The importance of mobile technology in the developing world
Why is it that so many individuals who live on just a few dollars a day, who sometimes can’t afford to eat, for whom life is a constant financial struggle, consider it so important to have a mobile phone – preferably a smart phone with an internet connection?
From an outside perspective it would be easy to judge, to try and preach to them about a more responsible way of managing money, to point out that having food on the table and a clean and safe place to live is more important than being able to check Facebook.
You can’t judge
But who are you to make that decision for them? Think about how much you use your phone every single day – to make calls, stay in touch with people, check the news, process financial transactions, keep yourself entertained… even order party decorations for your party in Bali at the last moment at the online Bali Party Shop…how would you cope if you no longer had that little handheld device to accompany you wherever you go (and let’s assume you don’t have a computer or laptop to turn to). Many of us would feel lost (perhaps quite literally, without a phone to give us directions).
For many people living in parts of Asia, Africa and South America, a phone may be their most valuable possession – perhaps second to a motorbike. In the western world we have the privilege of being able to acquire things pretty easily. If we don’t have the funds immediately available, we can just pop the purchase on a credit card and pay it off later. And from a young age we become accustomed to being given presents for birthdays and at Christmas, so we come to expect a certain number of ‘things’ in our lives.
But what if you’d never received a Christmas or birthday present, because your parents could only just afford to buy you the clothes and supplies you needed for school? What if you went through your childhood envying other more privileged children who did have access to all the latest toys and gadgets? Wouldn’t you, as soon as you had the means to do so, want to buy yourself something special to make up for all those years of feeling neglected? And wouldn’t that thing then become your pride and joy?
For some, sure, it’s more about status than anything else – but that’s no different from anywhere else in the world. There will always be people who just want to be seen with the latest model of everything because of the image this projects to others (even if their clothes and standards of living suggest something quite different). And it’s no small feat to accomplish this – recent data showed that the new iPhone 7 will be most expensive to people in Vietnam, setting the average citizen back 104 days’ wages. The average American would have to work just 4 days to get their hands on one. But for many living in the developing world, having a mobile phone is about so much more than a status symbol – it’s a way of earning a living.
A mobile living
I thought the problem of running out of credit on my phone had been consigned to my teenage years – no such worry with a phone contract – but then I moved to Indonesia. The vast majority of phone users there (and there are upwards of 200 million of them) use a pay-as-you go system. They may only be able to afford to put 50p or £1 worth of credit on their phones at a time, but there is an ingenious way of managing this top-up system to make it accessible to everyone and provide an income for thousands of people. Individuals can apply to sell credit via their mobile phones – they buy it in bulk and then by tapping in a few numbers they can sell it on to others at a small profit. For these people, their mobile phones are their livelihood (and they would be out of business if everybody else stopped using theirs).
Mobile phone technology is being used in other countries to communicate to remote small-scale farmers the market price for their crops so they can get a fair price when they sell them on.
And in other developing countries organisations like UNICEF are using mobile phones to spread health messages and communicate with pregnant women and new mothers about how to care for themselves and their children.
While mobile phones have become an integral part of our lives over in the west, this doesn’t give us the right to decide who else should be using them. Let’s not assume that mobile technology is any less important to the lives of others, regardless of their standard of living or ability to afford a phone in the first place.