Mobile Activism / Mobile4D

‘Magic multiplier’ and the magician effect: Examining the hullabaloo about mobiles for international development

There has been a hullabaloo linking mobile phones and international development, with phones holding the promise of dramatically different, effective solutions to the challenges that international development has failed to solve.

Newspaper headlines proclaim, “Mobile phone networks champion social change in the third world” (Biddiscombe, June 2010).  It’s been argued that increased mobile phone penetration rates promote economic growth and national development (Waverman et al., 2005 as cited in Rashid & Elder, 2009), and even that the phones might change the system of international development:

. . .Mobile phones are increasingly affordable to the lower strata of the population and thereby can be used as a mechanism to ensure greater participation of these groups in the development process. (Waverman et al., 2005 as cited in Rashid & Elder, 2009)

Woman in sari using a mobile phone in each hand

Among funders, mobile phones have become the “magic multiplier, able to accelerate and magnify the benefits of development” (Fair, 1989 as referenced in Servaes 2005).  The magic multiplier is a powerful narrative, I believe, because it is woven with hope.

Yet there is some place for skepticism about ICT4D (information and communication technologies for development) and about M4D (mobiles for development), and about the amount of funding going toward technologies instead of going toward clean drinking water, roads and other tangible needs.  Some believe mobiles are in fact exacerbating old inequalities (Postill & Osario, 2010).

To what extent is the excitement and funding frenzy justified? Just how revolutionary are applications of mobile phones, in terms of their effects on the biggest issues and the poorest, most marginalized people?

In economically poor countries, the growth of mobile phones is startling.    In 2008, over 60% of global individuals had mobile phone subscriptions. Just five years previously, it was just 23% (ITU World Telecommunication, 2009).  That’s an astonishing leap. According to some figures, more than 80% of the world’s population now lives within range of a cellular network, a figure that has doubled in the past ten years. (The Economist, Sept 2009).

In some countries, it’s multiplied much faster – in five years, mobile phone purchases in Africa increased by 550% (Smith, 2009).  More than four billion cell phones are now in use around the globe, and 75% of them are in developing countries (Hoopes, 2009).

Mobile internet access is available to over 20% of the world’s cellphone users (Watters, April 2010) ranging from 96% coverage in Japan to 7% in Central and South America. Mary Meeker (author of State of the Internet reports) forecasts, “. . .there is little doubt that the push towards mobile technology and mobile Internet access will have profound impacts on the entire world” (as cited in Watters, 2010).  But these impacts are not all positive. ICT-literacy discourse touts the Internet as a “culturally neutral literacy environment” (Hawisher & Selfe, 2000). Yet it is not. With the vast amount of online content that comes from western countries, there is a risk of altering other cultures via our technology in ways that are not at all “development”.

It’s somewhat surprising that Jeffrey Sachs – who often speaks and writes about global poverty and marginalized populations –  looks at M4D with great hope, calling mobile phones “the single most transformative tool for development” (The Economist, Sept 2009).

One interesting re-framing that’s useful as a filter when considering M4D/ICT4D projects is that of new media scholars like Henry Jenkins:

Most often, when people are asked to describe the current media landscape, they respond by making an inventory of tools and technologies. Our focus should be not on emerging technologies but on emerging cultural practices. Rather than listing tools, we need to understand the underlying logic shaping our current moment of media in transition. <…> Understanding the nature of our relationship with media is central to <…> foster[ing] the skills and competencies needed to engage within participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006, Introduction).

Since engaging in participatory ways is one of the primary concepts driving communication for development, his warning is particularly important to heed.

So what are some of these exciting, enabling, capacity-building uses of mobile phones in developing countries?

M4Health is an area of ICT4D that is seeing some of the most exciting advances including real-time data collection in rural clinics, (Human Sciences Research, 2009), mobile health education videos played on cell phones by community health volunteers during home visits (Mobile Video for Community Health, 2010), and medical diagnosis (Malawi Rapid SMS, 2010).

