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Mobile Phones for the Poor

Mobile phone
Mobile phone
Flickr, by 96dpi

There’s a lot of excitement and activity around the idea of using mobile phones to improve the lives of the world’s poorest.

Part of this stems from the fact that cell phones are basically mini-computers and spreading like wildfire into even the most remote corners of the world.

In fact, Africa is the world’s top growth market for cell phone use today. This isn’t about trying to introduce a new technology that helps the poor. It’s about taking advantage of an ongoing technological explosion.

An article in the Washington Post profiles Seattle’s Grameen Foundation’s work in this arena, describing farmers using mobile phones to improve their productivity, entrepreneurs engaging in microfinance and others performing electronic banking in communities that have no banks.

The Seattle branch of the Grameen Foundation, inspired by (but not technically affiliated with) the Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, was established by a former Microsoft executive and is supported by grants from the Gates Foundation. The Seattle organization’s aim is to use technology to give poor people greater economic control over their lives.

Others are figuring out how to adapt cell phones for use as medical diagnostic devices in a burgeoning field, some might even call it a movement, known as mHealth.

It’s a seductively attractive idea, using cell phones to make the world a better place.

But the One-Laptop-Per-Child scheme was seductively attractive, too, and it has stalled partly because few problems can be solved simply through the introduction of a single piece of technology.

One observer, an economics professor at Tufts, says that mobile phones will accomplish little in the long run if these communities do not also gain accompanying improvements in basic infrastructure such as transportation, health care and education.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.