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Understanding Mobiles and Livelihoods

How can we understand the impact that mobiles are having on the livelihoods of the poor?

We all know that mobile phone use has grown exponentially in developing countries.  And that phones are having an increasing impact on the livelihoods of the poor by providing market prices, by supplying health information, by enabling financial transfers, etc.

But we know a lot less about how to conceptualise all this.  Can we just pull some development studies ideas off-the-shelf?  Or do we need to do more than this?

A new working paper in the Development Informatics series – “Understanding Mobile Phone Impact on Livelihoods in Developing Countries: A New Research Framework” – argues the livelihoods approach is a good starting point.  But that it needs modification.

The livelihoods approach suggests four potential impacts of mobiles on the assets that underpin all livelihoods:

−        Asset substitution: saving time and costs for journeys, but adding costs for mobile expenditure.

−        Asset enhancement: greater efficiency in use of other assets e.g. for agricultural production or relationship-building.

−        Asset disembodiment: the conversion of assets to digital form e.g. the codification of social contacts, or digitisation of money.

−        Asset exchange/combination: e.g. the exchange of airtime or m-cash.

Important intermediaries – mobile operators, their agents, community-based organisations and NGOs, family and friends – help shape the extent and distribution of these impacts.  These are also shaped by the three livelihood strategies to which the poor apply mobiles:

−        Maintaining existing livelihoods and mitigating vulnerability: e.g. use of mobiles to maintain social networks that can assist in an emergency.

−        Expanding and enhancing existing activities: e.g. using mobiles to obtain greater earnings from existing produce, to save more effectively, or to obtain greater remittances from existing social contacts.

−        Diversifying into new activities: e.g. employment in the mobile sector, or use of mobiles to complete micro-work tasks.

These components of the livelihoods approach – assets, intermediating organisations and institutions, strategies – are therefore very useful in understanding the role of mobiles in development.  But the approach also has four shortcomings.

i. Reconceiving assets.  The assets pentagon was developed within the context of traditional agriculture, and it underplays recent understandings of the importance of networks, agency and capabilities in development.  It would be better replaced by a three-way categorisation of assets:

−        resource-based assets (RBA) that are tangible (physical, financial, natural capital);

−        network-based assets (NBA) that derive from connections (social, political, cultural capital);

−        cognitive-based assets (CBA) comprising human and psychological capital including competencies (knowledge, skills, attitudes).

ii. Incorporating information.  Mobiles expose a truth that information is the lifeblood of development, and yet it is essentially ignored within the livelihoods framework.  Information is essential to individuals’ awareness of, and ability to utilise, all assets; and the use of information requires other assets to turn it into decisions and livelihood strategies.  Those processes need to be recognised within any understanding of livelihoods.

iii. Recognising bottom-up processes.  The livelihoods framework tends to see intermediating processes and structures in macro-terms (government, laws, policies, culture).  But diffusion and use of mobile has equally been shaped by more bottom-up processes including the functioning of specific market transactions, and user appropriations and adaptations within poor communities.  The latter need to be recognised.

iv. Categorising impacts.  If the core interest is impact of mobiles, the homogenising of that impact into a single “livelihood outcomes” box is not particularly helpful.  Better to borrow from the ICT4D value chain and differentiate a broadening scale: from direct changes in behaviour, through process-level outcomes, to broader impacts on development goals.

Adapting the livelihoods framework on the basis of these four points, we arrive at the revised framework shown below, for use in conceiving and researching the impact of mobiles on livelihoods in developing countries: 

The framework immediately helps to identify possible research questions:

−        What is the effect of contextual factors – processes of globalisation, processes of technological innovation, population migration, etc – on the livelihoods impact of mobiles?

−        How are markets and market processes shaping the impact of mobiles, including the tension between seeking to make markets more inclusive, and markets’ tendency towards exclusion and inequality?

−        What exactly is the impact of mobiles on the substitution, enhancement/diminution, disembodiment, exchange and combination of livelihood assets at the household level?

−        Are mobiles forging new forms of connection to the intermediating structures and processes that govern the enactment of livelihood strategies?

−        What new livelihood strategies are mobiles enabling; how do they come into being and come to sustain; and what impact are they having?

−        What factors mediate the conversion of mobile behavioural outputs into broader outcomes and development impacts?

No doubt there are many other questions that the framework can be used to identify and conceptualise.

Categories: m4d Tags: , ,
  1. Jahid Panir
    12 March 2012 at 2:47 pm

    This is really a pragmatic framework relating to the researches on the impact of mobile phone use.

  2. tomonarit
    31 March 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Very interesting Framework. It may be used not only for “M4D” but also for other kinds of ICT-enabled services like “Social Networking Service for Development”.
    I think that it is getting more and more important to break down “ICT” into each category such as PC, Mobile, FOSS, SNS, etc. Since “ICT” includes so many things, it is more and more difficult to use the word “ICT4D”. What ICT means is different from each case, for example, communication infrastructure, device, software, service, and so on.
    In this regard, this Framework specifically focusing on M4D is very useful and practical.

  1. 31 March 2012 at 4:20 pm

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