Mobile phone technology has revolutionized information and communication in the last decade. Currently the International Telecommunications Union reports that there are over 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide (87% global penetration.) However, not everyone believes that mobile phone technology are a sustainable solution for economic and social progress. CNN held a discussion between four experts on the subject in order to answer the questions, “Are mobile phones just another high-tech solution to what are essentially systematic and deeply rooted problems? Are mobile solutions for combating global poverty overhyped?” The answers to these questions are summarized below.
Kentaro Totayama is a researcher at the School of Information at UCal Berkeley. He believes that mobile solutions are overhyped in their ability to address illness, ignorance, oppression, and other socio-economic problems in the developing world. He compares the current buzz about mobile technology to the 1960s use of television for education: overall great potential but in the end unproductive. He says that technology may have the ability to amplify human capacity and intent, but technology alone will not fix the challenges of these categories. Rather than providing cell technology to developing areas, he instead suggests employing smarter and more efficient program leaders, addressing organizational blind spots, and providing high-quality training for program workers. Therefore, while mobile technology has a lot of potential, it is not sufficient to fix the problems of the developing world.
Maura O’Neill works as the Chief Innovation Officer at USAID. She believes that mobile technology will not immediately offer improvements in health, education, and income. However, she does believe that mobile technology is on the right track. She cites companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Apple that benefitted from the rise and fall of previous countries and have emerged as superpowers in the technological world today. O’Neill finishes her response with the line, “The next decade will be transformational in development. Mobiles will be a big part of the story.”
Katrin Verclas is the Co-Founder and Editor of MobileActive and also believes that phones are both important and overhyped. The use of phones for information sharing, strengthening of social networks and safety nets, and commercial purposes have been important. One example of how phones have been useful is their role in Kenya’s mobile money craze. However, Verclas says that mobile technology may be useful to boost development efforts, they will not replace a lack of investment, resources, and trained staff.
Eric Tyler is a Program Associate at the New America Foundation. His point, summarized, is that mobile development is still very new and very young. He basically echoes what was said earlier in that mobile phones are necessary but not sufficient in development strategy.
I believe that these answers are pretty on target. I am a strong advocate of the information and communication benefits that mobile phone technology can offer to rural areas and developing countries. However, we cannot just expect to throw a bunch of phones to a village that has never been exposed to this kind of technology and expect all of the development programs to be solved. I think this article is important in this debate because it reminds people that technology alone will not be a fix to the problems, especially if it is not sustainable or implemented in the right way.