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Mobile Technologies and Empowerment: Enhancing Human Development through Participation and Innovation

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Author: 
Raúl Zambrano
Ruhiya Kristine Seward
Affiliation: 

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Publication Date

February 19, 2012

"[M]obile technologies are starting to have an indelible impact on human development, enhancing democratic governance and other development areas such as health, education, agriculture, employment, crisis prevention and the environment..."

The main objective of this primer is to provide United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) programme staff and development partners and practitioners with a practical understanding of how mobile technologies - even as basic as a mobile phone with SMS (text messaging capacity) - can become an important tool for civil society, enabling local mobilisation and networking among geographically dispersed people. By looking at basic concepts, current trends, real-life examples, and strategies for going forward, the primer intends to shed light on how development practitioners can harness the potential of mobile technologies to improve development outputs and outcomes at the country level.

The primer first outlines development in terms of the growth of mobile technologies. Here is an excerpt [parenthetical references can be accessed in detail within the full report]: "In a global population of nearly seven billion people, the total number of mobile phone subscriptions globally is an astonishing 5.4 billion - and counting. Given that individual subscribers may have multiple and/or inactive SIM cards, the actual number of individual mobile subscribers worldwide is estimated at around 3.9 billion (Informa Telecoms and Media 2011). Latest figures indicate that mobile phone penetration rates stand at almost 45 percent in low-income countries and 76 percent in lower-middle-income countries (ITU 2011a). Given that entire villages in poor and/or rural communities will often share one or two cell phones, it is also estimated that 80 to 90 percent of people in some poor countries have at least minimal access to a cell phone (Zuckerman 2009). Furthermore, close to 80 million mobile subscribers, most of them in developing countries, have no access to the electrical grid - and yet use a mobile phone."

The report then examines some of the currently available evidence on the macro impact of the technology, and presents concrete examples that have had a direct impact on various development issues in developing countries. The following excerpt captures these impacts:

"Mobile technologies are also strengthening the demand side of governance by providing people with critical tools to engage with public institutions and demand more and better services. This fosters broader transparency and social accountability. Enhancing service delivery and reform within important governing institutions - from public administrations to parliaments to systems of justice - generates new possibilities for open government. Mobile technologies can reduce bureaucratic holdups for average citizens and streamline work for civil servants. They enable citizens to bypass intermediaries who may take money for facilitating transactions, making service delivery more efficient and transparent.

Significantly for poor people and rural development, mobile technologies can help reduce information gaps and restrictions inherent in marketplaces where consumers and producers have little means of comparing commodity prices between distant markets. Micro-entrepreneurs, for instance, can access market information from remote locations, increasing the speed of trade and reducing travel expenditures.

Mobiles also offer greater independence for women by opening new channels of information and affording greater personal privacy. They can also offer women greater security, not only as emergency tools, but also to report and monitor violence against women. And where once women may have needed male relatives to act as intermediaries, mobile platforms now provide them the chance to make decisions for their economic wellbeing by and for themselves, which in turn can facilitate female entrepreneurship.

Mobile applications are also being used to combat poverty by expanding service delivery possibilities in health care, agriculture, employment and education. In the health sector, there have been many pioneering mobile initiatives improving connectivity and information transmission in areas that are hard to access. As emergency response tools, mobile technologies have helped establish networks of communication between citizens, organizations and government agencies in times of crises. They are also being used to educate and keep citizens and vulnerable stakeholders abreast of environmental and energy-related issues, including weather patterns, climate change and responsible environmental stewardship...

Many of the mobile technology initiatives already underway have tended to remain small in scale, are limited to one-time shots, and are heavily dependent on funding (public or private). That said, local CBOs [community-based organisations], NGOs [non-governmental organisations], CSOs [civil society organisations] and small and medium entrepreneurs are well ahead of local and national governments as well as many development organizations and practitioners. Thus, the entry points for supporting the use of mobiles for development must factor this in and build on what is happening on the ground - and this should lead to new ways in which development assistance can be provided...

' Sustainability and scalability are still the main challenges to the strategic deployment of mobile technologies for development. Scalability issues are partly the reflection of a gap between what social innovators are doing on the ground and the lack of government action and the need to step in and support such initiatives. Here, it is essential to distinguish between the provision of private and public goods and services, the former having taken off faster than the latter thanks to the involvement of the private sector and the creation of new markets where latent demand was already in existence...

In addition to sound and open regulatory environments, governments need to put in place policies, structures and, where appropriate, programmes that can lead to scalable mobile-based initiatives that target the most vulnerable and foster human development, while partnering with social entrepreneurs and civil society actors already on the ground..."

Source: 

UNDP website, April 5 2012.

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