Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?
Friday, April 11, 2008
Last year, the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental research group, published a report with the International Finance Corporation entitled “The Next Four Billion,” an economic study that looked at, among other things, how poor people living in developing countries spent their money. One of the most remarkable findings was that even very poor families invested a significant amount of money in the I.C.T. category – information-communication technology, which, according to Al Hammond, the study’s principal author, can include money spent on computers or land-line phones, but in this segment of the population that’s almost never the case. What they’re buying, he says, are cellphones and airtime, usually in the form of prepaid cards. Even more telling is the finding that as a family’s income grows – from $1 per day to $4, for example – their spending on I.C.T. increases faster than spending in any other category, including health, education and housing. “It’s really quite striking,” Hammond says. “What people are voting for with their pocketbooks, as soon as they have more money and even before their basic needs are met, is telecommunications.”
There are clear reasons for this, but understanding them requires forgetting for a moment about your own love-hate relationship with your cellphone, or iPhone, or BlackBerry. Something that’s mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal – land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars – can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. A “just in time” moment afforded by a cellphone looks a lot different to a mother in Uganda who needs to carry a child with malaria three hours to visit the nearest doctor but who would like to know first whether that doctor is even in town. It looks different, too, to the rural Ugandan doctor who, faced with an emergency, is able to request information via text message from a hospital in Kampala.
Jan Chipchase and his user-research colleagues at Nokia can rattle off example upon example of the cellphone’s ability to increase people’s productivity and well-being, mostly because of the simple fact that they can be reached. There’s the live-in housekeeper in China who was more or less an indentured servant until she got a cellphone so that new customers could call and book her services. Or the porter who spent his days hanging around outside of department stores and construction sites hoping to be hired to carry other people’s loads but now, with a cellphone, can go only where the jobs are. Having a call-back number, Chipchase likes to say, is having a fixed identity point, which, inside of populations that are constantly on the move – displaced by war, floods, drought or faltering economies – can be immensely valuable both as a means of keeping in touch with home communities and as a business tool. Over several years, his research team has spoken to rickshaw drivers, prostitutes, shopkeepers, day laborers and farmers, and all of them say more or less the same thing: their income gets a big boost when they have access to a cellphone.