Today, over half the world’s population now has access to a mobile phone, with 5.37 billion mobile subscriptions and over two billion internet users worldwide by the end of 2010. However, these are more than just bald statistics – today, modern ICTs are genuinely changing people’s lives for the better. As ICTs, and mobile phones in particular, reach the hands of more and more people living in low-income and rural areas, a growing number of people are becoming empowered, able to access information on demand and readily contactable – often for the first time. Today, due to this large subscriber base, mobile communications are argued by many observers to offer the single biggest delivery platform for development – but does size or functionality matter more?
Poverty reduction is the first, and arguably most urgent, Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of the United Nations, but for many people in developing countries, information poverty rapidly becomes actual poverty. Lack of education, illiteracy, lack of nutrition or access to health resources, lack of aspirations – the causes of poverty are complex, persistent and difficult to overcome. Figures vary, but around 10 million people still die every year from hunger, and present trends in rising food prices and the global economic crisis may have pushed tens of millions more back into poverty, with women and girls often the most at risk, according to UN analysis. For may people, better access to information could make a real and significant life-changing difference.
Mobile applications and customized services can deliver concrete benefits promoting healthcare and education to raise awareness and help achieve public health goals. m-Health applications offer huge promise through lower costs and greater coverage to improve the quality of healthcare, as well as shifting the focus in behaviour towards preventative healthcare, rather than curative healthcare. Examples include: the treatment and management of health (e.g. by reminding, registering or transmitting readings for diabetes or blood pressure); better health data to improve decision-making; applications for treatment plans (e.g. in HIV retroviral adherence plans); or applications for awareness-raising and information dissemination throughout the community at large, following community-based approaches towards achieving improved health outcomes as a social construct.
In education, mobiles could put a teacher into the hand of every schoolchild, woman and parent. Educational apps are being devised with local language content to teach literacy, numeracy, geography or safety or hygiene awareness. Children can learn more about prospects and opportunities in certain fields. Even more valuable, they can familiarize themselves with ICTs and learn fresh skills – skills that will stand them in good stead in a field where the shortfall between labour requirements and skilled labour is projected to widen significantly over the next ten years.
More broadly, expanding access to mobiles can open up young and old minds alike to new opportunities, new sources of information and fresh perspectives. They may also create an enabling environment for innovation, experimentation and fresh thinking, even within established societies with traditional perspectives – for example, in agricultural or rural societies, which can experiment with new and innovative development initiatives.
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