Author Archives: mobilelivelihoods

Comments on Haitian Monetary Ecologies and Repertoires: A qualitative snapshot of money transfer and savings

by Francisco Osorio

The Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion published this report by Espelencia Baptiste, Heather A. Horst and Erin B. Taylor. The purpose is to study “the variety of ways in which money, people and goods circulate” in Haiti. I will concentrate only on the role of mobile phones given in this study.

The study was conducted in 2010 based on 90 interviews and 5 focus groups, six months after the earthquake the whole world witnessed. The description of current life in Haiti is breath taken, although the report is optimistic somehow and willing to propose solutions to improve life in Haiti.

Following no particular order, the first element I will describe from the report is its opinion about if M-Pesa could be applicable in Haiti. They say “one of the key distinctions between the M-Pesa success in Kenya and the potential of mobile money in Haiti will be the ability to leverage the social and economic power of the diaspora” (p.24).  Unfortunately, I don’t understand very well what they mean with leverage. The report acknowledges the huge importance of remittances from abroad, but I don’t see why those remittances should be “leveraged”. In a different reading, perhaps they only argue that the possible M-Pesa for Haiti should consider that in the current context, remittances are one of the strongest sources of income. The report continues saying that “a model for incorporating the diaspora into future financial services in Haiti may be based in the Philippines where remittances and diasporas play a central role in the day-to-day economic affairs of Filipinos” (p.24). The report doesn’t say why this could be the case. Again, in a different reading, perhaps they are saying that it could be interesting to look at successful models, such as the Philippines.

The second element I want to describe from the report is the importance they put on intermediaries in relationship with mobile money services. This is a really important point. Contrary to some literature on mobile phones studies where it’s all about to bypass the middleman, this report argues the opposite: if mobile money services have a chance to be successful in Haiti, it would be by the role played of intermediaries helping between poor people and money services.  The argument is absolutely clear. Mobile money services should consider Haitian culture. One element of their culture is the role social networks currently play in relationship to the circulation of money. The infrastructure we know based on banks and ATMs simply is not there yet, so money passes through hands in a social network.  A mobile phone service could help to transfer money easily, avoid theft, and allow some form of credit. It is precisely in this new possibility that intermediaries could help by proving support and education because people trust them.

Finally, the report shows mobile phones ownership has been consistently increased during the years. The same trend can be found elsewhere in the world. Other similar findings are that people try to use when possible different phones to speak to different people depending on the network they are (charges between networks are expensive, that’s why in some countries phones use dual sim cards). In the case of Haiti, some people in the border have two phones, one of them from a Dominican Republic network, so they can reach people using that network.


Baptiste, E; Horst, H. and Taylor, E. 2010. Haitian Monetary Ecologies and Repertoires: A qualitative snapshot of money transfer and savings. Report from the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. November 16, available at

Battery-charging business at Petionville Club golf course IDP camp in Port-au-Prince January 7, 2011

2010 in review, thanks for your visits

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is on fire!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 6,600 times in 2010. That’s about 16 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 22 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 4 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 286kb.

The busiest day of the year was May 10th with 229 views. The most popular post that day was Mobile phone revolution in the Tundra?.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for mobile livelihoods, francisco+osorio+john+postill, notes on wireless communication, wireless communication notes, and katrien pype.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Mobile phone revolution in the Tundra? May 2010


Anthropological Mobile Phone Studies (2000/2010) April 2010


Mobile Phone Studies using Anthropological Journal Databases April 2010


Readings March 2010


People March 2010

Dual Heritage: A comment on Jonathan Donner’s framing M4D

by Francisco Osorio

I would like to comment on Jonathan Donner’s 2010 essay Framing M4D: The utility and continuity and the dual heritage of ‘mobiles and development’, published in The Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries Vol. 44(3): 1-16.

The dual heritage refers in the wider sense to a fact that could be seen in two different perspectives, which in the strongest sense are incompatible and the weaker sense complementary. Proponents of the stronger sense would not need to change those perspectives, because one of those would prove to be true, given more evidence from future research. Followers of the weaker sense would see either the need of a theory able to explain how it could be complementary or the proposal of an entire new theory that could integrate (and replace) those two original perspectives. I propose Donner argues for the weaker sense in the dual heritage debate.

What’s the fact? The mobile phone is an example of a pervasive technology widespread in the first decade of the 21st century among poor people, perhaps like no other. It seems to have profound impact on socioeconomic development.

Donner proposes the mobile phone has been theoretically approached from two main frames according to the M4D literature. There’re many ways to describe these two frames, but perhaps the basic one to start with is understand the mobile phone as a phone or to understand it as a computer, in other words, telephony or computing.

