The Application of Mobile Phones in Supporting Civil Society of Developing Nations

Introduction to Mobile Technology

Mobile phones have the proven ability to serve economic development efforts in numerous sectors critical to supporting community growth and prosperity.  This analysis will seek to define how mobile technology has influenced:

  • Civic engagement and participation in civil society
  • Healthcare knowledge, access and service
  • Educational content and development tools
  • Agricultural knowledge and market services
  • Financing and banking services
  • Disaster mitigation and management

img 1Mobile phones are being used to rapidly disseminate data and news, increase access to reading and educational materials, improve healthcare processes and information flow, and facilitate community feedback and input to key stakeholders (companies, NGOs, and governing institutions).  Citizens can increasingly gain access to information, share photos and data, send and receive money, and more.  These developments in mobile services, and the adoption of technology to serve more citizens, is having profound impact on national development initiatives.

According to a survey of 24 developing nations[1] conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013, about 83% of residents owned a cellular device.  78% of all mobile phone owners stated that they use the phones for sending text messages, while only 18% use their phones to access political news and just 25% use it to access social networking sites (Pew Research Center, 2014).  The prevalence of mobile devices, and their uses, are highly variable depending on the nation and region.

The mobile phone, particularly in developing nations, has evolved from a simple communication device to become a dynamic service delivery platform.

What are Mobile Phones

Mobile phones have by and large replaced landline services, which have the sole benefit of withstanding electrical outages, yet significantly higher infrastructure costs and potential for damage and system failure during natural disasters.  There are 10 times the number of mobile devices and landline phones in Africa, with over 60% of the population within mobile coverage (Jenny C. Aker, 2010).

There are three main distinctions of mobile technologies – basic, feature, and smart phones.  Basic mobile coverage includes voice and text capabilities that are accomplished through traditional GSM service coverage (Global System for Mobile communication).  Feature phones offer additional services beyond basic phones, including improved functions to enable web connectivity and transmission of data for photos, etc. (through 2G/3G/4G coverage).  Smartphones offer the top echelon of products, with devices that have touchscreen capabilities and WiFi/GPS capacity, in addition to basic and feature phone functions.

In most developing nations, the majority of users own or have access to basic or feature phones, with smartphones making up between just 2-15% of the population.  In as much, most social and civil services (approx. 80%) utilize these basic and feature phone services and capabilities, leveraging Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems (wherein a user can interact with a computer system), Short Messaging Service (SMS), Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) (GSMA Intelligence, 2013).

Voice services are primarily used in health and agricultural applications, however the prevalence of these systems is declining due to high investment costs for call centers and voice response systems compared with the costs of text-based systems (SMS/USSD and mobile internet based) (GSMA Intelligence, 2013).  SMS and USSD-based information services are well established in the agricultural and financial services, however these services are often unconnected.  “Sectors such as mobile money, agriculture, and health represent unique opportunities in terms of the addressable markets they serve, their potential for re-use and recombination with other services, and their potential to achieve socio-economic impact” (GSMA Intelligence, 2013).

Emerging markets in developing nations represent a tremendous opportunity for growth, likely to be facilitated by communication over the internet.  In the absence of internet connectivity, developing nations have mostly been on the receiving end of content, lacking the tools and infrastructure to generate content locally.  As access to web-enabled services through mobile technologies become more prevalent, this dynamic will shift such that emerging markets are more able to create content and empower local communities through the internet more effectively.  Despite a large majority of users in developing nations lacking access to data or web applications, there are several services and functions created for basic and feature phones that facilitate processes across all sectors.  The adoption of mobile phones is of critical interest in assessing the impact of mobile tools and services on development efforts.


Adoption of Mobile Technologies

Across the ‘developing’ world, about 40% of people subscribe to a mobile device and contract (33% in Africa), while about 50% have access (variable) to a mobile device. (GSMA Intelligence, 2013).


