Research Project in Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä

Leader: Professor Laura Stark

Project Background and Objectives

One problem shared by the poor in all developing countries is lack of affordable access to relevant information and knowledge services. There is widespread consensus that information and communication technologies (ICTs) present one solution to this problem, with mobile phones showing particular promise. Mobile phones are more affordable than computers, require less infrastructure, do not require the user to have much technological knowledge or even to be able to read and write, and are easy to carry from place to place. They lend themselves to flexible usage (text, voice and two-way communication), do not require special training, and the costs of connectivity are relatively low. Due to the low cost of labour, mobile phones in developing countries are much cheaper and easier to repair than computers. The vast majority of adults living in low-income countries, even the very poor, already own mobile phones and know how to operate them.

Worldwide, numerous mobile technology-based development projects have appeared in recent years, and the proliferation of conferences, websites, and project reports on mobile development reflect the rapid growth of interest in this area. Yet despite the enthusiasm surrounding this new field, very little long term, in-depth empirical research has yet been carried out, and mobile technology's impact on development remains severely understudied by Finnish researchers and NGOs. As anthropologists trained in the ethnographic method, we are in a unique position to contribute significantly to the growing international knowledge in this dynamic field with innovation potential for stakeholders. One of our main objectives is for project members to utilize each others' research and pass this knowledge on to their contact NGOs for future mobile applications.

Currently, services such as G-cash in the Philippines and M-Pesa in Kenya are providing mobile-based financial solutions for persons who may not otherwise have access to a bank. Mobile communications in Africa also offer access to information regarding where demand is highest for agricultural produce or fish, and enable small business owners to better communicate with their customers. By using mobile phones, people are spending less time and money on travel, and they can summon help and financial aid from relatives in times of crisis. Mobile phones are also facilitating the spread of rural health care and services.

Yet the introduction of new technologies does not itself automatically lead to economic growth and increased well-being. Many useful mobile applications have not been implemented on a large scale, and many crucial development issues such as illiteracy and women's health have been neglected. In both Africa and India, there is also a strong need for services and software in local languages and dialects. Non-literacy is another barrier when text messaging or even punching in numbers to make a phone call.

To maximize the potential benefits of mobile technology solutions, closer attention must be paid to poverty's dynamics, causes, and consequences. Poverty does not result merely from lack of connectedness to the information society, it is also a result of market restrictions, repressive governments, social injustice, and human exploitation. One of the most serious and far-reaching barriers to the eradication of poverty is gender inequality. Increased gender inequalities, even in the short-run, are having long-term consequences for economic growth and human development. Thus it is not surprising that one of the key target objectives of the Millenium Development Goals is the promotion of gender equality and women's empowerment (UN General Assembly 2000).

Our project addresses the question of gender in mobile solutions for development. Mobile-based services and systems can be a partial solution to poverty alleviation – but whose poverty? Men and women are often poor for different reasons, and what helps men may further jeopardize the well-being of women and girls. In Africa, for instance, women have long been active participants in the traditional economy. Will women remain economically active in the new mobile-powered world, or will men take more control? Will mobiles ultimately narrow or widen the gender opportunity gap? If Internet for the next billion will be different because it will be supported by mobile phones, will women and girls have access to it, and will it benefit their lives? It is now up to the research community to ensure that the Millenium Development Goals involving new ICTs do not conflict with development goals of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Gender inequality is not only a socio-economic issue but also a cultural one. Attempting to solve it by creating laws and regulations can have little effect when their enforcement is undermined by customs and norms. Such symbolic fields as kinship obligations, honor and shame systems, and costly dowries and ceremonies represent dominant practices and enduring meaning structures which cannot be ignored by the villagers, nor can they be overlooked by stakeholders. This is why it is so important that anthropologists trained in cultural analysis carry out basic empirical research before policies are developed. At the same time, symbolic systems should be seen not merely as constraints but also as sources of agency and new interpretations which motivate the quest for change and development. Taking into consideration the fact that people are not passive "users" of technology but are agents who adapt mobile phone technologies to their own needs, we ask: how does mobile phone use affect gender relations in low income countries? How do gender relations, in turn, affect mobile phone use?



Photgraphs are used with permission of the photographer,
Juha Laitalainen