the impact technology can make on a society when it’s something we take for granted. One statistic I was especially baffled by was “estimates suggest that by 2010 there will be at least 5.4 billion fixed and mobile subscriptions on the planet,” (p 7). Therefore it’s obvious to feel unconnected if you aren’t connected through technology.

An interesting contrast to this is Richard Heeks blog, which peeks at the idea that “research suggests mobiles are doing more economic harm than good, and sometimes making poor people poorer.” His post hints at cell phones being more popular that useful as people substitute time spent producing goods and other necessities to ensure they have a cell phone. In fact, Africa has the fastest cell phone growth rate in the world, (Ibrahim p 3). According to some research Heeks quotes, “48% of respondents reported that they sometimes substitute important needs (e.g. education, buying food, and clothes) for mobile phone ownership/usage.”

I can see this point, but if mobile technology wasn’t helping we wouldn’t be having this debate. How do the people in these countries feel about mobile phones? According to Ibrahim it has helped strengthen society and he argues it’s the key to moving out of poverty for countries like Africa. Obviously if they are sparingly buying food so they can afford a phone they feel the benefits are worth it. And like Heeks supplies, there are biases in this research.

A fascinating point Heeks brings up is the importance to understand that poverty is not just a monetary issue; it is also a social issue. It is important for people to feel a part of something bigger, especially when it gives them hope that people care enough to make their situation better. Ibrahim writes, “Africa will change in the coming years as Africans begin to take responsibility for their own success,” (p 7).


One thought on “Thoughts on Poverty and Mobile Technology

  1. Dear Michelle,

    Thank you for your paper. You make the good point that it’s hard for us to understand the experience of introducing mobile technology to the developing world when we already had an established history of connectivity (landlines) and the mobile phone was introduced over a period of 30 years, which when you compare the introduction of mobile phone technology in much of the developing world, seems like eons.

    One of the debates that I think Heeks uncovers is that when we measure the value that individuals in the developing world place on mobile phones, it is both an economic value and a emotional value. The former is much easier to measure than the latter, so is more often touted as a yardstick to see how the adoption of technology is elevating poor people and communities. While emotional values are trickier, they are no less important.

    I hope that we’ll be able to pick up Ibrahim’s message with our Sudanese guests the next class and get their take on his beliefs, his Ibrahim Index, and how mobile technology might be best applied in Sudan.


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