michael gurstein on Mon, 28 Nov 2011 05:24:16 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Are Mobiles a Capitalist Plot to Keep the Poor Poor?

(the comments are interesting as well...

Are Mobiles a Capitalist Plot to Keep the Poor Poor?

by Michael Gurstein 
I was moved to ask the question in the title after spending the good part of
a week going in and out of a conference in Johannesburg on ICT4RD (Rural
Development) where much of the discussion and most of the presentations
seemed to be assuming some form of smart phone and some rather significant
(and expensive in the African context) mobile device and connectivity.

This could also be placed in the context that (as someone mentioned at the
conference) in one study in rural Africa it was being found that the costs
of mobile communications were absorbing up to 54% of the total net income of
certain farmers and perhaps more tellingly, the major applications for
mobiles in Sub-Saharan Africa seem to be premised on the likelihood that
those for whom the application was being designed would not have enough
money to actually pay for the connectivity costs of whatever
information/services was being touted.

I should also mention here that my somewhat jaded question was in part the
result of again hearing those energetically espousing the virtues of mobile
(over for example, fixed Internet access through ahem... Telecentres) by
pointing to the exact same applications that I was pointed to some 3 or 4
years ago when mobiles were still in their infancy i.e. providing up-to-date
market information to farmers and providing (mostly) safe sex reminders to

Both these applications are of course, worthy in themselves and significant
if the (as yet to my knowledge, not undertaken impact/evaluation
assessments) prove positive however, one would have hoped after all the hype
and expenditures (and more or less total diversion of ICT for Development
resources in that direction) there might be other additional significant
applications that could be pointed to.

So I took my hesitations and provocative blogpost title to lunch with some
colleagues here in Maputo (where I am at the moment) with very long and deep
experience with development and ICTs in rural Southern Africa.  The
discussion went back and forth but then a colleague drew a distinction
between mobile communications and mobile applications (apps).  What they
pointed out to me in example after example was the profound significance
that having low cost access to communications was having on the well being
of people (and in this instance particularly women). And of course, in the
rural African context this necessarily means mobiles because of the total
lack of alternative infrastructure .

>From being able to make contact with a migrant worker spouse, to knowing
that someone could be easily summoned in the event of an emergency
(including the police), to being able to determine if supplies to support
home crafts were available in the shop several kilometres away without
having to spend the day walking to the town only to find that what was
required was out of stock--the effect of (finally) having the
telecommunications access that most of the rest of us have taken for granted
for all of our lives was truly beneficial and even transformative of life in
rural Africa.

My colleagues went on to talk about the "shiny apps" which is where I had
started the conversation. They more or less dismissed these as being
irrelevant, at least in the case of Mozambique which is where their
experience was, given the relatively high cost of mobiles that could handle
the apps we were talking about and similarly the very high communications
costs which would be required in most cases to take advantage of these

So, we answered my question--

No! mobiles aren't completely a capitalist plot to keep the poor poor at
least for simple low cost person to person communications, but the jury is
still out on answering the question for all the shiny M4D (Mobile for
Development) apps that seem to be so attractive these days to development
funders and the development-erati.

Michael Gurstein, Ph.D.
Executive Director: Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development
and Training (CCIRDT)
Vancouver, BC CANADA

tel/fax: +1-604-602-0624
email: gurstein@gmail.com
web: http://communityinformatics.net
blog: http://gurstein.wordpress.com
twitter: #michaelgurstein

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