The Mobile Revolution

We can use cell phones for social change

Social Impact

In Ghana, it just takes a text message to buy life insurance. In Bangalore, India, urban sex workers receive automated voicemails informing them about critical health issues, microfinance loan deadlines, and vocational training opportunities. In Kenya, 55 percent of adults use mobile phones to make cash transfers—from electricity bills to school fees—using a technology called M-PESA.

Mobile phones are revolutionizing international development and social change. Already, governments, non-profits, businesses, and everyday citizens are leveraging vast mobile phone networks in many countries to promote social development in innovative ways. Perhaps most important, these mobile networks have the potential to reach marginalized populations, especially in rural areas, and to provide them with transformative new opportunities.

This revolution is about more than philanthropy; it extends beyond simply making donations via cell phones. In fact, cell phones aren’t always the most effective way for donors to make a difference. For instance, text donations being made to help victims of the environmental disasters in Japan may not be processed for on to three months, as phone carriers will only give the money once donors pay their monthly phone bills. While mobile phones are in some cases an effective philanthropic tool, their revolutionary potential lies in their facilitation of grassroots movements for social change.

Mobile phones can facilitate better governance. They can help government entities to communicate with citizens and improve the delivery of social services. For example, in Kerala, one of the most socially developed states in India, the regional government sends text messages to parents of newborns, reminding them to vaccinate their babies and explaining how to navigate this process. Conversely, mobile phones can empower citizens to voice their needs and concerns to the government. For instance, SeeClickFix is a platform that allows people to submit information on everyday, non-emergency problems like a traffic light timing problem, road potholes, or blocked bike lanes. Governments can then effectively respond to these issues, as New Haven, Conn. policemen did when they arrested the culprits of petty neighborhood crimes reported through this platform.

Mobile phones can help entrepreneurs reach new markets. The new initiative in Ghana allowing citizens to purchase life insurance plans via text message caters to low-income populations that do not have bank accounts. Through this system, users pay lower premiums. This gives a large population access to a previously inaccessible service while simultaneously growing the life insurance enterprise. In numerous countries in the developing world, mobile phone-based programs like Farmer’s Friend in Uganda and Dialog Tradenet in Sri Lanka are helping farmers to find updated information on market prices. This particularly benefits farmers in rural areas, giving them access to information that will help them to maximize their profits.

Mobile phones can sow the seeds of cultural change. iHollaback allows everyday citizens to use cell phones to report street harassment. The submitted stories are compiled in a blog format online, juxtaposing the reports and mapping them to show the clusters of incidents around the world. By empowering people to voice their experiences, this powerful technology subverts the prevailing culture of silence surrounding harassment.

Mobile phones can combat widespread social problems. In Ghana and Nigeria, mPedigree undermines the fake drug trade. By sending the system a text message with a code found on their medicines, citizens can verify the authenticity of the drug. In the United States, PeaceTXT is using mobile technology to enhance CeaseFire, a Chicago program that uses data to detect and interrupt violent events.

Mobile phones can fuel social movements. In countries where authoritarian regimes control many forms of social media, cell phones can enable dissidents to communicate their messages and rally support for uprisings. In Indonesia in 1998, students used cell phones to coordinate protests that precipitated the downfall of the incumbent President Suharto. This was seen again in the recent social revolutions and uprisings in Africa and the Middle East. In Angola, for instance, protesters used SMS to organize demonstrations against the ruling regime.

Why have mobile phones suddenly become so powerful? Quite simply, the power of cell phones lies in their vast network. Mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous, especially in developing nations, where cell phone service can be quite inexpensive. Since 1998, the number of cell phones in Africa has increased from under four million to over 400 million, now serving almost half the continent’s population. In India, there are 560 million cell phone users, including some 80 percent of the adult population.

I noticed this myself when I traveled to India last summer. Although I spent most of my time working in an impoverished village on the outskirts of New Delhi, I found that even within the least privileged strata of society, nearly everyone had a cell phone. The widespread penetration of mobile phones across the developing world, especially amongst rural, marginalized, and impoverished populations, makes this technology all the more powerful in effecting transformative social change.

Niharika S. Jain ’12 is a Social Studies concentrator in Dunster House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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