Mobiles in Development Unplugged. Abi Jagun on the Mobile Hype.

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Oct 02, 2007 series on mobiles in development continues. Here is guest writer Abi Jagun from the University of Manchster who deconstructs the hype on mobiles in civil society:

By the end of 2007 about half of the world’s population will be using mobile phones; and it is likely that this proportion will continue to increase as more people - predominantly in developing countries - get connected to mobile telecom networks.

The benefits of mobile phones continue to be widely publicised. In particular, they allow people to receive and communicate information interactively and/or simultaneously by voice and data -- beyond the physical limitations imposed by geography. But is the hype useful for a throughtful exploration of the potential of mobiles in development, or, in fact, a hindrance?

Information, of course, is critical to the process of development. It's been suggested that mobiles contribute to development through:

  • economic empowerment – by facilitating the distribution of, and access to market information;
  • civic engagement - by facilitating the spread of political and social information, as well amplifying the ‘voices’ of marginalised individuals in society
  • environmental sustainability – by facilitating awareness of the impact of harmful practices and provided access to sustainable ones
  • and social transformations - by facilitating improvements in the quantity and quality services, such as health, education etc.

It is therefore unsurprising that the growing population with access to this technology is a source of considerable excitement and enthusiasm -- and even hype -- among observers.

However, the same mobile phone that is increasingly connecting some people also simultaneously disconnects others. Owning or having access to a mobile phone can be advantageous, no doubt. At the same time, mobiles can:

  • reinforce gender imbalances – phones can provide a new means for the oppression of women by men.
  • improve the effectiveness of top-down surveillance – from wiretapping and tracking of dissidents/journalists to interference in political processes. For example: Two days before elections in Cambodia (on 1 April 2007), the government suspended all SMS services in the country until the polls closed to "prevent last minute party political propaganda"; however a side effect was the partial paralysis of the NGO-based election monitoring in the country.

There is a small but growing number of research documenting this dual nature of mobile phones. The findings collectively to date highlight the importance of understanding the ways in which this technology affects society.

However, more of such studies are ‘desperately’ needed, particular where mobiles are being held up as catalysts for reaching development objectives. Generalisations, based on the results of (often pilot) projects, which allude that observed benefits of using a mobile phone are neutrally and evenly distributed across the population can be harmful to (overall/other) development needs.

I am calling for a more holistic approach to research on the development potential of mobile phones; one in which the influence of the mobile phone is examined beyond the immediate problem or circumstance that is the focus of the project. The result would be:

  • a better understanding of the intervention of mobile phones in societies as a whole;
  • a more balanced understanding of the benefits and hazards of the technology;
  • and initiatives more sensitive to the changes (positive and negative) that deployment of the technology brings.

Academic institutions, NGO intermediaries, and NGOs on the ground would do this field a great disservice if we not also examine - beyond the hype - the real implications, good and bad, that such revolutionary technology brings about.

See also:

“Mobiles and Development”, id21 Insights Special Report, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, 2007

m-Development: Current Issues and Research Priorities, Workshop report, Development Informatics Group, University of Manchester, 2007


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