The telephony framework is linked to the following proposal: user choice. It means that the phone is basically used by two people (simple case) so that they can talk about whatever they feel like it. In the widest sense, the mobile phone can be used for anything they want; they can choose what to do with it. Suppose now that you’re interesting in development. How this framework could be used to promote development? According to Donner, because “some calls individuals might choose to make might lead to beneficial development outcomes” (p. 3). Importantly enough, we’ve got evidence that this is the case, using Jensen’s study among Keralan fishermen. They are the best example we can think of, therefore, they are the archetypes of the MD4 telephony framework, according to Donner.

The computing framework is related to the following idea: the directionality embedded in services and applications. If you see the mobile phone as a technology that can do more than voice calls, and you are interested in development, you can design an app or propose a service that could allow you to alter a social context, in other words, intervention. For example, an application that sends information to farmers about the price of a product in a given market or inform about the proximity of rain. There is also evidence that this approach works in the context of development, being the archetype the Bangladeshi Village Phone Operator. Other good examples are Frontline SMS and Ushahidi.

But Donner says those two frames have also problems. Consider the telephony framework. Because of the freedom of the users, the mobile phone can produce (and it is the case) contradictory effects: at the same time the mobile phone can produce good outcomes and bad development. Anthropologists are very good in showing this contradiction throughout their research, for example, in rural West Bengal mobile phones increase individualism and, at the same time, accentuate kinship ties and village solidarity (Tenhunen 2008).  Among Russian reindeer-herding nomads, mobile phones are highly valued and perceived as beneficial and, at the same time, have reduced mobility and alter the perception of time (Stammler 2009).

The computing framework has also some problems. Its archetypical case proved later problematic when mobile phone ownership increased, so there were fewer jobs for the operators. Donner reviews two other examples of this framework: M-PESA and MXit. He summarises the situation saying those “systems are having some M4D outcomes, but not exclusively M4D outcomes (nor indeed exclusively good outcomes)” (p. 9). But Donner’s argument is that M-PESA, to take just one case, cannot be fully understood using the computing framework, nor the telephony one for that matter. He then asks, how do we understand Facebook or Twitter in the context of development?

After following Donner’s analysis, it is possible to use another framework, such as Kuhn’s proposal in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). We can see two paradigms in M4D. They could be observed as such because of competing perspectives about the same subject matter, which in the strong sense are incommensurable (the core assumptions cannot be translated between each other); both have exemplars (Jensen’s 2007 Keralan fishermen and Aminuzzaman’s 2003 Bangladeshi Village Phone Operator) and long established research traditions: terrestrial or fixed telephone studies in one hand, and sociotechnical systems and development informatics from the other. Both have theories, for example, Adaptive Structuration Theory for the computing framework, and Mass Communication for the telephony framework.

I am not sure how far I want to go using Kuhn’s proposal, because it seems to be one scientific community of researchers, at least the very few self-identified with the label M4D. This community has one well-known researcher and, sometimes, historian: Jonathan Donner. We could argue that other criteria are met to be considered a scientific community, such as participations in M4D congress and conferences, a clear literature, some journals publishing on the subject (although not yet a Journal of Mobiles and Development Studies), university courses, seminars, growing number of PhD dissertations, public and private research funding, among others.

The interesting point was to witness this community in the first decade of this century and today follow it into the next decade. As mobile phone technology transforms itself, so this community of researchers would.

Finally, Donner’s invitation is an epistemological one. It is an open call to anyone willing to participate in the M4D community about how we must conduct research on the subject, what theories to use, what methods and techniques to follow, what are our assumptions about technology, culture and development, among other important questions. This is a really interesting invitation to participate.


Aminuzzaman, S.; Baldersheim, H. and Jamil, I. 2003. Talking back! Empowerment and mobile phones in rural Bangladesh: A study of the village phone scheme of Grameen Bank. Contemporary South Asia 12(3): 327-348.

Donner, J. 2010. Framing M4D: The utility and continuity and the dual heritage of ‘mobiles and development’.  The Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries 44(3): 1-16.

Jensen, R. 2007. The digital provide: Information (technology), market performance, and welfare in the south Indian fisheries sector. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(3): 879-924.

Kuhn, T.S. 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stammler, F. M. 2009. Mobile phone revolution in the Tundra? Technological change among Russian reindeer nomads. Folklore (Tartu) 41: 47-78.

Tenhunen, S. 2008. Mobile technology in the village: ICTs, culture, and social logistics in India. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (14): 515-534.

UNCTAD Information Economy Report 2010

Information Economy Report 2010: ICTs, Enterprises and Poverty Alleviation

Comments by Dr Francisco Osorio

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) published in October 2010 a very important macro-economic study on mobile phones and development. I say mobile phones because most of the report is about this technology.

