According to a GSM Association spokesman quoted on the BBC Online website today, “The mobile phone is the only viable technology that can bridge the digital divide”. This is quite a bold statement in a debate which has been running for a fair old time. It goes along the lines that by putting something digital – a mobile phone in this case – into the hands of the worlds poor you can economically empower them, among other things. If it were only this simple.
It goes without saying that the mobile phone is revolutionising the way Africans talk to each other. Often described as a “leapfrogging technology” the mobile is bringing communications to areas which have never seen, and in many cases would never be likely to see, traditional landlines. And once these phones are unleashed on a population it’s true that quite amazing things happen. Budding entrepreneurs quickly spring up providing battery charging services, others sell carry cases, chunks of call time, car chargers, replacement covers and top-up cards (a huge percentage of third world customers use the ‘Pay-as-you-go’ service due to a lack of credit history, a bank account or even an address). One of the more remarkable examples of entrepreneurship is the building of tall wooden towers which users climb, for a fee of course, before making their call in areas with a bad signal. Who’d have thought of that?
During field-based research for a report I co-authored a couple of years ago, we called this “organic growth”, the secondary effect of the mobile revolution. At that time the knock-on effect of providing mobile coverage to a population wasn’t really appreciated, but sometime later Vodafone showed they had their eye on the ball when they published a comprehensive study of the socio-economic impact of mobile phones. It’s well worth a look.
As far as economic empowerment goes, it is true that some will benefit. But many others will be left behind. Being able to send a text or make a phone call alone isn’t going to drag everyone out of poverty. The mobile phone as a political empowerment tool though? Well, that’s another matter. Voting in elections with your mobile? Being done. Spreading a political message? Being done. Campaigning? Being done. Political activism? Being done. Quite clearly the more phones out there equals more opportunity.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that many developing countries are struggling with the democratic model, and perhaps no coincidence that in a fair few dictatorial regimes reign ‘supreme’. (Is Thabo Mbeki the only African leader not trying to change his country’s Constitution to stand for a third term?!). In places where free speech can land you in a whole load of trouble, mobile technology can give people a voice (or text, as the case may be). And an anonymous one at that. And this should not be underestimated.
The GSM Association can certainly do their bit. But let’s not get carried away. Unleashing 12 million $30 handsets into developing countries may grab the headlines, but a handset alone isn’t going to solve the complex problems that many of these people face on a daily basis.