The Impacts of Mobile Technology on the Developing World

The Influence of Mobile Technology

Mobile technology has changed the lives of billions of people across the globe. As this technology has progressed over the years, the impacts of its influence are far-reaching and still not yet fully understood. Cell phones have interconnected people in a way never before seen and brought the cumulative knowledge of all human history to the average person’s fingertips. The amount of information available just a few taps away is staggering. The convenience and interconnectivity offered by these devices has helped shape the way people learn and retain information, while also heavily influencing social behaviors. This technology has done incredible things particularly for people in developing nations. I would argue that overall the impacts of mobile technology has been a major net benefit, but it is certainly not without its own unique drawbacks. 

The History of the Cell Phone

The first cell phone debuted in 1973 and forever changed how people communicated with each other. It was now possible to instantly speak with anyone anywhere; people were no longer bound by the fetters of their telephone cords. Information could now travel faster than ever (for better or worse) and this had effects ranging from the most mundane to the most critical and lifesaving. Whether it was simply a call to let a spouse know you were stuck in traffic and would be late to dinner or calling medical services in an emergency, owning a mobile phone had profound impacts on the day-to-day life of the average person. 

As mobile device technology continued to advance, cell phones began to take on an even larger role in people’s lives. With text messaging, cameraphones, and apps quickly coming into existence, cell phones began to morph from simply a communications device into an all-in-one hub for entertainment, photography, music, business, social connectivity, and more. Personal information including passwords to bank accounts and social media accounts were stored on these devices, and losing them could be devastating.

Increasingly society began to turn to these devices for easy answers to everyday troubles. They enable us to connect, create, and learn; and yet for many people this attachment can lead to missing out on meaningful engagement with real life. This dependance on cell phones has even led to the rise of separation anxiety and irrational fears centered around not having access to the devices, known as ‘nomophobia’. This fixation combined with instantaneous access to entertainment may even be contributing to the rise of ADHD being diagnosed in children and teens. 

Education and Mobile Technology

It is clear that cell phones and mobile technology have the potential to distract and disrupt, but they also have the potential to enhance and uplift. The impact of this technology on the developing world has been particularly dramatic. In rural areas with little access to educational resources, a few tablets loaded with libraries worth of information can help educate entire villages. This was seen in action when these devices were sent to Liberia in 2014 as the ebola crisis left schools shuttered across the country. Instructional packets and teaching materials can easily be distributed via digital downloads, giving teachers and communities the means to educate and learn. Remote teaching programs have been established via these devices in order to reach out to these developing countries, allowing educators to teach children without needing to travel. 

Healthcare and Mobile Technology

Additionally, this technology has allowed medical professionals to influence the healthcare of people living in the most remote areas of developing nations. Even the World Health Organization has established an association for Mobile Diagnosis, promoting the use of this technology to diagnose medical issues and train health workers in low-cost methods of care. This Mobile Diagnosis association works to establish inexpensive schools in rural areas where people can train under the remote guidance of established certified medical professionals. These methods require no existing infrastructure and only minimal set-up, as most people are already familiar with the mobile devices.

Many foundations such as the Mobile Midwife Program or Absolute Return for Kids provide simple, free information for patients in developing or disadvantaged areas. The Mobile Midwife Program sends women daily texts and weekly voicemails with information and advice throughout their pregnancy and first year of their child’s life. Absolute Return for Kids sends out reminders for medical appointments and alerts them to take their medications. These are only two small examples of the many programs available throughout the world, and their effectiveness can not be overstated.

Government and Mobile Technology

Mobile technology has also greatly influenced governance in these areas, allowing people to speak out about important issues in their communities. This fosters citizen-led development and ultimately creates positive change throughout the nation. UNICEF’s open-source social platform ‘U-Report’ gives access to life-saving information and allows people to connect with decision makers via their mobile devices, even in areas without internet. Hundreds of thousands of people across Uganda, Liberia, and Zambia have registered with U-Report and received free information and counseling throughout the ebola and HIV crises. In Uganda people successfully got the national government to change legislation via the U-Report app when they felt the stringent requirements to receive a government grant were not realistic. Other countries such as Libya use these types of services to establish voter-registration systems, allowing people easy and safe access to vote on important issues that will shape their future. Mobile platforms allow local governments to easily establish ways of handling payroll and welfare benefits as well as collecting fees and taxes.  

Farming and Mobile Technology

Even the most rural subsistence farmers can benefit from the use of mobile devices. The United States Agency for International Development has teamed up with local governments in Pakistan to create a mobile program that alerts peach and potato farmers about current market prices and disease prevention. Similarly, the ‘e-Warehouse’ program in Kenya helps small farmers store their products until prices reach optimal rates, while also connecting them to potential advances against their crops.  In Turkey, Vodafone has created a ‘Farmer’s Club’ that provides free information as well as a member-exclusive marketplace, reaching nearly 1 million users. Programs like these help thousands of farmers around the world make the steps to grow small subsistence operations into farms that produce a surplus they can bring to market. This bolsters the local economy and helps put money in the hands of the people who feed the nation.

Banking and Mobile Technology

People in rural areas of developing nations frequently do not have access to traditional banking options, but the rise of mobile banking services have brought hordes of people into the financial system. Even the humble beginnings of a savings account can eventually enable people to start businesses, invest in education, and have something to fall back on in case of hard times. The World Bank has estimated that the number of people without bank accounts dropped roughly 20% between the years 2011-2014. As more cell phones and mobile devices enter the hands of people around the world, financial safety and security becomes more of a reality for all people. 

Applications and services that enable money transfers, virtual wallet storage, and money lending without the need for brick-and-mortar banking infrastructure are on the rise in developing countries across the world, with particular success in Africa. M-Pesa, a mobile-based banking system launched originally in Kenya allows users to send money via text message. Services such as M-Pesa are such an innovation because they allow millions of people to move and store their money in a form other than cash for the first time. This service and many others like it have exploded in popularity across Africa, leading one to wonder if they might just bypass the traditional banking system all together. 

Taking all of these various aspects into consideration, it is clear that the rise of mobile technology has had profound effects on people world-wide. Its presence is most acutely felt in the most remote areas of developing nations as it seamlessly affects nearly every facet of life. From healthcare and medical treatment, to business and self-governance, to entertainment and education; all of these are immediate and noticeable quality-of-life boons offered by these devices. Considering how new these devices are and how drastic their influence has become in such a short period of time, it’s safe to assume their importance will only continue to grow as technology improves. 

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At Lithios we value outside opinions. This blog was written by one of our guest bloggers.

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