Case in Point: Mobile Phones in Africa

So this weeks readings dare to open up the box of theories, approaches, strategies, and so forth as they relate to development communication. (or if you to break it down further, the readings open up the doors to defining communication ‘and’ or ‘for’ development (elaborated by Sey). Yet, this blog will steer clear of the competing and intermixing of development communication theories and approaches to talk about an ICT used in development… the mobile phone.

Araba Sey’s “‘We use it different, different’: Making sense of trends in mobile phone use in Ghana” looks at the various uses of mobile phones for Ghanaian. The article emphasizes people use mobile phones to multiple purposes, more specifically using them in ways that help them achieve their livelihood goals. While previous researchers highlight the use of mobile phones to pursue development outcomes: political, social, or economic, (in the case of this article mobiles as a means to reduce poverty) Sey paints a different portrait. She notes mobile phones take on a variety of purposes for each user, not explicitly for poverty reduction, but most importantly as a means to “facilitate connectivity” (377). So in this light, she highlights the ‘different’ benefits mobile telephony provides Ghanaians.

Yet, Chenxing Han’s “South African Perspectives on Mobile Phones: Challenging the Optimistic Narrative of Mobiles for Development” points out what Sey and other ‘mobiles for development’ scholars lack focus on …. the negative consequences of mobile devices. [As a side note … reading Hans’ article before Sey’s enabled me to identify the ‘optimism narrative’ in Sey’s article]. Just as Sey laid out in her argument, mobile phones in Ghana, while not necessarily achieving economic development goals, they did provide connectivity benefits. Her argument reflects what Han wants scholars to re-evaluate. This notion of ‘positivity’ and ‘optimism’ integrated into the ‘mobiles for development’ literature. Scholars tend to steer clear of the negative consequences and effects mobile phones may have in that community. Looking at the various communities in South Africa, mobile phones did not necessarily act as a “safeguard for people in emergency situations.” (2063) Rather, mobiles required purchasing expensive minutes and text messages, they also enabled new opportunities to engage in sexual exploits, and lastly posed an individual security risk – the potential to be mugged. In this light, Han calls for scholars to examine more than just the benefits of mobiles, but a holistic review of mobiles, including the neutral and negative outcomes.

With this being said, this week’s readings show us a case in point of Han’s argument. While Sey highlights the connectivity benefits mobiles provide for Ghanaian livelihood, she fails to acknowledge the neutral or potentially negative effects. So while mobile telephony may exhibit potentially beneficial means to bring about connectivity and development, it will be necessary to access the not-so-gleaming attributes of mobiles.



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