Mobile Technologies and Empowerment: Enhancing human development through participation and innovation

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Executive summary

Mobile technologies are opening new channels of communication between people and governments, potentially offering greater access to public information and basic services to all. No other technology has been in the hands of so many people in so many countries in such a short period of time (World Bank 2008). In fact, globally, more people now have access to a mobile device than to justice or legal services (UNDP 2008). Recent estimates indicate that ICTs could be accessible to everyone by 2015 and bring internationally agreed development targets ever closer to achievement (ITU 2010). Indeed, we are witnessing a new wave of democratization of access to innovative ICT channels, propelled by state-of-the-art technologies and diminishing barriers to entry.

In a global population of nearly seven billion people, the total number of mobile phone subscriptions globally is an astonishing 5.4 billion — and counting. Given that individual subscribers may have multiple and/or inactive SIM cards, the actual number of individual mobile subscribers worldwide is estimated at around 3.9 billion (Informa Telecoms and Media 2011). Latest figures indicate that mobile phone penetration rates stand at almost 45 percent in low-income countries and 76 percent in lower-middle-income countries (ITU 2011a). Given that entire villages in poor and/or rural communities will often share one or two cell phones, it is also estimated that 80 to 90 percent of people in some poor countries have at least minimal access to a cell phone (Zuckerman 2009). Furthermore, close to 80 million mobile subscribers, most of them in developing countries, have no access to the electrical grid — and yet use a mobile phone.

That is in part because mobile technologies offer portable, real-time, communication and information access for people who previously had little to no access to affordable communication channels. Mobiles have relatively low physical infrastructure requirements and can reach remote areas in a more cost-effective fashion than other ICTs such as the Internet or fixed phone lines. In some places, mobile devices are simply the only option available. And mobile phones require only basic literacy, making the barriers to entry much lower than with other modern ICTs.

Yet, mobile services for people at the bottom of the pyramid remain high: the price basket for mobile services can amount to 15.75 percent of monthly average per capita income in countries with low human development (compared with 4.86 percent in medium human development contexts). And coverage in remote or marginalized areas is often nonexistent. There are indications that at least ten percent of the global population and 40 percent of people in least developed countries are not covered by a mobile network, entrenching divisions between populations in urban centres and poorer populations in the periphery (Blackman and Srivastava 2011).

However, mobile phone subscriptions in the developing world are rapidly outpacing those in the developed world and costs are coming down. Moreover, public investment and public-private partnerships are becoming essential tools for extending connectivity, services and information.

As a result, mobile technologies are starting to have an indelible impact on human development, enhancing democratic governance and other development areas such as health, education, agriculture, employment, crisis prevention and the environment. For instance, studies have suggested that increased mobile ownership is linked to higher economic growth (Vodafone 2005; Vodafone and ICRIER 2009). It is also likely to have twice as large an impact on economic growth in developing countries as in developed ones because the starting point of infrastructure in poorer countries is so much lower in terms of landlines and broadband access. Leapfrogging of traditional infrastructure requirements such as landlines is possible in low-income countries as mobile technologies have lower investment costs. Other benefits include increased telecom-based tax revenues, greater employment opportunities, and overall increased productivity, not to mention a thriving telecom industry that attracts foreign direct investment.

Within governance, mobile technologies can offer new means for empowering citizens and stakeholders by opening and enhancing democratic processes and mechanisms. M-governance initiatives that expand access to information and communications channels are creating new venues for people’s participation and giving new voice to those who have historically been marginalized. What was once in the domain of official or large private, corporate media channels is now in the hands of anyone with a mobile or an Internet connection — flattening information and broadening the distribution of that information. This in turn can support wider stakeholder mobilization within a much shorter period of time, as witnessed during the so-called Arab spring of 2011 and other political mobilizations happening around the world today.

The simplicity of new mobile platforms requiring only a basic mobile phone with SMS capacity has allowed their adoption all over the world — from South Africa, to India, to Mexico — to monitor elections, track violence and crime, provide logistical support in natural disasters, and oversee inventories. The portability and ubiquity of mobile phones have helped them become an important tool for civil society, enabling local mobilization and networking among geographically dispersed people.

