The curse

Blogging is. I’m aware that I haven’t posted anything since October. I’m aware that it’s now December.

I’m working on a small competition application for funding (that shall not be named as this post is about many curses). It’s a similar project as my last post. I’m really interested in using mobile phones for learning in rural Uganda. Ironically, I’ve never been a phone person. I’ve always been very cautious about buying the newest gadget (maybe it’s that small town middle class upbringing), but now I’m trying to develop a program to get people to use their cell phones more.

And I’m not the only one, and I’m not the only one with doubts. I’ve found a vibrant blogging community of ICT4D practitioners, there’s an Africa eHealth summit that just ended in Kenya, there’s an mHealth summit in DC happening now, and at the ITU World conference, everyone was buzzing about mobiles and health. But to the doubters out there (and in the back of my mind): whoever said that mobiles were going to make the world a better place? Telecom companies, that’s what I learned at the ITU World conference. Well, I think they may have a bit of a bias.

But I don’t think any one thing is going to make the world a better place. So instead of planning on using mobile phones to bridge the digital divide, solve world hunger, and provide equal access to healthcare, let’s think more realistically. What mobile phones can do:

  • Connect people: that was the point of phones, and now we have text messages. Awesome, we don’t even have to talk to each other to talk to each other.
  • Teach people: how to use a phone, for one, also, language skills, interpersonal skills, and in the more abstract, about subjects like health and math (to name just two).
  • Entertain people: beyond the entertainment value of connecting with others and learning, mobile phones are kind of cool, some of them even have games.
  • Frustrate people: Have you ever had your phone die when you really really needed to get a hold of someone? Yeah, now think about what that’s like when you don’t have electricity at home.
  • Divide people: “Hey, you just stole my phone!” …yeah, they know, as they speed away on a motorcycle (common in Kampala), or run away through back alleys (common in the US), or worse. But it’s important not to forget that for everyone who has a mobile, that’s great, but everyone who doesn’t could probably use one and can’t probably afford one (or is never going to buy one for some other reason).

I hear the arguments against mobiles for development (M4D), but mobiles aren’t savvy enough, there’s no accountability, no proof it works, air time costs, electricity outages, etc, etc. But there’s always a work around: you can say a lot in 160 characters, you have the participants phone number so call them, there is proof it works but we need to start doing some long term projects to make sure that’s right, we’ve got donors and commercial advertising for that not to mention corporate social responsibility, and the beauty of texts is that you can receive them even when your phone is off and see them all when you get electricity.

Development never should have been about changing everything,* it should always be about changing something, ideally for the better (the first three in the list above, not the last two), in the place where that thing needs to be changed. So here in Uganda, we at Ugandan organizations can use mobiles to train healthcare workers because these healthcare workers need to be trained and don’t have the time or money to come to Kampala every time some new regulations come out from the WHO. We don’t need international organizations to do it for us (says the expat aid worker), but we do need money. And money comes from the people who have the most of it. Cue international development dilemma of local ownership and empowerment. It’s easy. We take their money and we are the implementers. I can complain about grant guidelines all I want but in the end, I’m happy that someone is out there willing to give.

Ok, I’m not raging against the international aid machine as some may think I should** but just like Americorps needs government money to educate children country wide, IDI needs government money to educate healthcare workers in Africa, and when the government doesn’t have enough (or can’t/refuses for other reasons), we go elsewhere. I’m all for sustainability, but is it practical to expect a small project providing a much needed service to rural healthcare workers anywhere in Africa to make money (and be honest)? Maybe break even, maybe eek by with local governmental, institutional and corporate support, and maybe charge for our services (but we can’t charge our direct beneficiaries, or our secondary beneficiaries as they don’t have the money for it, so why not our beneficiaries employers?). Coming from a world where everyone is expected to pull themselves around town by their boot straps and college grads have crippling debt to make that happen, I guess it seems strange to say that I like the lack of individual ownership of revenue sources. But I’d rather have someone giving money than no one at all.  I don’t see any other viable alternatives, at least related to my current projects.


*curse #2, the idea that international development projects will change the entire human experience.

**curse #3, the idea that all international development workers must loath international development funding


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