We’ve all heard the hype: widespread access to mobile phones is revolutionizing every aspect of development, from agriculture to financial services, government accountability, healthcare, gender equity... you name it, there’s an app for it. The last five years have been particularly exciting, since the launching of mPesa, Ushahidi, and other developing world mobile innovations demonstrated the transformative power of mobile tools that reach farther than paved roads (or the electric grid, or even sanitation). The excitement is justified and some of the tools being developed are nothing short of extraordinary. But the mobile revolution as we know it has mainly just been about tools. Another wave is on the horizon which revolutionizes whole systems. If the global development community fails to catch the wave, it risks drowning in a sea of well-intentioned, but counterproductive, investments in mobile tools.
In this “second wave” of the mobile revolution, mobile tools will not only solve specific problems and reduce certain barriers to development, they will catalyze fundamental change in how development is implemented and governed. To turn this into reality, global development stakeholders – developing country governments, bilateral and multilateral donors, philanthropists, NGOs, civil society groups, even businesses – will need to deploy mobile solutions strategically rather than tactically. This calls for a strategic shift in the thinking about “Mobile for Development” (m4D), including:
Make m4D an opportunity for donor harmonization: currently, mobile applications tend to be conceived, funded, and implemented as stand-alone programs (e.g. a “mHealth solution” for supporting community health workers, or a “mAgri” tool to connect farmers with markets). Instead, mobile applications across sectors could be seen data generators, whether data collection is the application’s end goal or a byproduct. With the data that mobile applications make possible, countries and their development partners can better map critical needs and coordinate interventions. If mobile applications are allowed to remain disconnected and their data unused, they will not improve the way development actors cooperate. Therefore, in order for the first wave of the mobile revolution to translate into more harmonized aid, governments and donors must prioritize interoperability, data usability, analytics, and “open data” (making data freely and widely available) as highly as they prioritize the primary application of their mobile tools. Countries can impose this degree of harmonization around mobile applications and the data they generate (as evidenced by Uganda’s moratorium on mHealth pilots in 2012). Donors and implementers should also recognize that it is in their own interest to use mobile applications in a way that speeds up coordination for greater impact.
Use mobile tools for institutional reform: in the first wave of the mobile revolution, most m4D projects have been driven by “techies” or social entrepreneurs whose overarching goal was to demonstrate that mobile applications can improve specific development outcomes (i.e. health, access to finance, etc). The next wave will assume that to be true (at least under the right circumstances, which groups like the GSM Association, a trade group for mobile network operators, are helping to identify and document) and instead ask how the introduction of mobile tools could drive deeper organizational change. Policymakers and managers who want to reform institutions will employ mobile tools as a means of getting partners’ or subordinates’ attention, shaking things up, and creating space for change. On top of specific development outcomes, the drivers of the second wave of the mobile revolution will be looking to transform their organizations and the way they work with other development actors. One recent example comes out of Nigeria, where UNICEF helped the National Population Commission automate the registration of births, using the mobile phone-based RapidSMS platform. Although a birth registration system already exists, senior-level managers knew that the system was flawed and registrars were missing critical data. They wanted to improve incentives and accountability; the introduction of a mobile tool created that opportunity by making data collection easier for registrars while allowing managers to monitor registrars’ performance. The introduction of RapidSMS was a positive disruption, creating the chance to change expectations and relationships among the staff. The National Population Commission doesn’t only work faster thanks to a mobile tool, it now works better.
Bring private sector players to the table: as another GG2022 fellow highlighted, businesses are increasingly important actors in global development governance. At the macro level, it is true that the global development establishment needs to find ways, formally or informally, to recognize the role of business in development. The mobile revolution is one opportunity to align public and private sector goals. Mobile network operators themselves are in fierce competition for the rapidly growing pool of customers in developing countries, and many view development projects as a way to inspire customer loyalty or cultivate new revenue streams. For example, MTN in Cameroon has been a key supporter of my organization Malaria No More’s public awareness campaigns, in part because we share a target audience: the families and communities at risk of malaria are existing or potential MTN customers. The business case for more and better real-time data on traditional development sectors is also a good reason for private sector players to support the physical and programmatic infrastructure – largely based on mobile phones – for collecting and disseminating public sector data. Deeper cooperation between public and private sector players on specific mobile projects could lead to deeper integration of business in development at a macro level.
The first wave of the mobile revolution – improving specific development outcomes using mobile tools – is still ongoing, with plenty of challenges remaining, including traditional and digital illiteracy, inconsistent power supplies, overstrained mobile networks, and the cost and speed of mobile data. It is high time for the global development stakeholders to focus on the second wave, where the m4D revolution itself is used as a catalyst for changing how development is done. If organizations use mobile applications strategically, we will witness a transformation in development practice. If not, the mobile revolution will be seen as just another development fad that failed to create meaningful change.
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