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Innovation

Mobile tech gets cautious praise from aid groups

Wireless technology has its benefits, but experts seek more evidence on the true costs of installing infrastructure in the developing world
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Written by Andrew Donoghue on

Mobile phones have done a great deal to improve the lives of people in developing countries, but more research needs to be done to work out whether the costs outweigh the benefits, according to a senior economist.

Speaking at the launch of a United Nations Foundation report into the impact of mobile technology on the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the developing world, Danny Quah, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, welcomed the research but said more evidence of benefits is needed.

"The bottom line is that the cost to the world of putting that wireless infrastructure out there is not known," said Quah. "As I went through the study I didn't quite connect with the numbers. I need to know how the costs and benefits scale up to the world."

The survey, Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in Mobile Use by NGOs, is made up of interviews with around 560 NGOs and looks at how mobile technology benefits the operational efficiency of the organisations themselves as well as how the groups provide technology for use by communities in developing countries. For example, an Aids treatment project in South Africa run by Cell-Life has equiped health workers with mobile phones that are used for data collection from patients.

However, Quah said that while the case studies provided valuable evidence, the lack of top-line figures and extrapolation about the financial costs of mobile technology versus the benefits it has provided to developing countries limited the value of the study. "We need to take what the researchers have done and scale them up," Quah added.

Headline findings from the report — which is primarily built around 11 case studies — include the fact that 86 percent of NGOs are using mobile technology in their work, while 31 percent claim that they would find it hard to do their work without mobile access.

One of the report's authors, Katrin Verclas from mobile technology community group MobileActive.org, said while there are some barriers to entry when it comes to computers in the developing world, phones are much more accessible.

"This is not a device that is foreign, unlike a computer for a lot of people. They already understand the benefit. They've already swallowed that fact, gotten past the barrier. So what's left to do is sell the benefit for a particular mission," Verclas said.

Projects highlighted in the report include a text-messaging service provided by Oxfam and the Kenyan organisation PeaceNet to alert NGOs to any violent incidents surrounding recent election-related civil unrest in Kenya.

Daniel Litvin, senior research fellow at Chatham House, where the event was held, said he was sceptical of sweeping claims about any technology. "I am suspicious of any claims that any product will make the world a better place," he said. "However, I have had some of my scepticism dispelled by case studies such as the project in Kenya to use text messages to contact peace activists."

The report was also funded by Vodafone Group Foundation, the charitable wing of the mobile operator.

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