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Sunday, November 8, 2009

There's an App for That

The last decade of development has shattered our most basic intuitions and has proven that development is a far more complex and dynamic process than we could have imagined, one that is interwoven, interfolding, interlocking, and messy involving leapfrogging, sidesteps, and hand offs. The centerpiece of the shakeup is in our hands, literally, as a mobile phone.

"Food first, freedom later"— this is how we typically think of the order of things. Why would a Zimbabwean mother look for her cell phone while her neighbors suffer from a cholera epidemic and her children struggle to reach one meal per day? Naturally, the thought of Malawian villagers topping up their personal mobile phone accounts while simultaneously dealing with a drought in cassava crop and HIV anti retrovirals leaves us scratching our heads. But, Amartya Sen of democracy and famine fame (and misaim) challenges these instincts as misguided oversimplifications.

While many of us waffle over AT&T versus Verizon plans, mobile phones across the globe have quietly generated a wave of development. Along with the ascent of China from Tiananmen Square to the Beijing Olympic games and the spread of the internet from the early days of dial up AOL instant messaging to Facebook, Twitter, and all corners of our lives, the rise of mobile phones has been absolutely dizzying. Look at what has passed in the last decade. In 2000, mobile phones surpassed the 700 million mark, with developing markets accounting for one quarter of the total. Flash forward to the end of 2008, at which the mobile count neared 4 billion and developing countries accounting for three quarters of the globe's total, a rise from 175 million to 3 billion mobiles in the developing countries in less than ten years! India is stacking on over 15 million new subscribers each month! No one could have predicted such a takeoff. Even hordes of multinationals entered markets like India and Africa in the 1990s and pulled out because of dim prospects. Cheaper devices and pre paid vouchers turned the knob to gleaming bright and many have bit their lost profits and returned for fertile new opportunities. We have just seen the opening act.

With the rally, the handsets have overturned our conventional tidy patterns of development. They have demonstrated, as education pioneer Clotilde Fonseca says, that we must "overcome a linear view of development." Growing up with the histories of the U.S. and classical and modern Europe, most of us are familiar with the slow and fitful buildup of our modern societies, starting with sturdy civic structures, industrial revolutions, the buildup of basic health, food, water services, as well as infrastructures of railroads, highways, oil pipelines, and landlines; once these were all set, countries moved into modernity. However, development in the bulk of the world over the past twenty years has taken on a wholly different model. Yes, of course, being healthy is a starting point to do anything else. But, gone are the days of a chronological plot of building an essential food and water supply, network of health delivery, a judicial system, and infrastructure of highways and landlines climaxing in economic growth. Reality shows us that development of governance, infrastructure (and lack thereof), transport, healthcare delivery, sanitation, water systems all occur together in concert, bending, folding, and reinforcing one another. A mobile phone allows a mother of five to sell village minutes, set up a profitable grocery stand. It informs her fisherman husband about the market fish prices and filets on high demand, enables her to transact money to schools for educating her children and purchase anti retrovirals for her sister, and receive remittances from faraway relatives. As development guru Jeffrey Sachs has emphasized, of all the ills in the world, isolation is the most devastating.

Mobiles mobilize. Mobiles empower. But, just as importantly, mobiles democratize. Aside from linearity, the other misguided force that has plagued our development thinking is what Nobel laureate Michael Spence stresses as the "dysfunctional propensity to think in silver bullets." This lopsided "either-or" mentality has been coupled with the stubborn myth that democracy is a prerequisite for development has created a dangerous brew, one that has led to countless missteps in development policy from the West. For over two decades, the many policymakers believed THE way to catalyze development in Africa was to completely upturn existing country governments, fund coups, and enforce vast, single shot political interventions. These top down changes were touted as necessary for development. However, the world is rife with examples of democracy without development. Whatever our intentions may be, the evidence reveals that there is little linkage between democracy and economic growth. Rather than changing whole frameworks into democracies, the answers lie more in specific, targeted, bottom up interventions, each of which must be nuanced and contextualized. This is where mobiles step in.

Mobiles are unique in that they unite democracy and development. They democratize innovation through a combination of handsets and airtime/information flow. The phones have been evolutionary for me and my friends, moving up from landlines in our homes, but they have been revolutionary in developing markets where landline networks are scarcer. As such, mobile systems in Africa and Asia are, in many ways, far more advanced than ours. While we simply use handsets for calls or sending mundane texts, many in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are truly performing magic with their devices.

The classic example has been the fisherman in Kerala, India who uses his mobile to call or text back to shore to verify market prices and determine which fish to catch to feed demand (in fact, studies have shown a stabilization around market fish prices). Even the simple ability to call a health clinic to see if it is open can save someone a day's long journey. But, creativity and innovation abound. Mobile services offer farmers in Uganda tips on when and how far apart to plant seeds, weather forecasts, and advice on tending to diseased tomatoes (Farmer's Friend, or mKrishi in India). A Grameen Foundation-Google collaboration (AppLab) has developed an application that provides text reminders to take medications, find clinics, and WebMD style counsel on symptoms (camera phones can take pictures of your ills). Classified ads are texted to Bangladeshis (Cell Bazaar). In Ghana, farmers can buy and sell at market prices to nine African countries (TradeNet). Moreover, in the past year, we have seen that mobiles can play a role in opening the media, with cell phone pictures leaking out during the post election rebellion in Iran and in harsh Sharia law enforced floggings in Pakistan. Mobile phones have also been used to monitor election balloting in India.

Additionally, with a limited brick and mortar bank and ATM network, those who were previously "unbanked" have taken advantage of mobile banking (m banking). Customers visit local kiosks or market stands to add credit to their plans. The retailer can then send an SMS text to another retailer who will hand cash to the recipient, with the retailer keeping a small commission. Safaricom's M-PESA mobile banking operation in Kenya has been widely adopted. WIZZIT in South Africa offers cell-phone money transactions and employs thousands of WIZZ kids to sell services at kiosks. South Africa's MTN mobile company is evaluating mobile banking in Uganda with hopes to roll out similar services in over 30 African countries. Zambia, the Philippines, and others offer burgeoning mobile networks, with many more in the works. Aside from the reception, what's clear is that we are just at the tip of telephony's iceberg.

Despite their aura, mobiles are, by no means, silver bullets on their own. Even Jeffrey Sachs may be beyond his reach when stating that "The mobile is the single most transformative tool for development." Going mobile is not an excuse for a country to brush under the rug basic infrastructure development for agriculture, water, transport, and energy. Leapfrogging may not always be a viable answer and adopting mobiles must truly address what locals are looking for, not just a romantic ideal for jumping to a higher tech solution. Moreover, a robust mobile network should not be taken as a proxy for a proper high speed broadband internet network, which offers even more pervasive and compelling benefits.

With that being said, wherever you are in the world, mobiles have become an essential piece of the social compact; they have connected, but have also lifted. Moreover, they have even generated a "social halo" effect as benefits for individuals have radiated outward to her family, her village, and her society. They have filled many of the spaces in distance and uncertainty. With a critical mobile penetration, it is important to keep our feet planted, as the mobile world is now at the beginning of the next wave.