Development through mobiles —Syed Mohammad

Unless the prevailing range of gender-related hurdles in availing the opportunities being provided by communication technologies, it is likely that women may become further marginalised from the economic, social, and political mainstream of their countries

The potential benefits of increasing access to Information, Communication Technologies (ICTs) like the Internet or telephones has been widely recognised. For example, numerous studies have pointed towards the positive relationship between phone penetration and national incomes.

But there are also simultaneous concerns that ICT benefits are only being availed by a small segment of populations within the developing world. Here we consider on-ground impacts that a specific communication technology like mobile phones can have on the lives of common people.

The simplicity and increasing affordability of mobile technology has allowed it to penetrate developing country markets fairly quickly. Asia is one of the world’s fastest growing telecom markets with China, India and Pakistan accounting for about 70 percent of this growth. Yet individual country telecom penetration levels are still relatively low.

LIRNEasia, a regional policy and regulation think tank specialising in telecommunications, has conducted recent research on telecom use in South Asia, focusing on what poor people themselves say. Many more poor people are now able to afford phones within the region. They seem to consider it efficient to have phone access, which makes sense, since phones can help even poor people save time and effort by avoiding making physical trips to convey a message or get required information.

It seems logical to assume that saving time and effort also translates into economic savings. However, the poor themselves do not generally relate phone access to tangible economic gains yet. While some small scale studies have actually managed to quantify the benefits that a phone can have, in some Indian fisheries and among agricultural workers in Sri Lanka who are using phones to get better prices for their products, researchers point to an apparent disconnect in poor people’s perceptions concerning the economic value of a phone. Perhaps this is so because in most emerging and developing countries, people still prefer physical interactions for their financial dealings. This is an interesting issue meriting further attention, especially in the coming era of mobile payments.

One wonders, for instance, if poor people will ever start to trust an SMS confirmation as opposed to a hand-to-hand transfer of money. Expatriates from Bangladesh seem to have overcome this fear, and the Grameen Bank has been working with the government to provide expatriates the chance to send money to their relatives back home using mobile phones. The Philippines and Kenya had already made impressive gains in using mobiles for financial services ranging from remittances to payment of salaries. Even Pakistan has now drafted a Regulatory Framework for Mobile Banking. China is currently considering aggressive use of mobiles to promote banking in its underserved rural areas, which should bring even more interesting examples to the forefront.

Besides offering electronic payment facilities on mobiles however, there are numerous other possibilities; SMS-voting has the potential to boost e-governance, and using mobiles for disaster preparedness has also become evident.

However, while the growing penetration of mobile phones, and the accompanying range of services they offer, can enable major development outcomes, it will be necessary to address the existing digital divides so as to ensure that all people can benefit from the ensuing benefits.

Within our own region, an evident gender divide exists with regards to mobile accessibility in both Pakistan and India, and to a lesser extent in Sri Lanka. Factors contributing to low levels of access among women include the lack of financial resources, location and culture norms. Relevant cultural or social barriers in countries like Pakistan for instance are the evident lack of physical mobility. Since female mobility is restricted, this prevents them from going to public kiosks as frequently as men. Besides being less free to move about un-chaperoned, women themselves may feel less comfortable using non-segregated public phone centres, and be more involved in the household chores, which also presumably contributes to restricting their use of phones, particularly if there is no phone in the house.

Analysis of call patterns in Pakistan by LIRNEasia researchers has also shown that women make and receive fewer calls than men, although they spend more time on the phone whenever they get an opportunity. But these women are seen to be making very few business calls. This trend can also be explained by the socio-cultural conventions whereby women generally play a minimal role in business affairs.

Such problems are not confined to Pakistan alone. In the less affluent countries of West Africa for instance, men are noted to frequently feel threatened by women’s use of cell phones and the Internet, since the new freedoms afforded to women are perceived as destabilising to established relationships.

While gender norms have broader societal implications and thus cannot be overcome by ICT initiatives on their own, there are other issues that could be addressed more easily.

Operation of public telephone access points mostly by males is one such deterring factor. A study of the village phone model in Bangladesh noted that the number of women using the mobile payphone was seen to decrease if it was being operated by a male. This issue has significant implications on the design and implementation of public access phone centres and tele-centres. In order to satisfy the demand for telephony, it is imperative that public access points are made more female-friendly, perhaps by having them operated by females, or at least having certain days or times when only women are permitted to use them. Another suitable alternative would be to promote greater access to private mobile phones, as this would also solve the problem of disparate access to the developing range of mobile-based services, such as mobile banking and mobile remittance services.

Unless the prevailing range of gender-related hurdles in availing the opportunities being provided by communication technologies, it is likely that women may become further marginalised from the economic, social, and political mainstream of their countries. As mobile penetration levels increase, the overall gender divide may reduce. But there will still be need for proactive government and NGO support to make poor women familiar with these technologies so that their potential benefits diffuse through to all segments of developing societies.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at

Source: Daily Times, 24/6/2008

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