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7.12.09

Mobile technology, gender and development in Africa, India and Bangladesh

As requested, here is a more detailed description of our forthcoming project I wrote about earlier. It is edited from the main research plan of the project.

Name of project: Mobile technology, gender and development in Africa, India and Bangladesh
Organizing institution: Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä.
Period: 2010-2013
Project Leader: Laura Stark, Professor of Ethnology


Background and significance of the research

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 the best 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. 3G “smart phones” are presently too expensive for the vast majority of buyers, but phones which avail GPRS and edge technology are already providing affordable access to the Internet in developing countries. Building 3G networks in developing countries will hugely improve the developmental potential of mobile technology.

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. Ownership of mobile phones practically tripled in developing countries between 2002 and 2006. Secondary markets for used mobile devices, and practices such as phone renting and battery charging services make mobile phones within reach of even the poorest of the poor. Establishing mobile masts is a relatively inexpensive way of serving large and remote rural areas, and it is estimated that by 2010, 90% of the world will be covered by mobile networks (Bhavnani et. al. 2008).

Yet the introduction of new technologies does not itself automatically lead to economic growth and increased well-being. Privatization of teleservices has created the institutional problem of how states, service providers and NGOs can co-operate to provide developmental applications in affordable ways. In Africa, for instance, customer care is inadequate, interconnection charges are high, and operators collude due to lack of government regulations. Persons might own several phones but use them seldom or in a limited manner, rarely taking full advantage of services offered by the mobile platform. 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 (Costa & Silva 2008, 9). 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).

Yet gender inequality has been rarely addressed in mobile solutions for development. The Grameen Village Phone project is one of the few mobile development projects to give special attention to women. 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 (Whitehead 2003, 8). 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?

Our project is led by Professor of Ethnology Laura Stark, and includes four anthropologists. Project members will carry out research in India and Bangladesh, as well as 5 countries in Africa: 2 in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania), 2 in West Africa (Cameroon, Ghana), and South Africa. Two of these are Finland’s long-term partners for development (Kenya and Tanzania), and one is a short-term cooperation partner (South Africa). We have chosen these countries because they are among the fastest growing telemarkets in the developing world, and all these states are actively designing ICT policies and encouraging the participation of NGOs and other stakeholders in designing and providing teleservices.

Research areas of the project members overlap with each other in order for findings to be mutually useful not just across the project team, but also to their many NGO cooperation partners. Our first area of concern is women’s health. Crentsil and Tenhunen will examine how NGOs manage and disseminate successful mobile-for-health programs in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa by focusing on which important women's health issues have so far been neglected in mobile application design. Tenhunen will also focus on how mobile development applications can be implemented on a large scale. Crentsil and Tawah will focus on the use of mobile phones in information dissemination and retrieval for HIV/AIDS education, for instance through the grassroots practice of ‘beeping’ a health advice center (hanging up before the call is answered to save money), after which the health worker calls the caller back. Our second area of concern is the costs versus the benefits of mobile usage among the poor, which has been recently debated in mobile development circles. M-banking, for instance, has been hailed as the mobile application which will benefit people in developing countries the most, but research shows that most persons in Sub-Saharan Africa are too poor to save money and do not have earnings easily transferred through banking. Studies have also shown that some people go hungry so they can pay for mobile usage, others must walk 3-7 kilometers 2-3 times per week in order to recharge their mobile batteries and 79% of persons surveyed in rural Tanzania did not agree that mobile phone use reduced poverty (see Diga 2007; Mpogole, Usanga & Tedre 2008). Despite this, people still purchase mobiles, and so consensus on how we should measure “benefits” is changing. Jouhki, Stark and Tawah will examine the economic issues surrounding mobile phone use among rural inhabitants in India (Tamil Nadu), Tanzania (Iringa district), and Cameroon (Bamenda). Their focus will be on the economic and social impact upon women and girls of m-banking, remittances, and costs of money, time and energy.

Professor Laura Stark (Ethnology, U. of Jyväskylä). How the Tanzanian poor define “well-being”: economic costs vs. social benefits of mobile phone use. Stark will visit the I4D research group at Tumaini University in Tanzania, which has already done cost-benefit studies of mobile phone use, to explore the hypothesis that local people may define “benefits” in non-economic terms: the poor use the social networks maintained through telephony to generate financial flows such as remittances or help during a crisis, and denser and more dynamic social networks mean greater security. Stark will theorize the relationship between social networks and time and energy commitment to technology use in order to better design mobile solutions which bring greatest benefits from the perspective of the poor themselves.

