Cellphones for civic engagement

Cellphones for civic engagement

In a deliberately provocatively titled paper – The PC is dead – Long live mobiles! – I argued for systems that use cellphones in dispute resolution and conflict transformation, a point that I’ve been making for a couple of years now given the exponential year-on-year growth of cellphones and mobile telephony devices in Asia and Africa in particular. I’ve written extensively on the potential of cellphones for conflict early warning, mediation, peacebuilding and reconciliation and humanitarian aid.

MobileActive.org is a tremendously useful website in this regard, that describes itself as “a global network of activists and campaigners using mobile phones for civic action and engagement”. The Toronto Declaration, featured on this site, is a very useful and comprehensive tableau for conceptualising the use of mobiles for civic movements and peacebuilding:

From the 22-24 September 2005, organizations and activists from across the world working on the use of mobile/cellular technology for activism met in Toronto to better understand the strengths and limits of the medium and to disseminate lessons learned, as well as strategically to increase activists’ ability to organize constituencies with this new technology.

Mobile phones and SMS have become one of the coolest gadgets on the planet and can be used in new ways to connect the people of the earth.

We affirm that:

• Communications technology is a right derived from the inalienable right of freedom of expression;

• Without “The People” mobile technology means nothing. Thus, the technology shall be used as a people-centred tool to maximize social good, justice and equality;

• Technology can and shall be viewed as a public good requiring worldwide democratic access; including open standards for hardware and software;

• Mobile technology offers the opportunity for reflecting an inclusive, democratic and compassionate voice for social justice. Put in the hands of the people and social movements, mobile phones and SMS can produce positive results for the common good;

• Mobile technology be maximized as a tool to break down barriers of language, gender, race, class, and sexual orientation;

• Socially and ecologically responsible production and retirement of mobile phones is a must, as well as the ability to recharge them with renewable energy;

• The use of mobile technology be maximized in networking, mobilization, education and training to the end of creating a just world and in the fight against oppression.
• Finally, we acknowledge that the growth of mobile/cellular technology is not universal and thus reflects existing global political, social and economic inequalities. We work towards making it available to everybody for the world’s people to advance their welfare.

There’s a fantastic aggregation of web articles and news stories related to the use of mobiles on the site and a very useful section devoted to resources for those who want to mainstream the use of mobiles in social activism.

However, the SMS blog featured on the website is the least useful – a random collection of gibberish, it only serves to dilute the appreciation of content elsewhere on the site. It would be wise to revist the raison d’etre of the SMS blog and either revamp it or take it away from the site.

Overall, a site well worth a visit to get a comprehensive picture of how mobiles are helping shape social activism and civic movements.

4 thoughts on “Cellphones for civic engagement

  1. I agree about MobileActive – a very useful resource for anybody interested in the true potential of mobile telephony to bring people together. By sheer coincidence, I’ve just posted about their recent article about Lebanon at humanitarian.info. I was on the MobileActive mailing list, but I haven’t received any messages for a while now – I wonder if their community is still developing?

  2. Paul,

    Smashing comment – I saw your profile in the MobileActive website, but couldn’t figure out how on earth one could add a new one.

    This is a strange site, in that the richness and diversity of resources seems to be countered by neglect in other areas. AS you say, the mailing list is defunct and they really need to look at their “SMS blog”.

    Your own post is most illuminating – I’ve often wondered what drives innovation of the nature you point to, and I always come back, with anger, to the lackadaisical approach by the telecoms industry in a country such as Sri Lanka that prevents innovation of this nature – see my post https://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/07/06/mobiles-and-peacebuilding.



  3. There’s a lot of different factors driving innovation – clearly one of the most obvious constraints is the regulatory framework in different countries, which can stifle competition and co-operation both. It’s not always the telecoms industry that’s at fault, but governments that fail to realise that allowing a fairly free and open telecoms market benefits almost everybody in the long term.

  4. Paul,

    Beyond the a regressive regulatory framework lies the unimaginative and often vegetative state of business entreprenuership that takes peacebuilding by the horns and creates opportunities for communications that bridge differences between communities. There is a great resistence amongst big business to get involved in peacebuilding, seeing it as a body of theory and practice that is either too controversial or complex for full engagement. This, coupled with a unenlightened regulatory framework, bedevil innovation in Sri Lanka where good and workable ideas, even when they come from outside the industry, are simply not taken forward.

    Everybody loses.

    I’m thinking that with the advent of Skypeand VoIP that perhaps some of the communication (say with diaspora) can be conducted even if local companies are unwilling or unable to rise to the challenge.

    But as you point out, ultimately, the greater lever of change are governments and progressive elements in business at home.


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