Mobile technologies are also strengthening the demand side of governance by providing people with critical tools to engage with public institutions and demand more and better services. This fosters broader transparency and social accountability. Enhancing service delivery and reform within important governing institutions — from public administrations to parliaments to systems of justice — generates new possibilities for open government. Mobile technologies can reduce bureaucratic holdups for average citizens and streamline work for civil servants. They enable citizens to bypass intermediaries who may take money for facilitating transactions, making service delivery more efficient and transparent.

Significantly for poor people and rural development, mobile technologies can help reduce information gaps and restrictions inherent in marketplaces where consumers and producers have little means of comparing commodity prices between distant markets. Micro-entrepreneurs, for instance, can access market information from remote locations, increasing the speed of trade and reducing travel expenditures.

Mobiles also offer greater independence for women by opening new channels of information and affording greater personal privacy. They can also offer women greater security, not only as emergency tools, but also to report and monitor violence against women. And where once women may have needed male relatives to act as intermediaries, mobile platforms now provide them the chance to make decisions for their economic wellbeing by and for themselves, which in turn can facilitate female entrepreneurship.

Mobile applications are also being used to combat poverty by expanding service delivery possibilities in health care, agriculture, employment and education. In the health sector, there have been many pioneering mobile initiatives improving connectivity and information transmission in areas that are hard to access. As emergency response tools, mobile technologies have helped establish networks of communication between citizens, organizations and government agencies in times of crises. They are also being used to educate and keep citizens and vulnerable stakeholders abreast of environmental and energy-related issues, including weather patterns, climate change and responsible environmental stewardship.

By themselves, mobile phones will neither pull people out of poverty, nor propel democratic governance. Instead they are catalytic tools for enhancing and broadening development programming if deployed strategically. They open new channels for connecting the poor to services, new ways for citizens to have their voices heard, and new opportunities for civic engagement in larger governance processes.

At the same time, to reach historically under-served communities, policies need to be in place to help realize the development potential of this medium. It is important that policies support both broad access to information and service distribution, so that mobile services will reach difficult-to-access (and most times un-lucrative) rural areas. It is also important not to overlook literacy challenges and infrastructure limitations. Yet, even within the constraints, mobile technologies are offering marginalized people new ways to leverage their resources to enter the marketplace and demand public services.


The rapid diffusion of mobile technologies in the first decade of the new millennium has little precedent in history. No other technology has ever been in the hands of so many people in so many countries in such a short period of time (World Bank 2008). Although the ‘hype’ has brought with it some exaggeration, it is also true that nowadays more people probably have access to a mobile device than to justice or legal services (UNDP 2008). In fact, whereas four billion people in the world have no access to justice and legal services (UNDP 2008), there are 5.4 billion mobile subscriptions. And according to a report published by the United Nations University in 2010, more people in India have access to a cell phone than to a toilet and good sanitation (UNU-IWEH 2010).

Mobile Subscriptions 2010
Figure 1 Mobile Subscriptions 2011

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have set forth global commitments to foster human development across the world. One of the targets calls for making the benefits of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) available to all. If we subscribe to the latest figures on mobile usage and availability then we can argue that this particular target is achievable by 2015, if not before (see figure 1).

But how does this relate to the other 17 MDG targets, if at all, and to all other Internationally Agreed Development Goals (IADGs)?

Figure 2Mobile Subscriptions by UNDP country categories 2011

In principle, mobile devices can significantly impact development goals in terms of poverty reduction, democratic governance and crisis response (ITU 2010; Castells et al. 2007). Strategically deployed, mobile technologies can open new, interactive communication channels that help governments engage people in policy and decision-making processes, expand stakeholder participation, offer greater access to public information, and foster targeted service delivery to the poor and marginalized. Nevertheless, the question is how to make this happen in real, material terms in ways that will really enhance human development.

The main objective of this primer is to provide UNDP programme staff and development partners and practitioners with a practical understanding of how mobile technologies can amplify development programming. By looking at basic concepts, current trends and real life examples, the primer intends to shed light on how development practitioners can harness the potential of mobile technologies to improve development outputs and outcomes at the country level.

The primer first outlines development in terms of the growth of mobile technologies. It then examines some of the currently available evidence on the macro impact of the technology, and presents concrete examples that have had a direct impact on democratic governance. Further examples of the impact of mobiles on other UNDP practices such as poverty reduction, crisis prevention and recovery, and energy and environment are then illustrated. Based on these examples, key challenges and success factors are outlined as well as some of the lessons learned so far. Finally, it offers suggestions on how UNDP can capitalize on mobile technologies to enhance its development programming and development impact.