Ph.D. Perpetual Crentsil (Anthropology, U. of Helsinki). Mobile telephony and healthcare delivery for women in rural Ghana and South Africa. Crentsil will focus on mobile solutions for improving the healthcare delivery system in Africa and map out mobile technology’s impact health care services provided to women and children among the rural and urban poor. Crentsil’s research will address following questions: how are mobile phones being used to improve reproductive health, the delivery of health information and care services provided to rural women? How are they supporting large-scale management of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and how does this affect women? How can mobile phone applications be put to new uses for improving women’s health? Crentsil will return to her previous fieldwork site in Ghana to work with the Grameen Foundation, which is using mobile applications to assist community health workers for neonatal and maternal health. After that, she will travel to South Africa to examine the role of mobile phones in HIV/AIDS education by focusing on the activities of Cell-Life, an NGO based in Cape Town which uses mobile technologies as a mass information channel. Crentsil’s interest in this study stems from her extensive research on HIV/AIDS and health systems in Africa, which resulted in her doctoral dissertation Death, Ancestors, and HIV/AIDS among the Akan of Ghana. Her findings will be disseminated to NGOs through other project members in Cameroon, Tanzania, India and Bangladesh.

Adjunct Prof., Ph.D. Jukka Jouhki (Ethnology, U. of Jyväskylä). The Meaning of "Nagarpesi": Diffusion, Gendered Use and Cultural Values of Mobile Technology in Rural Tamil Nadu, South India. Jouhki returns to the fieldsite of his dissertation research to focus on how the diffusion of mobile technology is changing the economic and sociocultural dynamics of rural Indian society, particularly with regard to gender and caste in the Villapuram district of Tamil Nadu. He examines economic costs and incentives to mobile use such as remittances, asking: do women and men perceive costs and benefits differently? What mobile applications and practices could increase the benefit to women? He also looks at caste-specific use and grassroots cost-benefit analysis among the very poor. How do untouchables use mobile technology? Where do remittances to them come from and could their flow be made easier? Would mobile banking make a difference? Tamil Nadu is an affluent state of India which has long relied on private enterprise for economic growth and has one of the most active ICT policies in India. As such, it provides an interesting comparison case with Tenhunen’s prior research on rural West Bengal which has been ruled by the Communist party since 1977 and has successfully pioneered a land reform which has led to rapid growth in agricultural growth.

(MA) Sanna Tawah (Ethnology, U. of Jyväskylä). The Market in my Hands: Mobile Phones for Social and Financial Connectivity among “Buyamsellam” women in rural Cameroon. Female small-scale entrepreneurs (“buyamsellam” women) in Bamenda, Cameroon, use mobile phones on a daily basis. They also have savings that they would need to bank, but no formal banking possibilities. Mobile banking has been launched in Cameroon, but is not widely used. Tawah will visit Tanzania to observe the use of the more popular M-Pesa (a mobile banking program for the poor launched in Tanzania in 2007) to compare applications and practices. She will also study technical phone support systems for farmers in Yaounde, Cameroon accessed through free mobile ‘beeping’ to see if the same concept could be applied to AIDS and health education in Bamenda, and to Crentsil’s field sites in Ghana and South Africa.

Adjunct Prof., Ph.D. Sirpa Tenhunen (Anthropology, U. of Helsinki). Social construction of gender sensitive mobile applications. Tenhunen uses her prior fieldwork data on the appropriation of mobile phones from rural India and Kenya to map out neglected development issues that could be tackled with mobile technology. In this project, she will work with NGOs to study potential mobile applications which could benefit women’s health. She will first conduct fieldwork among the applications developers in Nairobi, which has emerged as the hub of mobile application development in Eastern Africa. Tenhunen will collect data in order to examine which issues have been covered and whether development applications address women’s issues. To provide an understanding of the institutional prerequisites for implementing mobile applications on a large scale, she will also carry out a case study on Grameen Phone in Bangladesh, which has been able to successfully offer phone services which empower women. She will finally travel to India to co-operate closely with Dr. Devi Shetty’s Asia Heart Foundation and Narayana Hrudalaya (Bangalore, India) to develop concrete mobile applications for improving rural women’s health. She aims to answer the question of how businesses, state and NGOs can co-operate to successfully produce affordable services. What development issues do designers emphasize and how do they assess the gender impact of their applications? What cooperation is needed in order for NGOs to proceed from pilot cases to putting applications into practice on a large scale? Her findings will be disseminated to the other projects’ NGOs through local workshops.


Objectives

Research objectives. 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.

In terms of theory, our objective is to challenge the paradigms of development theory as well as the “social shaping of technology” approach. In terms of practice, all projects will contribute to developing both gender-sensitive mobile technology applications and “best practices” guidelines. Our researchers start from a careful ethnographic study of mobile phone use in their research locations, and then proceed to developing suggestions for developmental mobile applications in co-operation with NGOs and other stakeholders. We also identify positive and effective grass-roots solutions for empowering women and girls which have already proven successful, and could be applied to other contexts.

