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By Anshu Rawal

Apr 25, 2014

Mobile technologies are opening new channels of communication between people and governments, potentially offering greater access to public information and basic services to all. No other technology has been in the hands of so many people in so many countries in such a short period of time. In fact, globally, more people now have access to a mobile device than to justice or legal services. Recent estimates indicate that ICTs could be accessible to everyone by 2015 and bring internationally agreed development targets ever closer to achievement (ITU 2010). Indeed, we are witnessing a new wave of democratization of access to innovative ICT channels, propelled by state-of-the-art technologies and diminishing barriers to entry.

In a global population of nearly seven billion people, the total number of mobile phone subscriptions globally is an astonishing 5.4 billion — and counting. Given that individual subscribers may have multiple and/or inactive SIM cards, the actual number of individual mobile subscribers worldwide is estimated at around 3.9 billion. Latest figures indicate that mobile phone penetration rates stand at almost 45 percent in low-income countries and 76 percent in lower-middle-income countries. Given that entire villages in poor and/or rural communities will often share one or two cell phones, it is also estimated that 80 to 90 percent of people in some poor countries have at least minimal access to a cell phone.

That is in part because mobile technologies offer portable, real-time, communication and information access for people who previously had little to no access to affordable communication channels. Mobiles have relatively low physical infrastructure requirements and can reach remote areas in a more cost-effective fashion than other ICTs such as the Internet or fixed phone lines. In some places, mobile devices are simply the only option available. And mobile phones require only basic literacy, making the barriers to entry much lower than with other modern ICTs.


Within governance, mobile technologies can offer new means for empowering citizens and stakeholders by opening and enhancing democratic processes and mechanisms. Mgovernance initiatives that expand access to information and communications channels are creating new venues for people’s participation and giving new voice to those who have historically been marginalized. What was once in the domain of official or large private, corporate media channels is now in the hands of anyone with a mobile or an Internet connection — flattening information and broadening the distribution of that information. This in turn can support wider stakeholder mobilization within a much shorter period of time, as witnessed during the so-called Arab spring of 2011 and other political mobilizations happening around the world today.

Mobile technologies are also strengthening the demand side of governance by providing people with critical tools to engage with public institutions and demand more and better services. This fosters broader transparency and social accountability. Enhancing service delivery and reform within important governing institutions — from public administrations to parliaments to systems of justice — generates new possibilities for open government. Mobile technologies can reduce bureaucratic holdups for average citizens and streamline work for civil servants. They enable citizens to bypass intermediaries who may take money for facilitating transactions, making service delivery more efficient and transparent. For example - Kerala Government has made a Mobile app for centralized access of the information related to any state government departments.

Significantly for poor people and rural development, mobile technologies can help reduce information gaps and restrictions inherent in marketplaces where consumers and producers have little means of comparing commodity prices between distant markets. Micro-entrepreneurs, for instance, can access market information from remote locations, increasing the speed of trade and reducing travel expenditures.

In principle, mobile devices can significantly impact development goals in terms of poverty reduction, democratic governance and crisis response. Strategically deployed, mobile technologies can open new, interactive communication channels that help governments engage people in policy and decision-making processes, expand stakeholder participation, offer greater access to public information, and foster targeted service delivery to the poor and marginalized. Nevertheless, the question is how to make this happen in real, material terms in ways that will really enhance human development.