Category Archives: micro-entrepreneurs

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.

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Review of research on mobile use by micro and small enterprises (MSEs)

A most pleasant surprise find, given that one of our key interests is mobiles and MSEs (in Latin America):

Donner, Jonathan; Escobari,  Marcela
Publication Date: 1 Apr 2009
Publication Type: Report/White paper
Publisher/Journal: Carnegie Mellon University

This paper offers a systematic review of 14 studies of the use of mobile telephony by micro and small enterprises (MSEs) in the developing world, detailing findings about changes to enterprises’ internal processes and external relationships, and findings about mobile use vs. traditional landline use. Results suggest that there is currently more evidence for the benefits of
mobile use accruing mostly (but not exclusively) to existing MSEs rather than new MSEs, in ways that amplify existing material and informational flows rather than transform them. The review presents a more complete picture of mobile use by MSEs than was previously available to ICTD researchers, and identifies priorities for future research, including comparisons of the impact of mobile use across subsectors of MSEs and assessments of use of advanced services such as mobile banking and mobile commerce.

More info

Paper URL

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.

http://www.mendeley.com/research-papers/collections/4189161/Mobile-Phone-Studies-in-Latin-America/

Tenhunen (2008) on mobiles and social change in rural India

By John Postill

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

* Anthropological fieldwork in West Bengal village in 1999-2000. Further visits in 2003, 2005, 2007-8, p. 518

* Eschews narrow focus of most technology appropriation studies to date on usage; technology and society are mutually constitutive, p. 529

* Phone usage cannot be separated from village sociality, ‘most calls are public happenings’, messages often being passed on in public or via intermediaries, p. 521; local identity has always been part of networks that extend well beyond the village, p. 522, not least through village exogamy, p. 523

* Most calls happen within kin groups, often asking for help, but mobiles allow people to extend their connections as well, p. 524

* Like researchers in other parts of the world, Tenhunen found that mobiles were improving the livelihoods of micro-entrepreneurs and some farmers, etc., p. 528

* They also further the ongoing decline of traditional village patronage; newly prosperous villagers can now use mobiles to bypass village elders [see same argument made for TV in 1990s rural Kerala by Johnson 2001]

* Mobiles allow women and young people some leeway in conducting their affair(e)s away from the relentless village surveillance

* Mobiles entangled with other processes of social change under way in West Bengal: land reform, new agricultural methods leading to poverty reduction (73% poor in 1973-4 to 32% in 1999-2000), education, women’s movement, spread of radio and TV, p. 529

* Takes issue with practice theorists (Giddens, Bourdieu, Ortner, Sahlins) for playing down critical human agency, esp. the capacity people have to consciously change the conditions of their existence, in this case partly through the aid of mobile phones: ‘actors can consciously strive for change, or show disregard for a cultural code of conduct – such as villagers who obtain help from outside the village instead of from the village leaders, or women who use the phones to broaden their culturally constructed space’, p. 531.

* Also distances herself from ICT domestication tradition and instead focusses on ‘local’ cultural settings, p. 517

* Inspired by anthropological research on mobiles amongst poor Jamaicans by Horst and Miller (2006) but finds that they overemphasize how mobiles contribute to cultural reproduction at the expense of investigating their role in cultural change.

* Along with radio, TV, and DVDs, mobiles ‘offer culturally approved social alternatives and the widening of culturally constructed spheres, especially those of women’, p. 530

* Duality of mobiles: on one hand have improved local people’s ‘social logistics’ (markets, connections, efficiency), on the other they have reproduced existing local culture, strenghtening kinship ties and ‘village solidarity’, p. 530