Published on Digital Development

The Role of Mobile Devices in Fighting Poverty

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In a recent post on digital identities, we argued that information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be a force multiplier in achieving the World Bank’s goals of ending extreme poverty within a generation and promoting shared prosperity.  Mobile devices are also a critical part of this as they can facilitate and strengthen evidence-based approaches to tackling problems of relevance to the poor.

Take food security, for example.  In Uganda, banana is a major staple consumed by over 14 million people. Our colleagues in the World Bank’s ICT Sector Unit, Lyudmila Bujoreanu and Merrick Schaeffer, recently helped the Government of Uganda obtain rapid feedback on an outbreak of wilt infection in the country's banana crop.  They did this through Ureporters, a network of 190,000+ volunteers who use mobile technology to report on development issues (read more). The visualization of the viral outbreak, based on the information made available by ICTs, helped the government understand the magnitude of the problem and take effective steps towards dealing with it.

Map of BBW Spread

Data collected through mobile devices can also be a game-changer in the health sector.  Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health used anonymized locational data from mobile phones to trace patterns of human movement in Kenya, which showed how malaria emanated from the Lake Victoria region and spread eastwards towards Nairobi. This data provided new insights into fighting malaria in Kenya in a more resource-efficient manner (read more). Two World Bank colleagues, Deepak Bhatia and Pratheep Ponraj, helped the state government of Karnataka in India obtain timely and accurate feedback on various health programs using mobile devices (read more).

The availability of mobile phones is making it possible to collect data at a scale and a level of accuracy that was not possible in the past in developing countries. Mobile phones also constitute a powerful platform for delivering information efficiently and fast to the poor. Five billion out of the six billion mobile phones worldwide are in developing countries. The cost of phones has come down dramatically as well. The Gongkai phone from China, for example, costs US$12 and has quad band, 8MB RAM, an MPEG player and slots for a SIM, a micro SD and a USB!

If the cost of connectivity and access to data services can be reduced, especially for the poor, cheap phones have the potential to transform the structure of poverty around the world.  The cost of connectivity remains high in certain areas of the world.  The World Bank is helping developing countries put in place the digital infrastructure and related enablers that will help bring down these costs. The Pacific region, comprising thousands of islands across a large ocean, are among the most remote in the world. In the island of Palau, a 512 Kbps connection to the Internet costs $650 per month. In contrast a 2Gbps connection can cost as little as $51 a month in Japan (read more).

The World Bank is helping the Pacific region to have increased access to mobile phones and broadband internet. The World Bank with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is financing the Pacific Regional Connectivity Program. My colleague Natasha Beschorner is the Team Leader. The project includes the implementation of an 827 km underwater fiber optic cable linking Tonga to Fiji that will help increase broadband internet access and affordability for Tonga’s population of 100,000 people. The implementation of the undersea cable is on track and is likely to be completed by July this year.

These are just a few examples of the role ICTs can play in tackling problems of relevance to the poor in the digital age. If we are to fight extreme poverty to the extent and within the timeframe we have set ourselves, we will need new approaches in addition to those that have worked in the past.  We believe ICTs, including mobile devices, can help bend the arc of history in the fight against poverty, and that the World Bank and other development partners need to elevate the ICT agenda at the institutional level.


Randeep Sudan

Former Practice Manager, Information and Communication Technologies

Shin Shim Lee

World Bank Senior Consultant

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