Mobiles and peacebuilding

A “news” article that appeared in the Daily Mirror’s Financial Times section on 5th July 2006 caught my attention (one needs to be registered to look at the contents).

In the first instance, one notes that this article is actually carefully crafted marketing spiel parading as serious journalism. But this is a critique for another forum.

What interested me was the assumption, throughout the article, that the introduction of 3G to Sri Lanka (through Nokia of course…) is going to, by itself, revolutionise communications. There is no question that a blanket availability of high speed data networks in Sri Lanka will change the way in which we work and communicate – no longer will I be able to feign ignorance of an annoying colleague on account of the lack of access or network coverage.

However, the high entry cost into 3G mobile telephony in particular, measured by millions of dollars, obviously places a profit imperative before companies that seek to introduce such technologies in Sri Lanka. The social benefits of new mobile devices may well be vitiated by commercial interests that seek to introduce technologies that are able to reap them profits, as opposed to championing network access for those less able to afford it.

So the assertion that the mere introduction of technology will make our lives better is erroneous – 3G is not going to make our lives better. We need to figure out the ways through which 3G can and must feed into democracy that’s founded upon effective communication between peoples – and that’s not something telecoms companies operating under profit imperatives can always successfully envision.

Can commercial interests promote technology? Yes. Can commercial interests advance the adoption of technology? Yes. Can commercial interests promote the use of technology for non-profit uses? To an extent, depending on the social conscience of those leading the organisation and the strength and emphases of their CSR policies.

Can commercial interests promote the use of mobile technologies for peacebuilding? Seems not.

A recent idea that I proposed to the CSR branch of a leading mobile telephony provider resulted in the following classic through email:

“I’m not sure if we’ll be keen to get into the peace line, since we operate in the north and east.”

Quite.

There is one other point the article neglects to explore when speaking of mobile growth in countries like Sri Lanka – the growth of basic, entry level handsets for communities and peoples unable to afford the latest generation of hand phones. As this article mentions:

“The eye-catching price tag of $100 is going to be too expensive for the 2.5bn people worldwide living on less than $2 a day,” Ehrlich said. “Thankfully, there is another hi-tech tool, which is already low cost, robust and frugal with electricity – the mobile phone.”

Again, as this BBC report mentions:

Operators believe the high cost of handsets is the single largest barrier to connecting millions of people in developing countries.

Using basic handsets creatively for peacebuilding is relatively virgin territory, with the emphasis more on the new generation of mobile phones and technologies as the great social leveller, instead of the millions of devices already in the hands of those who may well not be able to afford the total cost of ownership for 3G devices (handset, fee for data services, fee for voice services, rental, value added voice & data services etc).

This is of course not to say that the use of basic mobile handsets creatively is any guarantee of peace, just as the argument that mobile phones bring with them economic prosperity needs analysis with a high degree of scepticism.

But as Voxiva demonstrates, profit-making isn’t necessarily incompatible with goals such as poverty alleviation or healthcare.

One hopes that such models are also introduced by progressive telecoms companies in Sri Lanka.

Related posts:
Mobile phones for greater access : But where is the content for peacebuilding?
Mobile phone futures
Content without wires

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