The adoption of mobile services and technology has outpaced access to most all other services (electricity, water, banking, etc.) in much of the developing world.  The cause for this is generally attributable to less capital expense per person served, and the ability of mobile connectivity to support more rapid development of sectors including health, finance, education, and agriculture. Phone coverage is strongly correlated to population density and per capita income (Jenny C. Aker, 2010).  Whereas ownership of personal computers in developing nations remains around 10% of the population (particularly considering the lack of access to fixed internet connectivity), mobile technologies are being rapidly adopted (GSMA Intelligence, 2013) (Sebastiana Etzo, 2010).  In developing nations, social influence is a significant determining factor influencing adoption of a mobile phone – and access to data (Walton, Men, Mobile Users Dominate Miyeni Facebook Debate, 2011).

Operators have increasingly focused on investments on feature phones and 3G services to support more widespread access to data services, however the pace of the rollout is significantly slower in rural areas than urban centers (GSMA Intelligence, 2013).

During the 5 years from 2006 to 2011, internet access in developing nations increased nearly 3-fold, with 62% of all internet users from developing nations (about 25% of total world population).  In this same time, mobile phone subscriptions have more than doubled, with global penetration rates reaching almost 80% in the developing world (International Telecommunication Union, 2011).  Access to mobile phones in developing nations, however, is not often associated also with access to mobile internet.  Limited data services are available on basic and feature phones, those owned by a predominate number of cell phone subscribers in developing nations.

Mobile Contracts

The types of contracts also have an impact on services that can be leveraged, with most developing-nation consumers buying pre-paid services wherein data must be purchased as an additional ‘add-on’ service.  Zero-rated data offers limited access to mobile internet for little to no cost – such as Google’s “Free Zone” that enables users to access Google services for not cost, a service that has been adopted by other web giants including Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia (GSMA Intelligence, 2013).  Hybrid data plans are also employed in developing nations, in which the user has a commitment to a length of a contract, but not in data usage/expenditure.

Flexible data plans have also become commonplace, wherein users must pay for access when needed.  With an understanding that the majority of users in developing nations are under significant financial burden, an increasing number of services offer data-free access options (pioneered by social media enterprises which seek to engage users).    Private industries have taken a role in adapting technologies and services to fit the needs and demands of low-access citizens.  Facebook Zero is a very basic version of the service, designed to be only text-based to eliminate data charges.  Opera Mini is a web-browser which compresses data to reduce charges for users.  Google created the Gmail SMS platform to send and receive email message by text, now active in 3 African countries (Daniella Ben-Attar, 2013).

Once afforded the access to mobile technology and data, people engage in social and/or economic activity (Pew Research Center, 2014).  While the mobile internet has yet to reach a majority of the world’s population, and a particularly low minority in many developing nations, it has a profound impact on those can access it, as evidenced by how frequently it is used.

Government Role in Supporting Access

Barriers to adoption of mobile services include political stability, economic growth, state and regional funding and service institutions, and infrastructure/technology implementation.  Growth in the mobile market has generally been driven by declining capital costs, improvements in coverage, introduction of competing services, and economic growth.  Nations who have enabled new entrants (private investment) to the mobile markets, versus those dominated by state-run monopolies, have seen prices in services (particularly voice and text) and hardware decline (The World Bank, 2014).

Improved access to information, and the ability to rapidly disseminate information, has shown invaluable benefits in improving social, economic and environmental development efforts.  Services in money, health, education and entrepreneurship have flourished with increased access to mobile services and technologies.  The adoption of mobile phones provides an outlet for greater communication across social and media barriers, particularly pronounced in developing countries where the populations are either geographically or socially isolated (United Nations Democracy Fund, 2008).   Advances in education are also influential to the adoption of mobile technology.

To enable the adoption of mobile devices and infrastructure, governments should be “…primarily focused on regulation and promoting a friendly investment climate” (GSMA Intelligence, 2013).  Some governments have bypassed or neglected physical landline infrastructure in place of mobile technologies at a fraction of the cost.  Both Internet usage and smartphone ownership have a strong positive correlation to a country’s GDP (Pew Research Center, 2014).    The independent regulation of the private industry partners, combined with competition, can increase private capital by 50%, leading to higher density and efficiency (The World Bank, 2005).  A stronger private role in the industry has by-and-large benefited nations by garnering more investment and competition.   The Financial Times produced a study which found that a 1% increase in mobile diffusion increased GDP per capita between $124-164 USD (Hathaway-Zepeda, 2006).  Excessive taxation and regulation inhibit the spread of coverage and access.

