What do a poor village in central Bangladesh and a glamorous reception at DC’s Newseum have in common? Other than the fact that I went to both in the few days, the answer is mobile phones.
In the last several years, I’ve visited various rural communities in the poorest parts of the world, and a reliable ice-breaking entertainment often involves me whipping out my digital camera and (with permission) taking photos, or letting the local children take photos — we would then immediately be able to review on-screen, evoking giggling and cheer all round. However, last week, when I brought out my camera and asked if I could take photographs, I found the question turned right back at me. Suddenly 15 or so women from this economically deprived village reached into their saris as one, and produced a rather unexpected array of mobile phone technology. Every click of my camera was echoed by 15 responding clicks of theirs. And as we cheerily reviewed together the photos we’d taken of each other on these multiple devices, I mused that (a) I mustn’t make patronizing assumptions, and (b) the mobile phone revolution really is hitting every corner of the world, with all the development possibilities that accompanies it.
This was the theme of last night’s glamorous Connect4Climate post-Rio +20 event at the Newseum in Washington DC, celebrating the finalists in the ‘Apps for Climate’ contest. The Managing Director of the World Bank, Caroline Anstey, praised the role of mobile phones in empowering people and communities around the world. She spoke of the need for people to access data to “capitalize on that heady cocktail of technology and people power” — the purpose of this World Bank initiative. This was a message reiterated by the Word Bank Vice President of Sustainable Development, Rachel Kyte, who pointed out that in one generation, many women have gone from no contact with the Western World to operating in global markets via mobile phones.
When I asked the women I met in rural Bangladesh how many owned phones, most did. But when I probed on what they used them for, the answer was calling and photos. They did not read or write text messages, or use the internet. It was an important reminder for me that literacy is still a real barrier for fully unleashing the potential of mobile phones as a tool for development and empowerment. But the accessibility, connectivity and possibilities contained within every mobile phone in that village in Bangladesh inspired me that not only will mobile phones increasingly be used for business, health, farming, climate change, social movements, and far more in a globalised world, people’s zeal to unleash the power of their own phones may become a key driver for increased global literacy.
The writer is a global health and development specialist
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