Peruse any article on ICT4D today, and you can’t help but notice the ambitious claims. Mobile phones are a “potent force for economic development” (The Economist) and, according to Rwandan President Paul Kagane have become a “basic necessity in Africa.”
Kentaro Toyama wants us to be skeptical of such claims. He argues that unbridled enthusiasm for ICT4D is driven by rare (but highly publicized) success stories. And even in those cases where an ICT4D program has “worked,” he points out that the success of that program is not based upon the technology—or, at least, not on the technology alone—but is inextricably linked to individuals’ and organizations’ intentions and capacities.
Toyama’s skepticism of ICT4D is warranted and welcome. Yet in trying to debunk the myth that ICT is a silver bullet for development, Toyama overlooks the unique and transformative role of some ICT—namely, mobile phones—in developing countries. And he avoids asking more central questions about ICT and development: why have over 2.5 billion people in developing countries adopted mobile phones? What can this tell us about the adoption of other development technologies and the impact they may have?
Toyama’s argument boils down to one issue: ICT has grown, but the percentage of poor people has remained the same. There are three problems with this argument. First, studies show a positive correlation between telecommunications infrastructure and GDP growth in both developed and developing countries. Second, the fact that we don’t observe a decline in the poverty rate when ICT penetration rises is a red herring. In Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, poverty rates have increased substantially over the past decade, coinciding with rapid growth of mobile phone infrastructure. Did ICTs fail to save Niger? We don’t know, because we can’t say what would have happened to poverty in Niger without mobile phones.
Third, GDP might not be the right metric for measuring ICT’s impact. GDP is a measure of productivity, not of human welfare. Economic studies in India, Niger, Uganda, South Africa, and Malawi suggest that mobile phones are not necessarily leading to GDP growth, but that they do yield net welfare gains. Does this mean that everyone wins? No, but society is better off overall.
Sociological studies in Uganda suggest that mobile phones are having complex impacts upon social networks. Toyama cites a study showing that mobile phones have a negative impact on gender politics, but the same study found that mobile phone–sharing patterns lead to preferential access for needy groups, such as those in ill health. Rather than focusing on whether mobile phones increase GDP (we don’t know), or whether they have negative effects (they do, in some cases), we should be asking about their impact on well-being in general.
Toyama also argues that ICT offers greater advantages for those with higher capacities: per his thought experiment, you can raise more money using the Internet than a rural farmer can. Let’s try a related but more relevant experiment. Suppose that you and a rural farmer have access to a mobile money service that allows both of you to receive money transfers from your family. Maybe you receive $500 per month, and the farmer receives ten dollars per month. But while $500 is 25 percent of your monthly income, ten dollars is 80 percent of the farmer’s. Who benefits more? In absolute terms, you’re doing better, but what matters is relative impact.
The fact remains that mobile phones—not computers, radios, or television—are a success in the developing world.
And, in fact, there are cases in which the technology proves more useful for those with lesser capacities. In the mobile-phone literacy project I am working on in Niger, we find that women (who have much lower levels of education than men) learned faster with mobile phones than did their male counterparts. Why? Because men can travel outside of their village more readily, and therefore have more opportunities to practice their literacy skills without mobile phones, so they get less out of them. By contrast, women’s limited social independence makes mobile phones more useful.
ICT will not save the world: true. Still, the fact remains that mobile phones—not computers, radios, or television—are a success in the developing world. In Africa alone, over 60 percent of the population has access to mobile-phone coverage. There are more than 4.5 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, including 1.7 billion in Asia, 460 million in Latin America and 376 million in sub-Saharan Africa. While early adopters were primarily rich, educated, and urban, current adopters span the spectrum
of wealth, educational attainment, and geography. Without (substantial) public-sector investment, some of the poorest populations in the poorest countries in the world now have opportunities to communicate and access information in ways that they never could before. This in itself is amazing. What can we learn from the vigorous adoption of mobile phones in the developing countries?
First, unlike many technologies, mobile phones have multiple uses, which can translate into multiple economic and social benefits. Second, these benefits are often tangible and immediate. Third, mobile phones (at least for some operations) are simple to use, do not require literacy, and can be learned quickly. Fourth, even non-users benefit, and the cost of service can be shared. Fifth, phones can be adapted to local and culturally appropriate contexts. And finally, unlike other systems, the mobile-phone distribution system extends into rural and urban areas.
Most other technologies will not be able to mimic these traits, but understanding why people have adapted mobile phones so widely could help designers of other technologies—such as improved seeds, anti-malarial bed nets, and improved cooking stoves— to better adapt. Let’s figure out why this “shiny new gadget” is so popular. That will be the key to development.