After developments like the one recently on Change.org, cell phone enthusiasts will surely be reaffirmed. The United Nations, according to the post, (and the AFP article) has begun sending vouchers by text message to Iraqi refugees in Syria. Change.org says this challenges presumption in that it shows how “wired” some communities are—all 130,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria have cell phones. Similar programs are run in Kenya as well.
However, once again, before all aid agencies and governments start running to using cell phones, one should do his or her own research on the intended target audience. Not all communities are “wired” equally. For instance, several prominent bloggers, including Chris Blattman, the folks at GiveWell and Alanna Shaikh (who cites the GiveWell post) cited a recent study concerning Village Phones. Village Phones are mobile phones operated by a car battery which serves as a “pay phone” for a given village. Someone operates the phone for a small fee, thereby theoretically boosting local economies and providing individuals, particularly women, a new source of income and livelihood. The program had little effect in Rwanda, due to the actual spread of cell phone usage already prevalent in the country.
Originally, the program worked well in Bangladesh, a country which the authors of the study explain had large numbers of expatriates living in countries with good telecommunications resources (more developed countries); the VP was used as the primary source of contact with these expatriates and their friends and families living abroad. In contrast, external refugees in Rwanda live in areas without good telecommunications access (like the DRC).
For me, this just exemplifies why planners, especially when exporting ideas to other places, need to research, research, research! Secondary sources are not good enough. Too many times, I find that proposals lack the good foundations of social science research and a good mix of primary sources. We can’t rely on outsiders, notably ourselves, to do research on these target societies as well–we have to integrate in-country specialists to help us sift through those primary sources.
See the full study on the Village Phone here.