mobile growth

Harnessing the Mobile Revolution

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Nov 02, 2009
Harnessing the Mobile Revolution data sheet 2802 Views
Thomas Khalil
Publication Date: 
Oct 2008
Publication Type: 
Report/White paper

The premise of this paper is that the explosive growth of mobile communications can be a powerful tool for addressing some of the most critical challenges of the 21st century, such as promoting vibrant democracies, fostering inclusive economic growth, and reducing the huge inequities in life expectancy between rich and poor nations.

The benefits of mobile communications are particularly profound for developing countries, many of which are “leapfrogging” the traditional fixed telecommunications infrastructure. As a result, billions of people in developing countries are gaining access to modern communications of any sort for the first time. There is no doubt that mobile communications are having a significant impact on the way Americans live, work and communicate with each other.

But the impact is no doubt more keenly felt by the African mother who can call ahead to determine whether a doctor is available to treat her sick child before traveling for hours. Obviously, mobile communications are not a panacea for the daunting challenges faced by the 2.7 billion people who live on less than $2 a day. Like any new technology, it has costs and risks as well as benefits, and some of the promised benefits will undoubtedly fail to materialize. It’s worth remembering that 19th century pundits thought the telegraph would inevitably lead to world peace, or that in 1922 Thomas Edison predicted the motion picture would “revolutionize our educational system … and supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

But Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs may well be right when he concludes that “the cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development. With a few exceptions, the U.S. government is largely oblivious to the ways in which the rapid diffusion of mobile services (and other new technologies) could be used to improve the human condition. I believe that the next Administration should launch a major new initiative to harness the confluence of new technologies and innovative business models as a key component of its global development agenda. This initiative would be designed to serve as a catalyst for policy reforms in developing countries, promote an increased capacity for innovation by developing country entrepreneurs to meet local needs, and stimulate additional investments by philanthropists, foundations and companies. Such an initiative could reduce poverty, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve global health outcomes. It could also help restore some of the damage to America’s international reputation, boost America’s “soft power,” and position American businesses and workers to benefit from the growth of emerging markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

This initiative would not be limited to mobile services, and might also include decentralized approaches to providing safe drinking water, new vaccines, therapies, point-of-care diagnostics, clean energy, and improved crops that are more productive, nutritious, and drought-resistant. Obviously, private sector investment in mobile communications for developing country markets will continue to grow. Even in the absence of enlightened U.S. government leadership, mobile services will become more ubiquitous, affordable, and versatile.  But the missed opportunity will be the failure to leverage this large and growing private sector investment for public purposes, such as ensuring fair elections, helping a community health worker save the life of a mother or young child, or giving a farmer or small business owner access to the credit they need to build a path out of poverty.