While the World Bank and national governments in developing countries around the globe determine how to best adopt and create an environment for private investment in telecommunications infrastructure, cities and nations must also be addressing the opportunity for engaging with the public through these means of communication. 



Mobile Impact on Development

Mobile devices have a variety of capacities by which to serve service and market operations beyond the provision of voice and text communication.  The resulting improvements in communication access have improved firms’ productivity and supply chain efficiency, and resulted in better market productivity.  The industry has provided significant employment opportunities in the providers, service and maintenance sectors.  In addition, the mobile industry has facilitated networking and social connectivity which supports the citizens’ response to disasters and emergencies.

Civic Engagement

Civic engagement plays an essential role in successful developmental transformation, yielding improvements to social capital and long-term community benefits that can strengthen a country’s capacity to manage future development initiatives (Khalid Malik, 2006).  To address challenges in civic engagement and participation in public policy discussions and decisions, an evolving array of tools and technologies have been implemented in ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ nations around the world.  While still diffusing into the economic and social fabric of underdeveloped countries, information communication technology (ICT) systems such as cell phones and the internet are revolutionizing the ways in which people receive information from the government and provide feedback to it.  The use of ICTs has supported the efforts of civil service organizations (CSOs) and strengthened civil society by enabling improved communication and networking.

The primary purpose of mobile devices is to enable communication across long distances, and the simplest utility of ICT technology is thus to provide a network for engaging in dialogue.

FrontlineSMS has established an open-source software to help overcome communication barriers in social challenges (education, healthcare, elections, etc).  The program enables users to send and receive messages with certain communities and networks, namely through SMS notices.  The group has constructed several platforms, including FrontlineSMS:Radio, a desktop application designed to support community radio stations in their efforts to interact dynamically with audiences by harnessing the power of SMS.  Radio is the dominant media source for many communities worldwide, and SMS is increasingly being used by radio stations to facilitate two-way communication with listeners.  With a laptop and a mobile phone or GSM modem the tool can capture, organize and represent incoming data from listeners live in real time.

For developing nations in particular, mobile technologies represent the first widespread opportunity to leverage ICT to benefit civil society and enable participation by the general public.  Organizations and community engagement platforms are utilizing mobile technology to educate citizens, collect and share data and physical evidence, distribute information, participate in discussions, prepare and respond to emergencies, and more.   Civic engagement plays an essential role in successful developmental transformation, yielding improvements to social capital and long-term community benefits that can strengthen a country’s capacity to manage future development initiatives.

MobileActive employs a strategy to bring together campaigners, technology experts and communications strategists to connect civic engagement campaigns with people on the street.  The program leverages the use of cell phones as an organizing tool, and provides guidance for practitioners, donors and campaigners that is disseminated by mobile. The overarching goal is to help civil society activists capitalize on the global wireless phone infrastructure for advocacy communications and organizing.  (Verclas, 2005)

Mobile devices are providing a new and dynamic mode for the collection of data and user information to support the improved development of tools and services.  Mobile phones put information at the fingertips of a majority of the world’s citizens, and also have the ability to collect and report data about relevant activities.  Phones have a tremendous and growing application in both the delivery and collection of information, serving a variety of users and services.

Paperless surveying and feedback mechanisms, disseminated via mobile networks, represent a powerful shift in the collection and use of data in development programs.  Mobile tools enable citizens to create their own mobile surveys which also include some offline functions, allowing community members with only basic or feature phones to participate (without data access) (The Aspen Institute, 2008).

Mobile devices are being utilized for keeping citizens informed of legislative initiatives and government operations (in the form of news, audio, and messages), and provide an outlet for input and feedback through voice response systems and ‘voting’ or input protocols (Helmut Anheier, 2011).  The information flow between policymakers and the public can provide trust and transparency, and support efforts to map and quantify/qualify community needs and demands.  Mobile devices are particularly useful in the monitoring of election results and critical governmental decisions (Jenny C. Aker, 2010).  The connectivity with government services and operations and open data between the sources provide rich information for the benefit of all users.


