Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Do mobile phones make a difference?

The 5th edition of Fill the Gap organised by Hivos, OneWorld Netherlands, IICD and debating centre De Balie, focused entirely on how mobile phones can really make a difference in African development. And more in particular on social, economic, and political aspects.

The case studies about small enterprises and farmers livelihoods clearly indicated a positive impact on their respective sectors. In the private sector, mobile phones are being used to increase sales and for management purposes. In rural areas, the mobile phone is used to collect market information and prices of goods and products, complementary to the traditional ways of information dissemination via notice boards, images, and radio. Obviously, issues such as illiteracy, cost, and connectivity are important factors in the introduction and use of new communication tools.

In the political arena, mobiles are a powerful mobilisation device for civil society – for instance during elections - allowing people to produce their own news and avoid the mainstream media and even censorship. Provided that governments or operators do not close the communication networks!

This all sounds very positive and stimulating, but there is a big proviso. For mobile phones to be effective in fostering development, a series of preconditions need to be fulfilled. People need mobile networks that are reliable, affordable, and have a high coverage. And they need to know how to use them properly for specific purposes. As one speaker phrased it ‘There’s nothing magic about the mobile phone. The pencil has revolutionised more !’.

It was generally concluded that the current market solutions and lack of favourable government policies only widen the technological and economic gaps and undermine solidarity in society. In that perspective, NGOs need to put a lot of pressure on companies and governments to make sure that information and communication technologies become within reach of all Africans.

See also Euforic’s dossier on information, knowledge and communication, the posting by Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices Online, and the article by IICD

Story by Jacques van Laar