Jeffrey Sachs on the Mobile Revolution: Deregulate and The Closing of the Digital Divide

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Feb 17, 2009

Jeffrey Sachs, the noted and at times controversial development advocate, spoke to All Africa about the significance of mobile phones in Africa.  Sachs is also the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York which runs the Millennium Villages in 12 locations across Sub-Saharan Africa.  Sachs' assertion  that has often been repeated is that "the cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development."  Asked by All Africa about this claim, he noted that rural poverty especially has been characterized by isolation. Mobile phones have 'broken that isolation', as Sachs notes. 

"Communities that don't have motor transport, that lack basic roads, electricity -- these communities live by themselves in a state of subsistence. Making business in these settings, even getting very basic information about prices of food products in local markets, being able to make a transaction, being able to hire truck services, being able to call for an emergency, has been impossible until the cell phone. [Now] what we're seeing is cell phones spreading everywhere. Soon pretty much every village is going to have at least one because connectivity is spreading dramatically.

Sachs right pointed out the critical need for a combination of robust mobile infrastructure and broadband Internet services for economic development and services. This is a point that is sometimes forgotten -- mobile infrastructure alone, while important for initial connectivity and information exchange quickly requires an e-infrastructure for back-end data services.  Sachs says that,

"Mobile penetration is expanding dramatically....the vast majority of those users have SMS available but generally not Internet connectivity by phone. But there is a lot of rapid upgrading of the mobile networks now so that in some of our areas of work, in the Millennium Villages, we have essentially 3G standards. So there's Internet connectivity coming with the mobile phone connectivity, and that's enabling clinics and schools and other local institutions and businesses to have wireless Internet on computers linked to the mobile networks. Now in addition, there will be a rollout of broadband, not only through wireless Internet, but a spread of fiber.

At the same time, there is, according to Sachs, "a whole mix of problems here on moving from 2G to 3G standards on cell phone networks and connecting Africa in general, and especially East Africa, to the global Internet backbone.

Sachs is clearly an optimist when addressing what has been of interest to the ICT4D community for a long time: Have mobile phones as a 'leapfrogging' technology begun to close the digital divide?  Sachs said:

"I actually think that we've turned the corner on the digital divide -- not that it's closed but that a gap that seemed to be widening pretty relentlessly is now going to be narrowing in the coming years and I think narrowing quite quickly. We'll find that it's in business, it's in emergency services, it's in public education, it's in primary healthcare, banking, distance learning, scientific communications, entertainment and all the rest, and this will make a very big difference."

Asked about the lack of affordability of mobile communication for development, Sachs called for deregulation of monopolies and a reduction in taxes of the telcom 'cash cows' to increase competition.  

He also noted thatan increased ICT infrastructure has the potential (thouh we would argue so far unrealized) of increased transparency and coordination in aid.  Sachs said, that information technology can

"..revolutionize how development assistance works. You can't very easily distribute aid to 10,000 communities separately and so we tended [in the past] to go through national governments. But now with IT systems one can actually have much more sophisticated aid delivery and monitoring systems with a lot more decentralization. And we know when aid reaches the local level it is far more effective and far better monitored. So I think we're going to see from a rich IT system a whole new platform for development cooperation as well.

The entire interview is here. 



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