Is the road to hell paved with donated smartphones?



From time to time, people interested in mVAM will suggest we distribute cell phones to people who live in the vulnerable and food insecure communities where we work. It is usually a well-meaning idea, originating from specialists as they scope out a mobile-based data collection activity or a donor trying to help. After all, while phone
ownership has expanded exponentially, many poor people still do not have phones. It’s tempting to distribute devices to them as a solution to this disparity. However, our experience at mVAM and elsewhere has shown that we’re often better off going with the phones that people already have. This blog post explains why.

A checklist from UNICEF innovation

Others working with technology in developing countries have faced the same debates. We found that UNICEF innovation has come up with a useful list of questions to think about before distributing handsets or other hardware.

  1. Do you really need to distribute these devices?
  2. Who are they going to?
  3. How many of those people already have a smartphone? How about a dumb phone?
  4. How will you account for any loss of devices? Is that planned for?
  5. How will they be fixed when they break?
  6. How will you make sure devices are charged?
  7. What infrastructure do they connect to for information flow? Internet?
  8. Who trains people in how to use them?
  9. How does this affect the local economy? What is the market distortion on local hardware sellers? How many vendors might get put out of business?
  10. How do you make sure you don’t create a false incentive for the future?

An addendum from mVAM

On the basis of our experience, we’d like to add a few additional considerations to this list. mVAM’s own experience with cell phone distribution has been mixed. In 2012, we provided 400 cell phones to IDPs in eastern DR Congo, an idea we picked up from the literature (e.g. Listening to Dar). We tried to do the right thing by consulting with the community first. We offered low-end feature phones. We set up a solar charging station in the camp where people could recharge their phones for free. We also ensured that people received training in using the new devices.

On the one hand, we were pleased to see that we obtained a good response rate to our surveys from the camp and that providing access to cell phone technology empowered people (because the cell phones we provided allowed displaced people to call home, use mobile money for remittances, and obtain information). On the other hand, there unfortunately was also theft (42 phones were reported stolen!) and even cases of people being attacked for their devices. These findings are captured in the independent review of the mVAM activity that was published in 2015. Due to these concerns, we have not provided cell phones to people in other settings as mVAM has expanded.

So, we want to add another set of considerations to the UNICEF list :

  1. Are we putting people at risk ? mVAM surveys are sometimes carried out in very vulnerable conflict-affected communities. By receiving phones, people can be put at risk.
  2. Are there specific risks to women, the elderly, and the disabled? These groups are at specific risk of physical abuse.
  3. How would you replace a lost or stolen phone?
  4. Is providing phones sustainable? Providing and replacing phones in the long term can quickly become a financial burden, especially if people are in remote areas. When the population is concentrated (e.g. a camp or city), costs are lower.
  5. How could local regulations on cell phones affect your project? SIM cards are becoming highly regulated with requirements to provide an ID to authorities. This can be a barrier for some groups such as refugees. Some SIM cards will be cancelled if they are not ‘registered’ after a few weeks.
  6. What are the alternatives to providing phones? In some communities, poor and vulnerable households already have phones or have access to shared phones. It’s also important to remember that mobile data collection is not appropriate in all settings: sometimes, conventional tools such as face to face surveys are a better choice.

As we have gained more experience working in different contexts, we have concluded that we’re better off working with the phones people already have. Sometimes, that means designing our data collection strategy around the information that can be credibly collected when phone ownership or network coverage is limited. For instance, in places where cell phone penetration is low (~20%), we have not attempted to run a representative survey of households but have focused instead on obtaining information from a set of key informants, as we did in Afghanistan or the Central African Republic.

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