Torbjorn Fredriksson is the study’s team leader, who presented the report at The University of Manchester on October 14th, organised by the Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics and Brooks World Poverty Institute (see news here). I was giving a printed copy but can be download it here.

The report is organised in five chapters:  (1) Exploring the link between poverty, ICTs and enterprises, (2) Trends in connectivity and affordability, (3) The ICT sector and the poor, (4) ICT use by enterprises and poverty alleviation and (5) The policy challenge.

After attending the presentation and later reading the report, I got the impression of a balanced study. It situates in the middle of two common discourses on M4D: either mobile phones are the final solution to development problems or mobile phones only perpetuates inequality in favour of the rich. The report is optimistic but it is not deterministic: there is evidence mobile phones can help socioeconomic development but also the lack of knowledge is important that cannot supports strong arguments either in favour or against. Simply said nobody knows yet.

We know one thing: mobile phones are important because is the communication technology poor people use the most after TV and radio. In other words, mobile phones are important for the poor. This simple sentence is the starting point of all research. When it is expressed in a graph, the statistical evidence shows a curve that goes up incredible fast (more phones than ever, more poor people using them).

Then the question: what does it mean? For the UNCTAD report it means an opportunity that could be used to help the poor. It does not say it will help, it might. Governments could support the mobile phone industry, because it may help to alleviate poverty. The report, although cautions, bets for an investment without strong arguments in favour. This jump into the unknown may pay well.

Even so, the most important conclusion is that we need more research. The report shows examples from many sources. Going through the references, the only anthropologist cited is Barendregt. Many references go to Donner and Heeks. The key examples come from India and Kenya but there are others from all over the world.

The report says it focuses on enterprises because they can significantly contribute to poverty reduction. The role ICTs play in enterprises, it says, is to give information access and better communications for poor people to help them build livelihood assets.

The report covers many aspects of this relationship between the poor, enterprises and mobile phones (the key ICT) and there is a very good quote that summarises one aspect of this relationship: mobile phones are more effective as a livelihood resource (communication tool) than as a source of livelihood (income generation) for the poor.

There are important distinctions to be made within enterprises. Considering its size, there are micro-enterprises, small and medium and large. Considering its purpose, they could be classified as subsistence based or growth-oriented. Considering use of ICTs, there are directs and indirect uses, either for economic and non-economic purposes. In other words, the landscape is not simple and many distinctions need to be made, instead of using concepts such as enterprises and the role of ICTs as mono-dimensional. The focus of the report is in the direct use of ICTs by poor in enterprises and direct use of ICTs by poor in ICT sector enterprises.

Other important aspect covered by the report is the problem that such a technology is facing around the world: affordability, network coverage, prices, taxes, and public policies against it, among others. Also, the open question is what would happen in the future. If TV and radio are important, well, some mobile phones integrate both into the handset (but they are too expensive to use for the poor). If the Internet is vital to access information, the mobile phone could be the way forward for the poor (still, many problems of affordability here).

As a final comment, I think this report could easily produce impact in the M4D academic community and for our project will be of great importance.

Mobile Phone papers presented in EASA 2010

The European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) held its 11th EASA Biennial Conference in Maynooth (Ireland) from the 24th to the 27th August 2010 (

Anthropologists presenting their research on mobile phones (or that addressed the subject in a wider context) were concentrated in two workshops: Media Anthropology and Digital Anthropology. The first one was coordinated by John Postill (Sheffield Hallam University) and Philipp Budka (University of Vienna). The second by Daniel Miller (University College, London) and Heather Horst (University of California, Irvine).

Here you can see a list of those papers, authors and abstract. They will most likely translate into journals articles in the future.

1) Mobile rewards: a critical review of the Mobiles for Development (M4D) literature

John Postill (Sheffield Hallam University) and Francisco Osorio (Sheffield Hallam University)

The extraordinary rate of diffusion and adoption of mobile phones across the global South over the past decade has given rise to a new interdisciplinary field known as Mobiles for Development (M4D). The key debate in the field is whether mobile phones are having any significant impact on the economic livelihoods of marginalised people living in regions such as Africa, Asia and Latin America. Positions range from those who argue that mobiles are finally enabling poor people to overcome the digital divide to those who suggest that mobiles are in fact exacerbating old inequalities, through a number of in-between positions, including that of scholars who argue that only some low-income people (e.g. micro-entrepreneurs) are reaping the economic rewards of mobile phones. This paper is a critical review of the multilingual, peer-reviewed M4D literature on this unresolved debate from 2001 to 2010. Drawing from the theory of practice, we search for novel ways of mapping the shifting rewards of mobile practices under conditions of rapid change. The two main working assumptions are that mobile phones have blurred the lines between lives and livelihoods (Donner 2009) and that the rewards of mobile practices in the global South are of many different kinds (financial, social, expressive, sensual, etc., Warde 2005) and not solely ‘for development’.