Innovative uses of mobile phones are also happening in agriculture (Voice of America, 2010), literacy (Kontax, 2009), measurement and evaluation (CAMFED, 2010), conflict prevention and election monitoring (Lotz, 2010), disaster management (Crowdsourcing Disaster Relief, 2010), learning (Valk, 2010), even government accountability (Macdonald, 2010).

The significance of mobile phones can be seen in post-conflict Liberia where a leading reason for use of mobile phones (the ‘gratification’) was personal security (Best, Wornyo, Smyth & Etherton, 2009).

Also worth highlighting is the use of mobile phones for citizen media.

Manuel Castells’ network theory of power says that power ultimately flows through communication networks. ICT4D practitioners might argue that mobile phones can enable the flow of power to even the poorest people.  Castells also said that the construction of meaning is the most important form of power (Lu, Knaack & Frank, 2010).  Producing citizen media on mobile phones allows for this construction of meaning, and seizing that power.

Why does community media (as a development initiative) matter?  Why is it worth funding, alongside health programs and agricultural skills-building and freshwater solutions that might be viewed as more urgent needs and a more direct result for donors?

Media and communications studies have argued for some time that by giving ‘ordinary’ people access to media and other information and communication technology (ICT), and encouraging them to create their own local content, they are better able to become ‘active citizens’ (Rodriguez, 2004 as cited in Taachi, Foth & Hearn, 2009).

Agenda-setting theory says that mass-news media have a large influence on audiences by their choice of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them, and that mass media has the ability to transfer issues of importance from their mass media agendas to public agendas (salience transfer) (___). What’s exciting about the possibility of citizen media M4D is that it changes the communication path. The mobile phone user becomes the agenda-setter:Perhaps a mobile phone lesson  - across a generation

Expanding access to cyberspace has the potential of empowering new segments of the public to become fuller participants in cultural and civic life, yet we can be concerned by the ability of these electronic technologies to render invisible anyone who is not able to participate. As British research Sonia Livingstone notes, “”teaching the skills required to produce content is more crucial than ever. Indeed, not to do so would be positively disempowering for citizens given the present rush to duplicate, or even to displace, our present social and political institutions online. (Jenkins, 2006)

Alex Burns (2008) wrote,

. . .For new media programs, citizen journalism builds on two earlier traditions: the Event-driven journalism of crises like the 1991 Gulf War (Wark) and the Civic Journalism school that emerged in the 1960s social upheavals.  Civic Journalism’s awareness of minorities and social issues provides the character ethic and political philosophy for many Citizen Journalists. Jay Rosen and others suggest that CJ is the next-generation heir to Civic Journalism. (Burns, 2008)

Some M4D initiatives perhaps are both civic journalism and citizen journalism. Voices of Africa Media Foundation is one – it trains new journalists to be mobile reporters – but the initiative isn’t really citizen-driven as much as the example of VozMob, a platform for immigrant workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones.  Dialup Radio is another – a mobile phone-based independent media distribution system for Zimbabwean civil society and human rights activists (Hirsch, 2009).

Geert Lovink and David Garcia (2005) refer to “tactical media” – an outgrowth of alternative media, “. . .techniques by which the weak become stronger than the oppressors by scattering, by becoming centreless, by moving fast across the physical or media and virtual landscapes”. This rhizome-like characteristic might offer possibilities with mobile phones in fragile states where reporting on truth can be truly dangerous.  If many are the media, the danger can be somewhat diffused.  It could be argued though that the danger is not absent, but different: messages or content sent on phones are not anonymous, and users need to be aware of the extent of mobile phone surveillance (Loudon, yr.). If citizens in fragile states do choose to use mobile phones, as media producers they become agenda-setters, and as information consumers they may be able to bypass the gatekeepers.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that mobile phones are lessoning the digital divide between rich and poor nations (UNCTAD, 2008). Yet others say that the global digital divide has not been decreasing, “….despite significant improvements in the developing world, the gap between the ICT haves and have-nots remains” (ITU World Telecommunication, 2009).

