U.N. Says Mobile Phones Can Help Alleviate Poverty
The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) recently published its annual Investment Economy Report, which gives an overview of global trends related to information and communication technologies. This year, UNCTAD devoted special attention to the impact that mobile technology can have on alleviating poverty and improving livelihoods in the developing world. And, according to the report, that impact could be more significant than you'd imagine.
The immediate benefits of greater mobile penetration, at first glance, are self-evident. Cell phones, by definition, facilitate instant communication among large groups of people, businesses or organizations, thereby offering an immediate boost to any fledgling industry's infrastructure. Sophisticated mobile technology, moreover, offers users entirely new ways to access information and educate themselves.
Yet mobile phones also provide low-income countries with new, and potentially productive business opportunities. Many uneducated or unskilled workers, for example, can find work selling SIM cards or handsets on the streets, or could start their own small businesses around the mobile economy. In recent years, many microcredit organizations have even begun extending lines of mobile credit to impoverished cell phone users without bank accounts.
According to UNCTAD, 25 out of every 100 people in the Least Developed Countries now have a mobile subscription, up from just 2 per 100 a few years ago. In developing countries, meanwhile, 58 out of 100 now have access. Greater mobile penetration, of course, is probably not the elusive "silver bullet" that economists have pursued for years. And governments still must ensure that cell phones remain affordable, and that national cellular networks remain reliable. But, as the U.N. demonstrates, more widespread mobile technology can certainly get a mired economy moving in the right direction -- from the bottom up.