2) Youth, Families and Participation in Networked Public Culture

Heather Horst (University of California, Irvine)

Youth throughout the world are growing up in world where new media and technology are changing norms of communication, creation and participation. Building upon ethnographic research among American youth and families in Silicon Valley, this presentation will focus upon the rewards of participation in and through new media and technology. Specifically, I focus upon the ways in which youth participate in networked publics that enable opportunities for developing recognition, reputation, specialized knowledge and feedback that extend beyond their place-based knowledge networks. At the same time, I suggest that for many youth and their families in Silicon Valley, place and place-based networks play a central role in shaping how youth come to understand and value their participation in networked public culture. Understanding this interplay is thus critical to understanding the rewards of new media participation.

3) Emerging futurities in Muslim Southeast Asia: science fantasy, digital development and the urge for moral technology

Bart Barendregt (Leiden University)

Thinking of the future is hardly possible without reference to the role of digital information technologies or the growing impact of knowledge industries. But how relevant are these concepts outside the Northern Hemisphere? Said to be on its way by 2020, Islamic Information Society posits an alternative to both Western ideas on the Global Village, as well as the hijacking of Islamic futures by radical conservatives. In this paper I examine how majority Muslim countries in Southeast Asia have increasingly become role models in Islam’s quest for a digital future. I will do so by targeting the history of technological developments from the top down, and manifested in state run and commercial techno-nationalist projects, but also through competing claims to the future as portrayed in the current fusion of modern popular culture (pop music, fashion, gadgetry) with religion and futurist thinking.

4) Phones, foreigners, and the fluctuating digital divide in Southern Mozambique

Julie Archambault (SOAS)

“I can’t wait for the World Cup”, explained a young Mozambican man during a recent phone conversation, “more tourists means more mobile phones and iPods for us”. For many in Mozambique, crime is not a way of life but rather a tactic, amongst others, to address needs and desires unfulfilled by more conventional means. Mobile phones participate in this economy as coveted objects and as communication tools that, in turn, lubricate the circulation of consumer goods. Many phones initially make it to Southern Mozambique in the pockets of tourists before being inserted into the local pool of goods that petty crime stirs up further. In the city of Inhambane, most of the male youth I work with have spent some time in jail, almost all of them for petty theft, often involving mobile phones. In this paper, I draw on their experiences to unpack the notion of ‘digital divide’ and to tease out the role mobile phones and mobile phone communication play in the workings of petty crime in the region. By looking into the circulation of mobile phones, I hope to shed light on broader economic dynamics, while contributing to our understanding of the socio-economic impacts of new technologies.

5) Culture, conflict and translocal communication: mobile technology and politics in rural West Bengal, India

Sirpa Tenhunen (University of Helsinki)

As media reports of political movements from various locations have shown, mobile technology can be a powerful political instrument. Howard Rheingold (2002) has famously argued that the new information technologies and especially mobile phones enable smart mobs. “Smart mob” is an evocative and yet problematic term in emphasizing the unruliness of protestors thus detracting attention from their patterns of action and meanings. This article seeks to understand the relationship between politics and mobile technology by examining how political activists in rural West Bengal, India use mobile phones for their daily political work. I illustrate how riots and protests relate to the increase in translocal communication enabled by phones. I also demonstrate how the political use of mobile technology for extra ordinary events is grounded in the social and political processes of ordinary everyday life and draws from the local understanding of politics by emphasizing certain aspects of it.

6) Migration and virtual community 2.0

Lee Komito (University College Dublin)

Explorations of the impact of new technologies on community and social life often reflect a utopian or anti-utopian polarisation by framing new technologies either as inimical to community (especially when framed in terms of social capital) or as enabling a redefined community composed of ‘networked individuals’. In the context of migration, transnational ethnic groups are manifest through email, discussion groups and web pages, and the utopian/anti-utopian duality revolves around technologies supporting long-term durable social relations versus fragile and instrumental relations subject to easy disruption, and whether technologically mediated social relations can support ‘virtual communities’. Studies of social media practices of non-nationals living in Ireland suggests that information exchange and coordination of activities via these new media are enabling durable, non-local social groups that complement migrants’ other social relations. This is not only transforming the migration process, but also illustrates the problems inherent in any utopian/anti-utopian duality.

Mobile Phone Studies in Latin America Research Collection

We have started a research collection of Mobile Phone studies conducted in Latin America. You can see and contribute to this collection in Mendeley.

Mobile Phone Anthropology in Mendeley

We have created a public collection of research papers and books about mobile phone studies conducted by anthropologists in Mendeley.

If you are interested, you can join the Mendeley shared public collection to have access to the PDFs files in that list (when possible).