Steve Song points out a startling reality not mentioned in all the pro-M4D hype by media and funders:

The pan-African research network ResearchICTAfrica points to a remarkably high percentage of income being spent by the poor on mobile services. For low income earners across 17 countries studied, the average African is paying more than 50% of their disposable income on mobile services.

Just one example: in Rwanda, four minutes of local mobile communication or 10 SMSs constitutes an entire day’s wage for a labourer. [Steve Song blog]

Another shift: with mobile phone ownership becoming mainstream, it becomes an employer expectation – sometimes at personal cost.  Steve Song refers to Kenyan nurses refusing to send SMS updates to an online blood bank database simply because the cost of an SMS represented too significant a proportion of their daily wage. Hardly the ‘magic multiplier’.  Some ‘M-exclamation mark’ developments begin to feel like M-washing, a sort of ‘spin’ of ICT4D, when some of these facts emerge.

Steve Song has begun gathering data about mobile phone calls in relation to minimum wage in each country.  Perhaps attention can be brought to the reality of inequitable mobile phone ownership and might be utilized to pressure both telecoms companies and local countries to affect some policy changes.

There are definitely examples of M4D that seem promising.  But so have many development initiatives in the past, and the reality is that more than eighty countries have a lower per capita income than they did a decade ago (Wilson 2006).

The evidence is not convincing that M4D will empower the marginalized improving equity for women, for rural citizens, for the poorest. One study concluded that ICT4D is still for the most part embracing a modernization approach  to international development (Ogan, Bashir, Camaj, Luo, Gaddie, Pennington, Rana & Salih, 2007).

Development funding for example aims and claims to be participatory, but according to some like Carlos Zepeda, in reality it usually is not:

Mainstream development does not truly practice real participation, but rather, ‘participulation’ (Carmen, 1996), because mainstream development uses it only as a means to manipulate consent rather than empowering the people. (Zepeda, 2006)

It’s easy to judge this, not so easy to offer practical solutions. Inagaki says in his excellent [2007] paper, that one of the approaches in the participatory model is ‘communication process rather than specific outcomes’.  Yet funders will be reluctant to give money without specific outcomes attached, as outcomes give justification for funding.  Specific outcomes mean that programs can then be evaluated on how well they achieved those outcomes.  And therein lies the challenge: the funding pattern does not yet match the participatory vision. Inagaki points to the need for participatory communication that is more inclusive and open-ended than goal-oriented (___). But this amounts to a phrase likely to make funders (and taxpayers) resist: ‘open-ended funding’. This conundrum is a much-needed area for further research and innovative thinking: brainstorming ways that funding models might change (especially in their demands for specific outcomes) to better allow for participatory processes.

Every act in a magician’s performance offers an opportunity to suspend disbelief, to believe in what has never before been possible.  We are drawn to give money to the magician because the magician gives us that hope – that magic is possible.  That’s the magician effect.  Those in international development – and particularly funders – must be vigilant in vetting project plans for ‘participulation’ and in tempering the M4D “magic multiplier” narrative with the realities noted by Steve Song.


Mobile phone subscriptions globally (this is a 2007 graph, so figures are a bit lower than the ones I refer to in the text above

[hyperlinks will be added soonish…]

I found this diagram useful/interesting:  M4D mapping

Image credits:

Multitasking woman in sari – MobileActive

Woman with mobile phone, Africa – MobileActive

Tajikistani women in market – Kate B. Dixon

Women with mobile phone – Kelake – (Clark MacLeod, one of the 2.8 million Canadians living abroad)

Graph: mobile phone subscriptions – from ITU ICT Eye, via ICTology

Text messaging for health in Bangladesh

Fascinating example of how mobile phones can be used in developing countries to effect change.

David Zaks posts about the use of an SMS – accessible database to inform communities of how deep to drill their wells to avoid arsenic.

A pilot project incorporated data from 300,000 wells into the Welltracker database, which reports for each village the number of wells tested, the proportion of unsafe wells and, when available, the start depth together with an estimate of the probability that the estimate is correct.

Read the post, on WorldChanging, here.