Rising mobile phone use rings change in disasters

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 3 March 2009 18:12 GMT

Back in 2006, a staff member at the U.N. World Food Programme's London office received a rather unusual text message on their mobile phone. "My name is Mohammed Sokor, writing to you from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab," it read. "Dear Sir, there is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilogrammes of food. You must help."

WFP called Mohammed back and found out more about his story. Since fleeing his home town of Bardere in Somalia in the early 1990s, he'd lived in a refugee camp in an arid part of northeast Kenya, and was working with an aid agency as a volunteer teacher.

That year, the U.N. food aid agency had been forced to cut food rations in the camp due to a funding shortfall, which was likely to have prompted the SMS appeal for help.

"It may seem strange that someone so short of food can afford a mobile phone but one of the great ironies of modern Africa is that mobile phones are not seen as a luxury, but a necessity," wrote Greg Barrow, who's now WFP's global communications coordinator in Rome. "They are often cheap and used far more widely than most would imagine.

"Humble SMS text messages from refugees could become an effective SOS for millions whose voices are so rarely heard."

While this vision has yet to become the norm, it's getting closer as penetration of mobile phones shows a meteoric rise in developing countries. A report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) this week reveals that while just one in 50 Africans had a mobile in the year 2000, now 28 percent have a cellular subscription.

In the developing world, mobile phones have revolutionised telecommunications, the report says, reaching an estimated average penetration rate of 61 percent at the end of 2008 Â? from close to zero just 10 years ago. Africa is the continent with the fastest growth.

By the end of last year, there were an estimated 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions across the world, up from 1 billion in 2002.


In some countries like Kenya, the explosion in mobile use has been driven by money transfer services, such as Vodafone's M-Pesa, which allow people to send money securely at the press of a phone key, which the recipient can turn into cash. No need for bank accounts.

Aid agencies are increasingly turning to mobile phones as a means of distributing cash payments. Earlier this month, Britain's Department for International Development said it would invest £1.4 million in a three-year project to help launch "branchless banking" in Africa and Asia, providing individuals with a remote bank account that's accessed and managed through their mobile phone or other technology.

"A lack of access to finance in some parts of the developing world stifles entrepreneurship, stunts development and leaves people trapped in a poor, cash-only society," said Britain's international development secretary, Douglas Alexander. "Advancements in technology and growth in mobile phone use is changing how we all live our lives and has the potential to give people access to financial services no matter where they live."

Deograsias Mukeba, a 33-year-old trader in Democratic Republic of Congo's conflict-torn east, has certainly benefited from the opportunities presented by wireless technology, reports Britain's Guardian newspaper. Before mobile phones arrived in Goma, the city's non-existent communications infrastructure meant he didn't find out until his mother's death until three weeks after her funeral.

But since acquiring a handset for $25 - "because it was cool to have" - he's started supplying electrics and car parts from Rwanda and Uganda to his brother, who sells them in Kinshasa. "I send a lot of stuff. Now we are making money," he tells the paper.


Besides business and financial services, mobile phones are also promising tools for getting information to people caught up in disasters. A January report from the media development organisation Internews says text messages in particular have been found to be the best way of distributing information in the first few days after a disaster hits. Often SMS carries on working when voice and data traffic is jammed, and it tends to be one of the cheapest methods of communication.

"Since the tsunami in 2004, it has been clear that local media and communications are an essential part first, of service delivery in disasters and later, in transparency and accountability of the humanitarian effort," says the report.

Media outlets could utilise mobile phone technology both to send internal messages to their staff and news to other journalists, as well as offering information services to specific communities, Internews suggests.

Yet despite the huge potential of mobile technology for communicating in emergencies and creating wealth, the picture isn't entirely rosy, as many of the poorest people still don't have access to a phone.


More than a quarter of Africans now own one, but that compares with 38 percent in Asia, 72 percent in the Americas, 79 percent in Oceania and 111 percent in Europe (some people have more than one device).

And when it comes to the internet, there remains a clear digital divide. The number of internet users in developing countries has grown at a much slower rate than for mobile phones, with only 13 out of 100 inhabitants using the internet at the end of 2007.

The report points out that mobile broadband internet penetration is still less than 1 percent in the developing world compared with 14 percent in developed countries, but is a promising technology.

"Technological advances especially in the mobile sector are offering new possibilities and the potential to help more and more people communicate, and take advantage of internet services at increasingly high speed," it says.

Humanitarian and development agencies may still be in the early stages of exploiting the potential of SMS for communicating with the communities they support. But it's definitely moving up the agenda fast.

At the end of 2008, for example, the U.N. Children's Fund used messages to mobile phones - along with mosques, TV, radio and loudspeakers - to raise awareness about its "Child Health Days" in Somalia, in which it's targeting more than 1.5 million children under the age of five and women of child-bearing age with preventive care delivered in local communities.

Expect to see more campaigns like it in the coming months as mobile phone use continues to spread among the world's poorest communities.

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