This 8-page paper, published in the Gender and Media Diversity Journal, argues that while technology offers many opportunities, the push to bridging the digital divide and harnessing the power of information and communication technology (ICT) often neglects people as the resource that is most central to development. The author proposes that while technology may provide tools that people can use, it should not be over-rated as the solution to every problem. Based on two experiences using mobile phones in Africa to address women’s rights and social development, the key lesson learned is that mobile phones are only useful as one part of a strategy in which people must remain at the forefront.
The Campaign to Promote the African Union (AU) Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa included an online petition to enable people to show their support of the Protocol. To promote the petition, the campaign included the production of leaflets and distribution of information via the internet, mailing lists, and through newspapers. The author explains that in recognition of the fact that, at the time, an estimated 80 million mobile phones were in use in Africa, and short message service (SMS) was a popular means of communication, the strategy also included an option for people to sign by sending an SMS to a specified number.
According to the author, the campaign received a huge amount of publicity related to the novelty of using mobile phone technologies, including newspaper articles, reports in magazines, and interviews on radio and television. However, although the campaign collected 3,391 signatures to the petition, only 454 of these signatures came via SMS. This is, as stated by the author, not a significant contribution and the only value added by SMS to the campaign was the news value it generated.
The UmNyango Project sought to explore how mobile phone technologies could promote and protect the rights of rural women in the province of KwaZulu Natal (KZN), South Africa. The project established an SMS gateway to distribute messages to those enrolled in the project. It also enabled individuals to send messages to the organisers and to local para-legal officers if they needed assistance with any incidence of violence or threat to their access to land. While all participants received training to use SMS, few were inclined to use SMS to request information or report incidences. The women chose to make direct contact with the para-legal offices in their location, who had conducted workshops in the rural areas. According to the author, this suggests that using SMS has a number of challenges. People often prefer face-to face contact and find that SMS is still a relatively expensive method of communicating.
Based on these two examples, the author questions, "Why are we not holding conferences about the role of the pencil in development? Or the role of paper? There is more evidence of social progress made by these humble instruments than all the information and communication technologies (ICTs) over the last 20 years."
In contrast, the writer points to Ushaidi, an online tool that used mobile phone technologies for people to report incidences of violence in the Kenya post-election period. He states that the success of this strategy has been a function not so much of the technology, but more of the fact that the initiative came from a community who had an intimate connection with human rights and with other social activists. In other words, this initiative worked because of the underlying social relations, the technology was essentially a manifestation of those underlying social relations.
The article concludes that in capitalist societies, all technologies have the potential for magnifying and amplifying social differentiation. Mobile phone technologies are no exception. These examples show that there is more hype than impact with respect to the role of mobile phone technologies and social progress for the most disenfranchised. Mobile technologies can be a potential tool, yet these should continue to be driven by community needs and demands.
Gender and Media Diversity Journal: Media, Activism, and Change on the Gender Links website on May 13 2008 and September 2 2009. Photo source: Themba Hadebe