The Mobile Phone Chimera

Two recent articles highlight the fact that the digital divide is very much still with us, and in fact new kinds of divides may be opening up.

Mobile phone user in Cameroon. Image credit Carsten ten Brink via Flickr (CC).

Mobile phones are often touted as the solution to the digital divide, and the answer to a range of development problems. There is undoubtedly a huge growth in mobile phone access in the developing world, and the possibilities this presents are indeed exciting (innovations in mobile banking and mobile health are just two areas where new services are transforming people’s lives). But these  positive developments should not blind us to a range of problems and concerns (such as research in poor communities showing that expenditure on mobile phone use often comes at the expense of other needs, such as food). Two recent articles highlight the fact that the digital divide is very much still with us, and in fact new kinds of divides may be opening up.

In a paper published by Audience Scapes, Gayatri Murthi acknowledges the unprecedented proliferation of mobile phones in the developing world (the developing world’s share of mobile phone subscriptions increased from 53% in   to 73% in 2010; mobile phone subscriptions increased by 16% in the developing world last year, as opposed to 1.6% in the developed world) – but she goes on to show that gender and income disparities mean that by no means everybody is able to reap the benefits of the growth in mobile penetration.

In South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, men are much more likely to have access to cell phones than women. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the ‘mobile divide’ is slightly smaller than in the other two regions, a woman is 23% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. Unequal educational opportunities present another divide. For example, 93% of Kenyans with formal education had access to a mobile phone, as opposed to 50% of those without. Since a higher proportion of men than women have access to formal education, this reinforces the gender imbalance.

Furthermore, according to Murthi, women are less likely to receive information via mobile phone, relying more in interpersonal communication. This challenges assumptions that new technologies are in and of themselves, going to democratize the information environment.

In addition to gender, Claire Melamed, a self-proclaimed ‘technological optimist’ highlights some other divides, in a recent blog post on Global Dashboard.

Firstly, there’s a geographical divide: while excellent signal coverage in the most populated areas, there are vast expanses of almost every African country where there is no signal at all. Secondly, a literacy divide:  even when people have mobile phones they may not be able to take advantage of access to a range of information services if they cannot read (despite the existence of projects that use mobile phones to promote literacy). And finally, there’s a financial divide: for example she says, despite the advance if cheap mobile banking, in parts of Kenya making a money transaction using the MPESA mobile banking service costs the same as a bag of maize.

These two articles reinforce the fact that as exciting as the advances in mobile technology are, they’re not a ‘one size fits all’ solution for promoting development and democracy – and as much as they may help us solve some problems they are also creating new divides and inequities.

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