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M4D: Money, Sex and Facebook

I was invited by the organisers of the London ICT4D Group to come and talk about Mobiles for Development last night. This was a great opportunity to talk to an engaged and thoughtful crowd.

I took this as an invitation to reflect on my many years  professional experience working on technology and social justice issues for Tactical Tech and Fahamu and draw some threads together with my PhD research on socially excluded women in the UK and their use of mobile phones.

The original hype around mobile phones as a ‘leapfrog’ technology for poorer communities had been a big driver for my research initially as I was always curious as to the impact of these devices on marginalised communities closer to home. This talk was a chance to look in brief at these two issues side by side.

I pulled out three key findings from my research relating to Money, Sex and Facebook and looked in parallel at these issues and their resonance in the broader Mobiles for Development space.


The potential for mobile phones to impact positively on economic development has been much hyped over the years. A much cited paper in ICT4D (ICT for international development) is Jensen’s 2007 paper on the use of mobile phones by Keralan fishermen: “The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector“. According to Google Scholar it has been cited 836 times. In this paper Jensen argues that the fishermen’s ability to use mobile phones to find the best price for their fish has impacted positively on their economic status.

“Between 1997 and 2001, mobile phone service was introduced throughout Kerala, a state in India with a large fishing industry. Using microlevel survey data, we show that the adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased.”

Given the popularity of Jensen’s thesis it was interesting to read (via Emrys Schoemaker) that it had been recently debunked. “Claims of mobile phone use by Kerala fishermen not supported by fieldwork” argues that new fieldwork shows that the fishermen weren’t using their phones for these purposes at all.

“None of our conversationalists used mobile phones to determine market prices at other markets, and when they use their phones it was to communicate with their home landing centers about practical or personal matters.”

For the women in my study mobile phones are an expensive outlay, as I’ve written about before on this blog.  40% of respondents reported financial problems associated with mobile use and some, like this respondent, had the burden of paying ex-boyfriend’s mobile contracts.

“How much a week do you get to live off? 
£80 a week…
So that’s quite a lot of your money going on the phone? 
Yeah about £10 a week… But I’m also paying for another contract. I gave it to my ex partner but he wasn’t paying for it. Now I have to pay the rest of that contract. So that’s another £15 a month”

The idea that there is a ‘poverty premium‘ for utilities, that the ‘poor pay more’ for mobile connections has resonance both with the respondents in my study, and on a global level. This respondent was paying about 15% of her income on mobile costs. ITU figures show that mobile costs in some of the word’s poorest countries can be in the region of 50% of monthly income. In Malawi, for example, mobile phone costs are calculated as 54.19% of monthly income.

Consumer surveillance

In my thesis I look at how the prevalence of mobile phone contracts amongst poorer young people in the UK is bound up with a higher level of consumer indebtedness. Analysis by a leading UK consumer site in 2014 found that the amount paid for a new iPhone on a two-year contract can be the equivalent as buying the phone with a 48% APR two-year loan. Research has also suggested that social networking sites are used by payday lenders to assess credit-worthiness of potential customers. Langley describes the mechanisms whereby consumers are ranked and scored as a “credit panopticon” which might be seen to be serving a political purpose: “an increasingly pervasive means of surveillance that divides “good” from “bad” credit consumers”. Given this, I was uneasy reading that people’s mobile phone data is being used to sell financial services to the poor in developing countries.


In my research I interviewed youth workers about their perception of the impact of mobile phones on young women in potentially abusive relationships.  One spoke about her experiences with her young clients.

“I think the technology is making the whole situation much much worse. Because without the technology there wouldn’t be the capacity or the ability to be able to stay in contact with somebody constantly. Its opened up a whole new way of controlling someone.”

Although this youth worker was concerned about the negative impact of mobile phones on vulnerable young women she spoke positively about apps such as SendThisInstead and the Sexual health app SWISH produced for young people in Brighton.

I was interested to read about the impact of an intervention in Uganda, whereby young people were offered free SMS based sexual health information. This had the unexpected impact of increasing risky sexual behaviour and promiscuity.

Quantitative survey results allow us to reject the hypothesis that improving access to information would increase knowledge and shift behavior to less risky sexual activities. In fact, we find that the service led to an increase in promiscuity, and no shift in perception of norms. We find the composite index of nonrisky behavior decreases (i.e. shifts toward riskier behavior), as does the index of nonpromiscuity. For infidelity, we find an increase overall from 12% to 27%.

The response of one informant in this Ugandan study captured the problem of the limits of technology based interventions in a situation where economic, structural issues mean the infrastructure isn’t there to support his needs.

“Now you have the information, and you are even told where to get further tests and treatment, but you don’t have money for treatment, or even transport to the place you have been referred to. Now have you been helped at all?”

Facebook and a new kind of digital divide

What other things do you look up on your phone or use the Internet for? 
Facebook that’s about it”

Finally, this quote from a respondent in my study captured how Facebook dominates young women’s use of mobile phones. For many of my respondents, Facebook and WhatsApp were the main uses they made of their phones. Mark Zuckerberg is hoping that this will also be the case for the  ‘next two billion‘ who will be connecting to the internet via their smartphones. Facebook are offering ‘zero rating’ connection, whereby people are able to connect to Facebook for free in developing countries. Whilst this is a great opportunity for people who might not otherwise be able to afford it to get online and connect it raises questions about a new kind of ‘digital divide’ and the potential positive impact of connection to the internet if it is limited to Facebook. This is reinforced by a recent study that showed that millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet.

Questions for practitioners 

I rounded up the presentation with some questions for people working in the M4D and broader fields.

  • How is the digital divide remaking itself in the era of ubiquitous smartphones?
  • Regarding the use of mobile data, what are our responsibilities to the communities we work in the post-Snowden era?
  • How can we ensure our interventions are impacting positively on gender relations?

Thanks to the organisers for a great event and for everyone who contributed to an excellent discussion afterwards.


2 thoughts on “M4D: Money, Sex and Facebook

  1. yeah I’m going to disagree on the Facebook. It’s providing a medium and yes sometimes people are using it to share silly selfies and cat videos. But people are also using it to create support groups (e.g the largest support community mums in Uganda is a closed group on FB. Mama Tendo Foundation with 13K members) They share advice on health, nutrition, etc in a closed, safe, community. It is also the cheapest (I know this is changing) and furthest reaching way for small business to promote themselves online. A small local African fashion store in Uganda (I’m Ugandan hence all the examples)called ZUBA has 51K likes on Facebook & now receives inquires from all over the world. No where else would they get that kind of traffic

  2. Thanks for your comment Eunice. I agree that online spaces are great for support – in the UK I use Mumsnet for parenting and health advice for my son a lot. I think what I’m getting at is that I’d like people to have the choice: that the internet isn’t just about Facebook…

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