Mobile technologies have already shown profound capacity to support educational initiatives and access to content and services.  The adoption of technology, particularly mobile devices, in educational settings is less rapid due to entrenched resistance.  There is hesitation to believe that the use of mobile devices by either teachers or students may inhibit their education, and

Eneza Education is a mobile platform that provides students with access to quizzes, lessons, and educational tips via mobile web and USSD/SMS systems for over 100,000 students in Kenya (Tsao, 2013). 

FrontlineSMS:Learn is a version of the FrontlineSMS platform that uses SMS to provide learning and evaluation support to educators and development programs around the world.  The platform was designed to help local schools, trainers, and educators increase knowledge retention, facilitate long-term changes in behavior, and, ultimately, improve the quality of education and training in the last mile.

Mobile phones have transformed reading and writing access and ability, providing content for reading and language development, and a platform on which to write and share information.  Many South African teens are as or more comfortable writing on a phone as they are on paper or a computer (Walton, Mobile literacies – bridging the gap between phone and book, 2010) . The power of mobile devices to improve literacy and language skills are well established and accepted, however mobile’s effectiveness in address challenges in subjects such as math, science, and art is more contested.


Many developing nations have embraced mobile services for the health sector, including social, educational and awareness initiatives.  A platform titled MOTECH was developed to address the overwhelming number of pilot health programs which have failed to be delivered at-scale, thus leading to inefficiencies in services and operations.  Among various functions, the program sends messages to pregnant mothers and parents, and collects data from community health workers.  The initiative has evolved and scaled with time, serving thousands of health workers and patients and continuing to expand coverage to additional mobile channels to include SMS and voice-interactive systems.  Health workers can also leverage MOTECH’s “Mobile Academy”, comprehensive and interactive voice response ‘courses’ to increase their knowledge, behaviors and communication skills.  MOTECH has evolved to incorporate tools and services for both patients and health workers, bridging the divide through mobile technologies (primarily SMS and voice response systems) on a minimal or no-cost basis available in local languages.

YoungAfricaLive is a mobile community which promotes health sexual behavior through a peer-to-peer model, and shares interactive content including daily messages.  The initiative targets basic and feature phone users, leveraging Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and web-based services (GSMA Intelligence, 2013).

Frontline Health Workers employs a platform called Mobile Academy, developed by the Ananya program (funded by the Gates Foundation and the local Government of Bihar) to address maternal and child health challenges.  The platform helps health workers gain access to standardized training courses at their own pace, and receive recognition from the local government for their completion of the program.  The free-of-charge service, paid by Frontline Health, leverages voice response services via mobile devices.

In addition to benefits for healthcare staff and patient education, mobile devices have also been employed for effective record-keeping and data collection of health-related information.  Uganda established a Mobile Vital Records System (MVRS), a platform by which individuals can be registered at birth and death through a voice interactive phone system.  The nation has historically been challenged by tracking population births and deaths, and the newly-established mobile system has proven very effective in reducing the number of undocumented births and deaths.

Campaigns against specific diseases, for example Malaria, can be effectively supported through mobile initiatives that include public awareness and educational outreach, tracking and monitoring services, and payment platforms for soliciting donations.


The agriculture industry has benefited from mobile technology through services which enable farmers to be better informed of market conditions, weather impacts, and networking for supply and distribution.  FarmForce is a software which supports small-scale farmers in increasing productivity by gaining better access to markets and effectively managing crop-related risks.   Additional services can influence the rate of adoption of farm-related technologies and cash-crop harvests.

Esoko, a platform in West Africa, uses their software to share market price information with farmers via SMS, WAP and voice systems.  The program can send information to specific users and communities, and collect and share critical market information to users with basic or feature phones.  Similarly, the Kenyan platform SokoniSMS64 utilizes SMS notifications to transmit market price information from wholesale retailers to smaller-scale farmers, enabling the farmers to better-negotiate in trades and bring products to market at the most convenient time.

In addition to providing real-time market information, several services disseminate weather-related updates to support small-scale farmers.  Additional mobile services provide tools to track livestock, such as iCow from M-Farm, a platform which enables farmers to track a cow’s gestation, feed types, schedules, and market prices. The platform operates for a nominal fee, and users can submit data and view updates via SMS.

