Do Mobiles Level the Playing Field?

Posted by CorinneRamey on Sep 02, 2009

We'd like to think that mobiles are a great economic equalizer, decreasing the gap between rich and poor.

But in a case study [PDF] published earlier this year about cloth weavers in Nigeria, authors Abi Jagun, Richard Heeks and Jason Whalley contest the conventional wisdom that more mobile phones result in a more equal society.

"There were few signs, then, of mobile telephony levelling the playing field; and more signs that it had been a technology of inequality," the authors wrote.

The study, which looked at the use of mobiles by the aso oke cloth weaving sector in Nigeria, found that mobiles did help those who had them. "By substituting for some journeys, plus in-person meetings, we can see that phone calls have reduced the time and financial cost of information-gathering, often by several hours and several U.S. dollars respectively per call (not to mention the opportunity cost gains)," wrote the authors.

But in the process, those weavers and traders without mobile phones found it even harder to do business in an environment where mobile phones had become the norm. The authors note:

A further key claim for mobile telephony is that, by reducing the time and cost of obtaining information, it will impact the information asymmetries that have encouraged the emergence of intermediaries. Our finding was that mobile phones reduced the time and cost of obtaining some information but, in the main, not the type of information on which the value and existence of intermediaries is based such as identities and reputations of buyers and producers.

Nor have mobile phones impacted the other asymmetries on which intermediation in this sector
is based—unequal access to knowledge about design, supply mechanisms, costs, trading processes,

mechanisms of redress; and unequal access to capital. Thus, by and large, asymmetries of information, knowledge, and capital—overall, asymmetries of power—between intermediaries and other stakeholders were at least maintained and in some cases strengthened... In comparing the
“haves” and “have nots,” we found a gradient of access.

Those who were most-resourced prior to the arrival of mobiles now have 24/7 access to a personally-owned mobile phone. Those who were least-resourced still have no access to mobile. Those in-between have some access. As with access, so with impacts. The most-resourced have gained through mobiles in terms of more orders, larger orders, faster turnaround, and better quality of final product, leading to more customer satisfaction. The least-resourced are losing orders. Those in-between have seen some benefits, though they might also be characterized as “running in order to stand still.”

Another recent study, published by LirneASIA (we wrote about it here) came to the opposite conclusion, finding that increased mobile concentration among bottom of the pyramid users contributed to econonic success. 

Photo credit to rocket ship.

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