Hypotheses. Following the Social Shaping of Technology (SSA) and Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approaches, we reject views of technological determinism and see the impact of a particular technology as deriving not from the design itself but from the struggles and negotiations among interested parties (Pinch & Bijker 1984; Bijker & Pinch 1987; Williams & Edge 1996). Social constructionist approaches view technologies as broad-based systems comprising not merely physical artefacts, devices and infrastructures, but also social and cultural patterns of behaviour, regulatory laws and policies, education and know-how. Seeing technology as a social construct means recognizing that technologies embody gender differences (Litho 2005). Despite the strengths of the social construction of technology theory, it has recently come under reassessment (Hyysalo 2006 and Mackay & Gillespie 1992). The overall theoretical aim of the project is to develop the SCOT theory to further understand how the social shaping of technology is intertwined with culture while leaving space for a technological imagination not completely dictated by it.

We also view issues of gender and development from a holistic anthropological perspective. Researchers have recently focused on three broad areas which are helping us to better understand how gender inequality is tied to poverty. First, it has been recognized that what happens inside the household is crucial. In the 1970s and 1980s, poverty reduction strategies that targeted male household heads erroneously assumed that benefits would ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the household. In the late 1980s, it was recognized that male heads of household tended to distribute resources in ways which disadvantaged women and girls, and even when women generated income outside the home, they did not always retain control over those resources (Kennedy & Cogill 1987).

Second, overwhelming cross-cultural evidence suggests that women in many less developed countries are expected to invest in their families rather than in their own well-being, while men are freer to invest only in themselves. This has been called the feminisation of responsibility and/or obligation (Chant 2006, 2008). Women have primary responsibility for the unpaid care of the family and dependent children, while men withhold earnings or appropriate those of wives to fund fundamentally self-oriented pursuits (Chant 2008, 27). Poor men’s desertion of families is another strategy for escaping the responsibilities of contributing to household consumption (Sen 2008, 7). Poorer working women have coped by sacrificing the education of their daughters who are expected to help their mothers care for the family (Kabeer 2008, 5). Thus poverty is not just about a lack of basic needs, but of opportunities and choices.

Third, it has been recognized that the most disadvantaged population group in developing countries are girls. They bear a heavy burden of work at home, receive less education than boys, are channelled into low paying jobs, vulnerable to exploitation and violence, and are pressured to marry young, sometimes even before the age of 15. M-banking through a private savings accounts accessible through SMS would be one way to improve young women’s access to and control over their own earnings. Girls giving birth in adolescence are at greater risk of mortality, and girls are also at greater risk of infection from HIV and AIDS than boys and young men. As girls enter and move through adolescence, they become increasingly socially isolated, and this isolation only increases after they marry (Mathur, Greene & Malhotra 2003). Social isolation carries not only risks of remaining uneducated and illiterate, but also of rape and HIV infection. Health education could be set up through text messaging to mobile phones to reach girls who are socially isolated. The well-being of girls is important not only from a human rights’ standpoint, but also because girls grow up to be mothers, and therefore play a key role in the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Although material poverty has received the most attention in development research since the 1970s, gender inequality is not just a matter of income and nutritional intake. A more promising approach acknowledges the multi-dimensional nature of gender disadvantage: lack of access to education, marriage customs and age at marriage, violence against women, norms regarding work and responsibility, inheritance and property rights, equal access to housing, control over resources such as land and water, distribution and consumption of resources within the household, and the socio-economic impact of health problems and HIV/AIDS. We seek to contribute to development theory by looking at how all these factors impact each other, and how rapidly disseminating mobile technologies are implicated.

It is only through holistic gender analysis that mobile technologies can fulfil their enormous potential for improving the lives of women and girls in low income countries. Sirpa Tenhunen has already shown how mobile technology has produced benefits for women in rural India. Just a decade ago, women could be facing food scarcity, or be mistreated in their husband’s house for years before the news reached their parents. Now, phones are helping women in rural India to keep in touch with relatives, and since natal families continue to be the major source of help for married women, girls pay attention to whether there is a mobile phone in the house or neighborhood of a potential suitor (Tenhunen 2008, 531)

Mobile phones also carry great promise for alleviating health-related problems, since poverty is both a cause and consequence of illness. Poverty means less access to health services, and women in particular have less access than men. Health services utilizing mobile technologies could help women receive the assistance they need. Illness, in turn, leads to poverty when people are forced to sell their assets in order to get treatment. The possibility of obtaining affordable health care and guidance through mobile services before the illness gets worse could save huge numbers of people from poverty.

Justification for how the proposed research ties in with this call and its objectives. The proposed project is directly connected to the themes of the call: we examine the current impact and future potential of mobile phone technologies in low income countries for the eradication of extreme poverty and the increasing of economic, social and cultural interaction through more accessible communication. We analyze the gender implications of mobile development solutions in order to ensure their promotion of equality and human rights.

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