Thursday, November 01, 2012

Poverty and ICTs: Not an easy 'mobile phone' pill to swallow

I want to bring to your attention the latest ITID journal edition Fall 2012

In regards to Africa, there is one ITID article titled, "The Informationalization of Poverty in Africa? Mobile Phones and Economic Structure" by P Carmody.

In brief, as Kentaro states in the editorial section:  "How might mobile phones be exacerbating, rather than alleviating, poverty?"  My favourite type of topic to discuss!  The paper tries to help us think about this statement and particularly to consider some of the bigger macro level structural issues (which often we do not consider, except maybe Paul Plantinga's policy work!! ) as well as what may be some of those negative 'development' consequences.  One needs to be aware of the possibility of mobile phones making inequality even more wider than the past if it is not integrated with ways for economic transformation in emerging economies like those in Africa. 

I really like in this article how the author points out some of the approaches to look at poverty:  structural, palliative and capability.  The article then goes on to mention some of the possible contributions and (re)production of poverty from mobile phones.  For example, even with the mobile phone existing unequal economic structures can still remain or be reinforced and this can affect whether one moves in or out of poverty.  Some may obtain mobile phones and then be open to new opportunities but perhaps first at the consequence of falling into poverty for taking up such risks!   Other examples of poverty the author gives include income depletion, extraction of resources from conflict countries (ie DRC), etc.

He mentions the weak availability of research on development of ICT and software applications with a few exceptions (iHub gets a shout-out -woot woot!) as well paucity of research on the information economy in Africa.  He reflects on the few number of African researchers (gives example of South Africa).

One part of his paper which could be debated is whether the mobile phone creates only marginal productivity of labour, or whether innovation and structural diversification are limited... hmmm... the author also states that mobile phones may benefit those in the informal sector for employment but not have long term development impacts.  In part, I agree that those selling mobile phone credit as an informal sector worker are selling formal sector goods and services and this is somewhat exploitative. Formal company mobile phone operators do not have to protect the work with social or safety protection, nor other employment benefits.
The author then goes on to share the previous topological approaches to impact of mobiles which exists (Aker & Mbiti, 2010 and Heeks & Jagun, 2007) and talks of another approach looking through an international perspective of impact.  He really highlights the impact of mobile phones on the economy especially the informal and productivity as most important in Africa.  He points out agriculture as an example. 

Then he speaks from a macro-level perspective of how he thinks Africa remains in a export-oriented natural extraction mode with a bit of foreign direct investment here and there and mentions how he does not think mobile phones changes this mode at all.

Wearing my development studies hat, I noticed that the author has explained the word 'articulation' as 'connection;' fabulous as it is a word used in development studies but not always well 'articulated' for other research disciplines. Well done for thus inclusion for a wider audience.

The Carmody article overall is not an easy 'mobile phone' pill to swallow as he forces us to think a lot more wider than some of us are comfortable with, for me, my comfort is a confined research office.  And it is all the more reason for us to work harder to challenge some of his statements that the ICTD work done in Africa do little to raise economic and productivity diversification.  Our ICTD work is about multi-partners from government, private sector, NGOs and civil society and we hope this helps to build wider and deeper market structures for trade and investment in Africa's goods and services.  Theh author thinks that to date, mobile phones in Africa have only been absorbed but not transformed economic structures in Africa.

PS:  Kentaro quotes my Master's dissertation in the editorial and Carmody in his paper:  
woot woot!   
Read the article yourself and let me know what you think!

Carmody ITID Abstract
"Many claims are made about the transformational developmental impacts of new ICTs, particularly mobile phones, on Africa. However, such claims neglect other structural dynamics and the contradictory impacts of mobile phones, which can reduce, but also sometimes increase, poverty. This paper re-examines the role of mobile phones in African development and poverty, drawing on the concept of articulation. While mobile phones are meant to help “flatten” the world and allow for economic development through facilitating connection between places, they often serve to reinforce the dynamics of uneven development. Consequently, while mobile phones may be “socially articulating,” they recreate (new) forms of economic disarticulation, thereby replicating patterns of Africa’s adverse inclusion in the global economy. The occlusion of these dynamics in the literature arguably serves a useful ideological function: positing the mobile phone as a technical fix for what are primarily problems of power maldistribution." 
Other links on research articles on Poverty & ICTs: 
May, J. D. (2012). Digital and Other Poverties: Exploring the Connection in Four East African Countries. Information Technologies & International Development, 8(2), 33-50.  

Technology a pathway out of poverty.  Tech Crunch and Mail and Guardian article
May, J., Dutton, V., & Munyakazi, L. (2011, 6-7 October 2011). Information and communication technologies as an escape from poverty traps: Evidence from East Africa. Paper presented at the International Conference on New Evidence on Poverty Traps, University of Paris I.

Diga, K. (2007). Mobile cell phones and poverty reduction: technology spending patterns and poverty level change among households in Uganda. Masters in Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.