Mobile phones and development in Latin America

Presentation given by Mireia Fernandez Ardevol to the ICT4D Postgraduate Network, UPC Barcelona, 9 September 2010.

Summary by Ismael Peña-López:

Project to analyze mobile telephone usage in Latin America. Diffussion or mobile penetration, though not as high as higher-income countries, it does have a certain level of penetration that sometimes almost reaches 100% (higher-income countries reach up to 120%). Penetration is though unevenly distributed.

Research question: does mobile communication affects (impacts on) socio-economic development in Latin America? That was a new question in the region of Latin America, and it was relevant and ambitious, and wide, as a whole research network of several people and institutions worked together to answer the research question.

The levels of analysis: macro (economics, econometrics, context), meso-organizational (institutions, markets) and micro. It was very important too to maintain a multidisciplinary focus to gather all the shades of meaning of such a complex topic.

continued here…


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).

Mobile rewards paper – notes

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

A paper to the Media Anthropology Network workshop, The Rewards of Media. EASA2010: Crisis and imagination (24/08/2010 – 27/08/2010)

Francisco Osorio and John Postill
Sheffield Hallam University


Recent academic and mainstream media debates about Wikipedia, Farmville and other new(ish) forms of non-remunerated digital labour (BBC 2010, Pink 2009, Shirky 2010). Why spend so much time (and money) on seemingly wasteful new media practices?

Recent turn to practice theory in media and ICT studies (Couldry 2004, Bräuchler and Postill 2010). What are its implications for the study of mobile phones and livelihoods in developing countries?

In this paper we first review the Mobiles for Development (M4D) literature, then we propose a practice-theoretical approach to mobile livelihoods that takes inspiration from Warde’s (2005) seminal essay on consumption and theories of practice, esp. the rewards of practice.

M4D review

An interdisciplinary field emerging out of ICT4D (ICTs for development).

Main areas of research interest and policy recommendations include: mobiles and market performance (Abraham 2007, Aker 2008, Jensen 2007, Muto and Yamano 2008), micro-entrepreneurs (Donner 2004, 2005, Jagun et al 2008, Molony 2005), infrastructure (Castells et al 2007), regulatory policy (Goodman 2005, Lane et al 2006), poverty reduction (Bhavnani 2008, Souter et al 2005), information poverty (Aminuzzaman et al 2003), mobile banking and money (Ivatury and Pickens 2006, Morawczynski 2008, Torma 2006) mobiles themselves as markets (Mujica 2007), emerging middle classes (Wallis 2011, Wei 2006).

Main geographical regions: so far sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia bulk of research. Other developing regions such as Latin America and Middle East-North Africa neglected to date, with some exceptions (Castells et al 2007, Frost and Sullivan 2006, Mujica 2007).

High hopes in many M4D studies (e.g. Kyem and Le Marie 2006), tempered with concerns. Bhavnani (2008) says that studies have shown mobiles can lower negative phenomena (corruption, crime, high prices…) and raise positive ones (education, efficiency, health) yet you still need access and pricing so that low-income can join in.

Critical perspectives on M4D

1. Negative:

Hype over transformational power of mobiles; in fact Africans still passive recipients of technologies from elsewhere (Alzouma 2008).

2. Nuanced:

Careful with old silver/magic bullet idea, now applied to mobiles (Acker and Mbiti 2010, Castells et al 2007). Don’t forget negative impacts: consumerist ‘status’ of owning mobile, ‘addiction’, crime, conflict arising from rapid change, uncertainty over user’s location, problems with trust (Bruijn et al 2009). Mobiles can in fact reinforce patriarchy and surveillance by employers and patrons (Horst 2008, Lyon 20nn, Wallis 2011). Indeed, they may even increase poverty, says Heeks (2008) provocatively.

Claims about better market performance wrought by mobiles (Jensen 2007) challenged. That may be the case, but these improvements may still co-exist with entrenched supply chains that do not eliminate intermediaries or the need to travel (for trust-building, owing to nature of business, etc) – so you can have both market continuity and change side-by-side (Jagun et al 2008).

Many M4D researchers concerned that poor people in developing countries ‘misusing’ mobiles for non-development purposes, says Donner (2009). Instead, we should move beyond return on investment model of M4D and take seriously the social pleasures of mobiles, for these can help improve both quality of life and standard of living (Donner 2009). Also must differentiate conditions on the ground, e.g. different types of micro-entrepreneurs (taxi drivers, retailers, knife sharpeners) may value different or no mobile features (portability, person-to-person, interlacing, etc.) (Donner 2007). And commodities will vary as well in their perishability, transport to markets, etc, e.g. bananas vs. maize (Muto and Yamano 2009).

Mobile anthropology

This paper rooted in anthropology of media and communication, esp. emerging research area around mobiles (Barendregt 2008, Horst and Miller 2006, Ito and Matsuda 2006,  Stammler 2007, Tenhunen 2008). Stress on non-metropolitan and/or cross-cultural lived experience and mobile practices. Tremendous diversity – actual mobile practices can only be understood in cultural, linguistic and historical context, e.g. continued importance of orality in many developing countries (Bruijn et al 2009, Hahn and Kibora 2008, Stammler 2009) – and indeed in the affluent North (Born 1997).

Horst and Miller (2006): poor Jamaicans use mobiles not to make money but to get money at critical times. Mobiles don’t herald shift to ‘networked individualism’ (Wellman) or ‘network society’ (Castells). Jamaicans have always maintained dispersed networks and valued what they call ‘link-up’.

