UNDP Mobile Technologies Primer - A Review

Posted by Sayama on Mar 12, 2012

Editor's Note: Mairead Heffron is the guest author of this post. She is a former staffer at UNDP on other projects, but reviewed the report in her personal capacity. We appreciate her guest contribution! 

A report, recently published by UNDP, on mobile technologies and human development, β€œMobile Technologies and Empowerment: Enhancing Human Development through Participation and Innovation”, does a good job of summarizing the many ways in which mobile technologies are being used successfully as tools for stimulating development. It's intended to provide information and ideas for development practitioners on how mobile technologies and applications can be used appropriately and effectively in international development projects. The aim is not to employ technology-based solutions as an end in themselves, but rather as the means to achieving desired development outcomes.

The report begins by examining trends in mobile usage in developing countries. Predictably In Sub-Saharan Africa, only a few countries register 100% or higher penetration (percentage of SIM cards per capita). By the end of 2012, it's estimated that these countries, South Africa, Botswana, and Gabon, will all have mobile penetration rates on a par or slightly higher than that of GermanyFigures for countries on the lower end of the human development index are substantially lower, but still show a massive difference between fixed line subscription penetration and mobile penetration. Witness Mozambique, for example, with 35% mobile penetration, and a dismal 0.3% fixed line penetration (prediction, end of 2011).

In the various sections of the report, the authors detail instances of effective mobile use in the areas of democratic governance (election monitoring, civil campaigning, anti-corruption), poverty reduction (health, education, job creation), crisis prevention (mapping of emergency information, early warning), and environment and climate change (weather information). Mobile technology applications are varied and easily adapted to different contexts; not a panacea for development, but certainly strikingly useful tools.

Listed too are challenges, cautions to those who would implement technology-based applications everywhere, without going into country specificities. Some include for instance, infrastructure challenges, especially in terms of access to electricity; costs of mobile services that can be prohibitively expensive; privacy and security that may be issues; and applications that are too complex may not be adopted by end users with low-literacy or educational levels.

It's a useful report for practitioners who are not familiar with the varied applications currently in use. It does however, contain at least one questionable claim regarding the power of mobile technologies to increased economic growth. It refers to a 2005 Vodafone study that indicated that between 1996 and 2003 "developing countries with an average of ten or more mobile phones per 100 people enjoyed a 0.59 percent higher per capita gdp growth than identical countries with less mobile penetration.” Could it be that higher per capita growth gives people greater purchasing power, and hence the greater mobile penetration is a consequence of the growth, instead of the other way round? Which came first? The chicken or the egg?

Another challenge which does not get a mention is the quality of the mobile networks in themselves, and the danger in become too reliant on a system that can fail under a variety of circumstances. In many countries with low human development, networks are under-resourced with problems in making and receiving calls and SMS commonplace. The problems become intensified when massive events occur, and when natural disaster strikes. If countries are to rely heavily on mobile technology, especially in times of crisis, they will need networks that are more robust and disaster-proofed. Therein lies an opportunity for public-private partnerships, as governments may not be able to rely exclusively on market forces to ensure that the operators pay adequate attention to this.

The report is downloadable here.

Image courtesy UNDP.

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