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Progress Watch

Developing countries lead the way in deploying mobile technology

Some three-quarters of the world now has access to mobile networks. What does this mean for those in the developing world?

By Staff writer / July 28, 2012

A ragpicker holds her mobile phone to show a picture she took at a dump on World Environment Day in New Delhi June 5.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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From remote farms to rural health centers, one thing is transforming how even the world's poorest people live: the mobile phone.

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Cellphone use in the developing world has climbed to nearly 5 billion mobile subscriptions, and three-quarters of the world now has access to mobile networks. This technology is reshaping the way individuals and communities manage their finances, monitor weather, engage with government, and earn a living, according to the recent World Bank Maximizing Mobile report.

“People are going from zero to 60. It is huge to go from no phone at all to a cellphone,” says Anne Nelson, international media development specialist and adjunct professor at Columbia University. “The rapid penetration of cellphones in developing countries is changing lives dramatically.”

Mobile devices in regions like Africa are largely limited to voice and Short Message Service texting, but even the most basic mobile communications can increase school attendance, facilitate banking or cash transfers, create jobs, measure health indicators, accelerate disaster response, and fuel citizen engagement in governance and democracy.

For example, in Niger, access to cellphones has allowed grain traders to compare market prices across the country, cutting the cost of traveling to different markets and resulting in profit improvements of nearly 30 percent for traders. In Kenya, a program sent text messages to rural patients with AIDS, reminding them to take their antiretroviral drugs.  It was found that sending these messages was not only more affordable than in-person reminders, but those receiving SMS messages showed higher rates of taking their meds than those who did not receive them. 

Mobile technology has also been lauded in the recent democratic uprisings in the Middle East. In Egypt, only about 10 percent of the population had landlines a decade ago, leaving much of the population without any phone access at all. Today, there are 82 million mobile phones in circulation, and the numbers are constantly growing.

The phones were “game changers” during the Arab uprisings, not necessarily because of Twitter or Facebook – many cellphones in Egypt, as in many rural parts of the developing world, don't have broadband access. Instead, “for the first time, people were able to call or text each other and say ‘Hey, let’s meet and go down to the square.’ That wasn’t possible before,” says Ms. Nelson.

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