Financial Services

Mobile banking and money transfer platforms have become commonplace in developing nations, particularly in Africa (Pew Research Center, 2014).  Significant populations and communities in developing countries lack access to traditional banking services.  Electronic payment and banking services are increasingly encouraging low-income users to adopt electronic money as an effective alternative to physical currency, improving end-user confidence in the electronic systems.  The e-money platforms allow users to take control of financial decisions and transactions in a previously-impossible manner.

Mobile carriers have facilitated partnerships in which end-users can store financial credit, pay bills, or purchase products through their mobile numbers.  Banking by phone is so popular that there are more mobile-money accounts than Facebook users in sub-Saharan Africa (Tsao, 2013).  More than 55 million citizens in Africa use basic phones to transfer funds, purchase insurance policies, and collect funds from government disbursements.  Research suggests micro-financial services mobile services will continue to address developing nations’ financial needs by facilitating low-cost money transfers and transactions (Richard Duncombe, 2009).

Disaster Mitigation and Management

In the event of natural or man-made disasters, mobile technologies have potential to provide tremendous support for mitigation and management efforts.  Environmental and weather-related notices and warnings are provided in many nations via mobile devices, and management practices include sharing information and location-related data.  To mitigate the impact of environmental shocks, mobile systems are used to change planting and harvesting processes when needed. In disaster management challenges, mobile infrastructure can often be damaged or rendered useless, which can nullify potential benefits and impair efforts which require their functionality.

AidLink, a service provided by SoukTel, provides information to and from communities in crisis through SMS alerts, web applications, and voice response systems.   The disaster management sector has adopted mobile devices to help in the procurement and delivery of supplies, and rapid reporting and data collection/sharing.  The reliance on mobile infrastructure for disaster management challenges has proven costly when the infrastructure or systems experience failures; the systems are incredibly useful if they continue to function, however cell towers and network stations are similarly vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters which can render them useless.


Implications of Mobile for Future Development

Ownership of basic and feature phones will continue to permeate the developing world, being provided to increasingly rural populations.   Smartphone technology will slowly become accessible to a majority of the world’s people, giving users more access to data and ability to generate content instead of simply consuming it.  Mobile technologies have transformed the way in which citizens interact and communicate in social and professional capacities.

The overreliance on mobile infrastructure can begin to deflect people away from the physical interactions – in-person community meetings, participatory processes, and advocacy or outreach events.  Mobile devices should be used to leverage and encourage cross-sector collaboration and awareness – a means to bring communities together virtually, for the purpose of empowering people in tangible ways.   Mobile systems can potentially weaken local social networks by providing access to goods and services beyond the traditional community.

There is debate as to the impact of mobile devices on macroeconomic activity, with some examples of nations and cities with both resounding and minimal economic benefit (The World Bank, 2014).  Further research is needed to determine the impact on mobile infrastructure and access to cross-country economic growth and development efforts in particular sectors.  Previous studies have indicated a positive correlation between investments in mobile systems and economic growth and poverty reduction (Jenny C. Aker, 2010).   However investments in mobile infrastructure cannot be successful without concurrent investment in public goods including transportation, utilities (water, sanitation), and electricity, without which any investments into mobile systems can be negated (Daniella Ben-Attar, 2013).

National governments should investigate the impact of mobile access to their citizens, and how regulations and taxation structures may be modified to improve coverage for both urban and rural populations.  While sub-Saharan Africa still has significant ground to make up in access to and ownership of mobile devices, the continent excels in the utility of basic services for dynamic social and economic purposes, leverage cell services with greater efficiency and effectiveness compared with developed nations.  As the quality of devices and coverage improves, developing nations are primed to adopt innovative services and platforms to address evolving demands across all critical sectors of civil society.

[1] China, Jordan, Russia, Chile, S. Africa, Malaysia, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Venezuela, Argentina, Kenya, Brazil, Senegal, Bolivia, El Salvador, Ghana, Nigeria, Indonesia, Philippines, Mexico, Uganda, Pakistan

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