Tenhunen (2008) fieldwork in West Bengal village. The ‘duality’ of mobiles (see also Morawczynski 2008): they reinvigorate village sociality and kinship relations but also enable change along with other processes, e.g. women more autonomy within traditional patriarchy, old village leadership further eroded.  Horst and Miller are an inspiration, but they downplay change by focussing on Jamaican cultural uniqueness; they overlook ability people have to strive for change. Practice theorists also neglect human agency.

Mobile rewards

A range of existing explations of mobile adoption in developing world: psychological (BBC 2010), effects (Jensen 2007), cost-benefits (Castells et al 2007, Sinha 2005), values (Souter et al 2005), motivations (Sinha 2005), uses and gratifications (Donner 2004), etc. Instead we propose practice theory because it can allow us to capture the multiplicity and messiness of actual mobile-related practices without foreclosing the inquiry.

Warde (2005) seminal article on consumption and practice theory. Practices generate their own patterns of consumption and rewards. Rewards can be of many kinds, and can be intrinsic or extrinsic to the practice itself. How can we apply this to the study of mobile livelihoods in the global South? Tentative proposal:


  • follow the (mobile) practices: what practice-specific patterns of consumption and reward do they generate, if any?
  • follow the (mobile) practitioners: taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, prostitutes, etc.
  • what are the key social (kinship, friendship, ethnicity…) and technical (ubiquity, customisability, reach, Donner 2008) practices of their varied social universes (i.e. their socio-technical practices, Wallis 2011)? (some mobile-specific methods need to be devised)
  • don’t neglect people’s ability to strive for social and economic change, and how mobiles may be part of this (Tenhunen 2008)

Diachronically (see Heeks 2008):

  • what are the main changes and continuities (Tenhunen 2008) within a given practical universe from Year X to Year Y?
  • what part did mobiles play in these changes and continuities?
  • in what ways, if at all, have mobiles contributed to the ongoing ‘blurring’ of lives and livelihoods (Donner 2009, see also Christensen and Røpke 2010) within these universes? e.g. personal/business call blur in Uganda.
  • how did users’ life-stages and positionalities (Wallis 2011) shape their social and economic uses of mobiles?




Further research


see this blog (via Search function)

Notes on Wireless Communication and Global Development (Castells et al 2007)

Chapter 8, In Castells, Manuel, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu and Araba Sey (2007) Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Issues at stake

  • Leapfrogging development?
  • Efffects of mobiles on development
  • Mobile digital divide (incl. rural-urban divide within poor countries)
  • Mobility vs connectivity (in poor countries people get mobile to be connected, not because it’s mobile)
  • Design
  • Cost vs benefit (this question not clear in many cases; regulation is needed)
  • Social vs business uses (in Africa, most people use mobiles socially more than biz; empirically very hard to separate them, Donner 2004)

Alternative uses and alternative modes of access

  • Prepaid systems (key to making mobiles accessible to poor)
  • Scaled-down products and services (helps people with low education)
  • Wi-fi for internet access
  • Shared access and maintenance
  • Resource redistribution: beeps and remittances (with beeps, richer can subsidise poorer users)

Case studies in Asia, Africa and Latin America

  • Success of Little Smart (Xiaolingtong) in China: big hit since 2002; for low-income with low mobility; uniquely Chinese; huge low-income market; life in China is highly localised; this system allows ‘localised mobility’; unusual rural-to-urban tech diffusion
  • Wireless Local Loop (WLL) for India’s poor: hampered by economic barriers; unlike China no citywide scope; intense competition; slowed-down investment
  • Modified Grameen model in Uganda: two programmes – MTN VillagePhone and ‘community phone’; both highly successful according to media reports
  • Mobile payphone franchises in S. Africa: excellent performance
  • Grassroots mobile payphone initiatives in Ghana: may prove unsustainable, remains to be seen
  • Africa in general: adapted models, e.g. Grameen project in Uganda not targetting women; S. African system harder for poor entrepreneurs than in Uganda where micro-finance institutions supporting it.
  • Family life and mobiles in Chile: among poor families, mobiles are important tool of family (not so much individual) connectivity rather than mobility; they use mobile as non-mobile device as they have no landline; handset used collectively
  • Wi-Fi Internet for Development in Latin America: can deliver high bandwidth at low cost, but limited by short signal range. Peru case study: 14 interconnected telecentres, organised via existing cooperative, creating spillovers across region; but hard to replicate and much regulatory change needed in Latin America; often top-down and excluding community orgs and small entrepreneurs.


Huge connectivity gap across global South, despite magic bullet hype of mobiles. Still a lot of investment in infrastructure, adequate regulation, etc, required if people are to gain their connectivity rights. Meanwhile chapter has shown all manner of inventive ways in which people and orgs in these regions have sought to improve the situation, but a lot remains to be done.

Top 20 research reports on mobiles in developing countries

via GSM World site

The following list provides links to the top 20 research reports on the economic and social impact of mobile communications in developing countries as highlighted in The GSMA Development Fund Top 20 report (pdf).

The top 20 studies were determined based on content, relevance, originality and credibility. While it is not an exhaustive and scientifically developed list, it illustrates the work that we feel is most important at the moment and highlights key conclusions on the impact of mobile technology in developing countries. As this is not a scientific ranking, the studies are not displayed by rank, but rather in alphabetical order according to author.

Read more…