Can Mobile Phones Eradicate Poverty?

futurelab default header

by: John Caddell

This past winter I had the opportunity to spend a night working at a local homeless shelter. It was an unforgettable night for many reasons, including the memory of huddling around a radio with four other guys after lights out listening to the Giants beat the Packers to go to the Super Bowl. Among everything I experienced, one thing that surprised me was the share of people staying at the shelter that night carrying cell phones. By my reckoning, it was roughly half.

As I thought about it, though, the idea of a homeless mobile-phone subscriber seemed less peculiar. Without a fixed address, the phone provided a means of connecting to the world. Employers could call if there was work available. Family and caregivers could check in. For most of us, the ability to be connected while mobile still seems an extravagance, a luxury. For these guys, it was a lifeline.

An article in today’s New York Times magazine brought this back to mind. "Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?" by Sara Corbett trails mobile "user anthropologist" Jan Chipchase of Nokia as he studies how people use cellphones in developing countries and thinks aloud about whether mobile phones could provide a key ingredient in reducing poverty.

Corbett writes:

There are a growing number of economists who maintain that cellphones can restructure developing countries [similar to how just-in-time techniques changed manuracturing]. Cellphones, after all, have an economizing effect. My “just in time” meeting with Chipchase required little in the way of advance planning and was more efficient than the oft-imperfect practice of designating a specific time and a place to rendezvous. He didn’t have to leave his work until he knew I was in the vicinity. Knowing that he wasn’t waiting for me, I didn’t fret about the extra 15 minutes my taxi driver sat blaring his horn in Accra’s unpredictable traffic. And now, on foot, if I moved in the wrong direction, it could be quickly corrected. Using mobile phones, we were able to coordinate incrementally. “Do you see the footbridge?” Chipchase was saying over the phone. “No? O.K., do you see the giant green sign that says ‘Believe in God’? Yes? I’m down to the left of that.”

To someone who has spent years using a mobile phone, these moments are common enough to feel banal, but for people living in a shantytown like Nima, [Ghana] — and by extension in similar places across Africa and beyond — the possibilities afforded by a proliferation of cellphones are potentially revolutionary. Today, there are more than 3.3 billion mobile-phone subscriptions worldwide, which means that there are at least three billion people who don’t own cellphones, the bulk of them to be found in Africa and Asia. Even the smallest improvements in efficiency, amplified across those additional three billion people, could reshape the global economy in ways that we are just beginning to understand.

Corbett writes, "In an increasingly transitory world, the cellphone is becoming the one fixed piece of our identity." Based on my experience at the shelter, I’d have to agree.

Original Post: