Mobile phones and poverty reduction: Can this shortcut work in Latin America?
By Natalia Uval for APCNews
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, 02 April 2008
Mobile phones can be the way into the information society for lower income people and less developed regions. Some structural factors help: mobile phones do not require either electricity or special training and the costs of connectivity are much lower than those of landline telephones. Recent studies estimate that a mobile phone network can cost 50% less per connection than landlines, and it can be installed considerably more quickly. It can reach remote areas more easily.
The number of subscribers is also growing at a fast pace. Ownership of mobile phones has practically tripled in developing countries from 2002 to 2006, according to the Information Economy Report 2007-2008 of the of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Despite this explosive growth, differences remain: in 2006, 53.5% of Latin Americans had a mobile phone, compared to 20% of Africans, while in Europe, on average, every person owned at least one mobile phone.
Most of the information produced regarding the connections between mobile phones and development focuses on Africa, where mobile phones have become central to commercial exchange as the information and communication technology most used to communicate with clients, receive bids, and alert the unemployed of job offers.
The Latin American experience
According to research done on mobile phones and digital poverty in Latin America , the distribution of mobile phones is more equitable than that of landlines. “Given the same level of poverty, the penetration of mobile phones is considerably better that that of landlines,” highlighted one of the researchers, Martín Rivero, in a conversation with APCNews. Nevertheless, the report concludes that the growth in access to mobile phones has not been accompanied by a reduction in the levels of poverty.
Cultural factors and public policies play an important role. A study done in Brazil highlights that 43% of Brazilian municipalities do not have mobile phone service, and this pattern is worst in the poorest areas (North and Northeast) because the mobile phone privatisation contracts did not include universalisation clauses. In the 1990s there were projects to increase the penetration of mobile phones in El Salvador and Venezuela, financed by the World Bank, which were premised on an assumed connection between mobile phones and development.
Mobile phones and health
An open source e-health platform project is currently being developed in Argentina and Colombia. The initiative aims to improve primary health care for vulnerable populations through the incorporation of open source software for health care management. It also aims to guarantee access to essential medical information through mobile devices. At first work in four areas will be prioritised: infant health, maternal health, clinical management of adult patients, and the use of clinical preventive practices.
The project was recently implemented and mobile phones have not yet been incorporated into the study, as those responsible are still in negotiations with mobile phone companies. Jorge Insúa, a researcher with the Universidad Austral of Argentina, told APCNews that the project is based on the premise that the use of this type of technology allows for better access to information and as such “access to health, which is reduced for the poor because of geographic, time and financial barriers, continuity of medical attention, the safety of health interventions and the quality of medical attention.”
And the state
In Uruguay the Public Health Ministry also took into consideration access to mobile phones in the implementation of its campaigns. In the last two years it carried out a dengue prevention campaign (urging people to not leave out containers with water), another for the flu vaccine, and a third one that promoted the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. “Given the accessibility and the reach of mobile phones, sending text messages seemed like a useful reminder tool,” the ministry’s general health director Jorge Basso explained to APCNews. Although he does not have instruments to evaluate the impact of the initiative, Basso estimated that perhaps “it has been useful in some cases and it other cases it has been seen as a bother,” and affirmed that the ministry “tried not to abuse but rather use the tool carefully,” because otherwise “it would lose its impact”.
Other experiences are tied to combating discrimination. A project of audiovisual mobile phone communication for collectives without an active presence in the media (www.zexe.net) allows taxi drivers in Mexico City, who normally do not have a way to combat the negative and often discriminatory portrayals of them in the mass media, use mobile phones to share their life stories and their takes on life by sending photos and commentaries to a web page. The same site also has stories of Nicaraguan immigrants in San José, Costa Rica, created with their mobile phones. This initiative and others can be found through www.shareideas.org, an online community for sharing ways of using mobile phone communications for social and environmental development.
To sum up, governmental authorities, social organisations and collectives consider mobile phones to be a relevant communication tool because of its accessibility and low cost, and are beginning to use them to meet development and poverty reduction goals; but there is as of yet too little evidence to be able to affirm that these efforts have been successful.
 Telefonía móvil y pobreza digital en América Latina. ¿Puede la expansión de los teléfonos celulares reducir la pobreza? – Mobile phones and digital poverty in Latin America. Can the expansion of mobile phones reduce poverty? by Carla Marisa Bonina and Martín Rivero Illa