Will Mobile Phones Vault the Digital Divide?

Inexpensive mobile technology is opening doors in the developing world for communities that have previously been shut out of the information revolution due to the high cost of desktop computers.

Mobile devices are increasingly used to provide financial information and business services to low-income communities, as well as to report human rights abuses or drive political campaigns in emerging democracies.

Writing for India’s Business Standard, Guruduth Banavar said cell phone use in India has exploded past 200 million subscribers, with 7.5 million new users added monthly, while cell phone users in Africa are expected to number 600 million by 2011.

The numbers have already surpassed traditional land-line telephones, Banavar said, and sales of mobile phones in India have rocketed past personal computer sales.

Mohammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate for his work developing microlending programs for the developing world, is developing a new program in India to offer mobile payment and banking services via cell phone.

Using the service, customers in Mumbai and Bangladesh will be able to transfer money, access credit and savings accounts, and deliver payments, according to Bangladesh newspaper The Daily Star.

An article on Africanpath.com noted that calling plans in developing nations tend to be pre-paid, so almost anyone with a phone can access banking services without having a credit check or a bank account.

Several countries in Africa already use mobile banking.

Vodafone/Safaricom mobile phone users in Kenya can deposit money with registered agents, who then credit the user’s account.

That credit can be sent by text message to other mobile users and exchanged for cash, the article said.

Mobile technologies are also becoming indispensable to humanitarian and aid organizations.

According to the BBC, text messages are used to send medication reminders to patients, for election monitoring and to report market prices to farmers in remote locations.

The Washington Times reports that 86 percent of workers at nongovernmental organizations use cell phones in their humanitarian work in Africa.

In Zimbabwe, a human rights coalition called Kubatana says text messaging is among the most powerful ways to connect with individuals.

The paper reported that Kubatana sends text messages to citizens in an effort to boost morale, while another group called the Truth and Justice Coalition urges Zimbabweans to text them reports of human rights abuses.

Text to Change, a non-profit in sub-Saharan Africa, uses cell-phone text messages for HIV and AIDS education.

The program was launched in Uganda and targets young Africans who are most at risk, according to allAfrica.com.

Researchers are also working on voice-based programs that cater to less literate customers.

It is worth noting, says the BBC, that text messages remain popular mainly because so many phones in developing countries are too old to support internet-based technologies.

This means mobile applications developed for humanitarian reasons may be useless if people on the ground can’t access them.

Syed Mohammad Ali, writing in Pakistan’s Daily Times, says that even as mobile phone use grows, women in India and Pakistan have lower levels of access than men.

He also said that in some West African countries, cell-phone and Internet use by women is seen as a destabilizing factor threatening traditional gender roles, creating a new digital divide between genders.

–Julia Hengst/Newsdesk.org

“Mobile phone, not PC”
Business Standard, August 12, 2008

“Grameen-Obopay to offer mobile banking service to Mumbai, Bangladesh”
The Daily Star, August 7, 2008

“Text messages open window in developing countries”
The Washington Times, June 15, 2008

“Mobile Africa: Push Button Banking for the Unbanked”
African Path Network, August 9, 2008

“Uganda: Mobile Phones to Be Used in AIDS Fight”
The Monitor (Uganda), February 11, 2008

“Mobile development rings true”
BBC, July 14, 2008

“Development: Development through mobiles”
Daily Times Pakistan, June 24, 2008

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