7 Mar 2010

An Underwhelming (SMS) Uprising

The potential of mobile phones as a means of mobilising citizens seems to be the topic of the moment. As so often happens in the development world, a new idea is attracting a lot of interest, praise and funds. But is this attention justified by the evidence - have the early efforts to use mobile phones delivered?

A recent book, SMS Uprising, (published by Fahamu Books and Pambazuka Press with support from Hivos), documents several such programmes from different parts of Africa. The book describes itself as taking a "try this in your campaign" approach, encouraging others to adopt the same tools. So they must be confident in what they're promoting.

But the overall impression I took from reading their examples was pretty underwhelming. A few hundred SMS messages seems to be a pretty typical response to a major campaign, which is less than convincing. Hardly an "Uprising". And the authors repeatedly emphasise that mobile phones are best seen as just one component of a multi-faceted campaign. As Firoze Manji of Fahamu in Kenya puts it,
"the point is to be strategic, and recognise that tools only complement, and do not substitute for, human interaction."
Two examples in the book stand out for being more positive - Kubatana in Zimbabwe and Ushahidi in Kenya. These are both pretty inspiring examples of what can be achieved with innovative use of mobile phone technology. The potential is clearly there, ready to be exploited, but it isn't fulfilled as easily as some advocates seem to suggest.

The book deserves credit for its honesty and open admission of the limitations of mobile phones in advocacy - which is more than can be said for some advocates of the technology. And if it encourages others to think carefully about when, where and how the unquestionable potential of mobile phones can be most effectively realised, so much the better.