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Mobile Phones Easier to Find Than Food for World’s Poor

This news from Foreign Policy’s Joshua Keating is pretty amazing. He writes that:

We’ve reached a very strange point in human history when it is assumed that people who don’t have access to food will have working cell phones.

He points to an announcement by the UN that it will use cell phones to send $22 vouchers to Iraqi refugee families in Syria every two months. They are provided with special SIM cards for the transactions, and the vouchers can then be exchanged for staples such as rice, flour, lentils, chickpeas, and oil at selected stores.

Perhaps expecting that eye brows might be raised at the idea that those needing food aid would have cell phones, the UN’s Emilia Casella reports, “all the 130,000 Iraqi refugees currently receiving food aid from the agency in Syria have mobile phones.”

UN Dispatch’s Matthew Cordell further points out that, according to the ITU, “worldwide at the end of 2008 there were 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions, buoyed by developing countries, where two-thirds of those subscriptions were used.” Even if most of us look at ITU data with a fair amount of skepticism, that is a pretty phenomenally high number of cell phone subscriptions, and stories like this seem to indicate that the digital divide may be shrinking faster than many of us expected.

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9 Responses to “Mobile Phones Easier to Find Than Food for World’s Poor”

  1. sy Says:

    this would have been a terrific example to deconstruct at the communication and human development event.

  2. Angie Says:

    This is amazing to me, how can cell phones be easier to obtain than food, is it scarcity of food, or people’s priorities?

  3. idteam Says:

    Thanks Angie and SY for your comments. I can’t say that I know the answer, but a couple thoughts. Certainly, it must be in part that food is expensive relative to cell phones. I doubt that scarcity is a problem in Syria. But the other part of the explanation must lie in the continuing drop in the price of technology. Remember the story about people at Wall Mart fighting over $40 dollar DVD players at Christmas–the real shocking part of the story was that you could buy a DVD player for $40! It may also be the specifics of the Iraqi refugees in Syria, who, as I understand it, find it very difficult to find employment, and therefore feed themselves, no matter what level of education or wealth they might have had in Iraq. I believe they also suffer from a level of discrimination since refugees are seen as flooding the employment market in Syria and other countries neighboring Iraq that have taken in a lot of those fleeing the war. As SY says, it would be really interesting to unpack this more with experts!


  4. Dave M Says:

    Adding to what Bruce said about the price of technology dropping…mobile phones in developing countries are primarily used on a pay-as-you go basis, allowing owners to only pay for when they use the phone. So the biggest cost to users is the intial purchase. In addition, the use of SMS-text messaging is much more prevalent than actually making a phone call and they cost much less.

  5. idteam Says:

    Good point, Dave. In some developing countries I’ve worked/traveled in, it seems fairly routine for friends to share a phone and take out their friend’s SIM card, put in their own to make a call, then swap the original back in. So, the costs of the most expensive item (the phone, as you point out) can either be shared among a group of people, or if you have a friend/family member who has a phone that you could borrow every now and then when you need to make a call, you wouldn’t necessarily need to buy a phone to have your own account/SIM card.

  6. Linda Moon Says:

    While traveling overseas to third world countries, I noticed that people walk around carrying nice phone, but when it comes to their food and living condition, its not up to par.

    I never really thought about it but after reading this it really make me noticed it more.

  7. Common in Cambridge » Malthusian Mobile? Says:

    […] Democracy Project wrote on the global penetration of mobile phones in his article entitled, “Mobile Phones Easier to Find than Food for World’s Poor.”  This week The Economist also ran a cover story on “Falling Fertility,” and […]

  8. dsi r4 Says:

    It is true that now people not afford food but they have mobile they afford bills and maintenance also.but i think in this time of period mobile is necessary for their work.

  9. Imaginary utopia « Notes on Media Says:

    […] fact that many of the people in Western countries are subscribed more than once. A remarkable fact, pointed out by Bruce Etling on the Internet & Democracy blog, seems to allude to the opposite. He points to an announcement by the UN which states cell phones […]