New Internationalist

Power in our hands

We know the power of mobile phones in the hands of citizens from the central role they played in mobilizing and disseminating information in the Burmese monks' uprising, the Mumbai bombings, the G20 summit in London and the Iranian protests. They continue to play this central role, to the extent that in the case of Burma and Iran the state has successfully blocked mobile phone communication. In London, mobile phones were used to mobilize and document the tactics used by the police to undermine protesters. And of course Twitter and Facebook are being used extensively to send updates on Haiti to search for family members.

The book SMS Uprising: Mobile Phone Activism in Africa documents this rise. The publication is significant for many reasons, not least because it has been edited by an African woman activist.  Often initiatives in Africa get studied by people who are quite distant from the continent or are academics far from the grassroots of the subject under discussion. The book is also unique in giving an insight into how activists and social change advocates are addressing Africa's many challenges from within, and how they are using mobile telephone technologies to facilitate these changes. The examples are shared in such a way that they can be easily replicated - 'pick this idea up and use it in your campaign!' The intention is that the information will lead to greater reflection about the real potential and limitations of mobile technologies.  

Technology of itself does not lead to social change. For change to take place, technologies need to be appropriate and embedded with local knowledge. People decide why and how a particular technology will be used and, depending on the political and socioeconomic environment in which they live, adapt it accordingly. As the case studies in the book show, there are considerable local innovations and non-instrumental uses of the phone - using phones in ways not intended that step outside its technological aspects and attempt to bypass traditional power structures. It is important in the context of this book to point out that the projects and innovations discussed do not follow a traditional development model, where technology tends to be shaped by the economic forces which created it. On the other hand, the social change model is driven by the forces of people's local needs and is therefore more able to respond quickly and appropriately to specific events and political changes. This means that people at a grassroots level can think about what works for them and how they can use technology to foster social change and collective action. 
What makes the mobile phone such a dynamic tool for supporting social change is its sheer range of actual and potential functionality, making it an extremely versatile technology. Activists and campaign groups have chosen to use mobile phones - SMS/texting and video for mobilizing, advocacy, campaigning, social networking, citizens' journalism and 'crowdsourcing'. Campaigns can be short- or long-term and planned in advance, but quite often they are spontaneous reactions to an event.  

In 2007 WOUGNET Uganda used SMS as part of the '16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women' campaign. In Egypt, activists have used both SMS and the video cameras on their mobile phones to mobilize and expose police torture. However SMS, or the phone in general, is not always the most effective or appropriate technology  - in a crisis situation, writing an SMS takes time. 

Local infrastructures impact on usage but at the same time lead to technological and non-technological innovations to overcome constraints. In fact, mobile phones have led to a huge growth in the informal sector, with entrepreneurs supporting usage by selling airtime and chargers, and by charging, recycling and repairing phones - nothing is left to waste.  

The book aims to provide an examination of the many inventive ways that activism and social change are taking place across Africa and how mobile phones have been co-opted as the primary tool to aid this process. My own research leads me to consider a number of questions regarding the context of technology in Africa. For example, who is a user and who is an owner? To what extent are these projects and innovations breaking down traditional and capitalistic hierarchies? How have activists been able to use the technology to really affect change? Is access to a mobile phone and using it for social change more than just a drop in the ocean? Where people use technology to advance movement for change and to empower communities is it actually sustainable? Given that women are largely responsible for development, particularly in rural areas, what kind of a resource does a mobile phone give them? From observing and talking to women in Nigeria, I discovered that the purchase of airtime was given a high priority but was also used with much caution. The main complaints were always the cost of airtime and poor reception. This led to people wanting to own more than one handset from two different networks - another additional cost. The high level of poverty amongst women can undermine a woman's role in 'development and socio-economic transformation' if she is excluded from owning a phone or even sharing a phone within the family. Nonetheless, at least one report found there was no difference in how men and women used mobile phones, and in fact in some situations they decreased the isolation of women and increased job creation for those selling airtime and other related products. 

The projects highlighted in SMS Uprising: Mobile Phone Activism in Africa are reliant on external funding and, in many cases, support from multinational service providers seeking profit. By funding mobile phone-based projects, these companies believe that users will want to add value for themselves by using the phone as a general means of communicating - thereby offsetting the costs of the funding. But if pricing of airtime and handsets is too high, this may not happen or at least be restricted. Finally, we should approach the technology carefully, as there are possible pitfalls. For example, by ignoring traditional forms of communication and indigenous forms of organizing, people - especially women - can end up being disempowered.   

We are facing increasing amplification of social differentiation - the rich continue to get richer and the poor, poorer. In the face of this inequality, mobile phone activism in Africa emerges as a powerful force for achieving social justice. Mobile phones as tools for social change and advocacy are at a relatively early stage of development, but it is increasing at an exponential rate. It is quite possible that within two years the whole landscape will have changed.

This blog post is an abridged version of the first chapter of SMS Uprising: Mobile Phone Activism in Africa by Sokari Ekine (Pambazuka Press, 2010). 

The full version of the introductory chapter can be read here.

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