Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Mobile Technology and Global Economic Growth

by Isobel Coleman
May 10, 2012

Left to right: Isobel Coleman with panelists Alex Counts of the Grameen Foundation, Ann Mei Chang of the State Department, and Scott C. Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson at a roundtable in the ExxonMobil Women and Development Series hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations on May 10, 2012 (Don Pollard/Council on Foreign Relations). Left to right: Isobel Coleman with panelists Alex Counts of the Grameen Foundation, Ann Mei Chang of the State Department, and Scott C. Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson at a roundtable in the ExxonMobil Women and Development Series hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations on May 10, 2012 (Don Pollard/Council on Foreign Relations).

This week on the blog, I’m covering developments in mobile technology. On Tuesday, I discussed an NGO’s efforts to use mobile technology to make direct cash transfers to poor families in Kenya; yesterday, I featured a guest post from Henriette Kolb, CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, who noted how mobile innovations can help women entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Today, I’m reflecting on an interesting meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations featuring three experts on implementing mobile technology for economic growth: Ann Mei Chang, senior adviser for women and technology, Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State; Alex Counts, CEO of the Grameen Foundation; and Scott C. Ratzan, vice president of global health at Johnson & Johnson. The meeting was part of our Women and Technology series sponsored by the ExxonMobil Foundation.

The starting point of the discussion was an acknowledgment that the rapid spread of mobile technology in developing countries has already been transformative. Scott Ratzan noted that when he was working at USAID a decade ago, half the world’s population had never made a phone call. Today, 85 percent of people have access to a mobile network, and even in remote locations, they are using it for financial services and commerce, to access information and learning, and to improve governance. In Uganda, for example, the Grameen Foundation operates a network of nearly one thousand Community Knowledge Workers—people equipped with mobile phones containing specialized information. Farmers can ask the Knowledge Worker questions about topics such as weather conditions or the location of seed suppliers. At the same time, the Community Knowledge Workers gather data from the farmer that governments, other NGOs, and corporations pay to access. The fees they pay go toward funding the Knowledge Workers.

On the health front, Ratzan discussed Johnson & Johnson’s collaboration with USAID and others on the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), which offers health information to pregnant women through mobile phones. He noted that this program, which started out in Bangladesh and will include India and South Africa, is sometimes the only source of health information available to women. Similarly, Alex Counts talked about the Grameen Foundation’s Mobile Technology for Community Health (MOTECH) initiative. Using mobile services, MOTECH sends important, patient-specific, prenatal advice to 14,000 pregnant women in Ghana by text message. Just as important, the information that pregnant women upload about themselves is automatically saved into a database that authorized users from the Ghana Healthcare Service can access. So, when these women go to medical appointments in the future, their records will be immediately available to healthcare providers; as Counts noted, Ghana could leapfrog the U.S. in creating digitized medical records.

Ann Mei Chang, however, cautioned that “women are really being left behind” in the mobile technology revolution. Indeed, a 2010 report from the Cherie Blair Foundation found that women were 23 percent less likely in Africa and 37 percent less likely in South Asia than men to own a mobile phone. Chang noted several reasons for the gap, including financial barriers (mobile technology is still relatively expensive and women typically have fewer financial resources and less discretion over these resources than men do), cultural barriers (men’s fears that mobile phone use would lead to women becoming promiscuous), and the technical illiteracy—and even the general illiteracy—that women still confront at a higher rate than men.

Closing the gender gap in access to mobile technology represents a significant opportunity–certainly, for mobile operators who could increase their revenues by $29 billion over the next five years by reaching 600 million new female subscribers—but most importantly for women and their families who will benefit from improved access to business, health, and learning.

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