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Last Updated: 03/14/2005
Cell phones make Peace?
Simon Stander

All sorts of proposals have been made to drag warring nations out of violent conflict, especially in Africa, and ensure that the ensuing peace brings dividends in the form of increased welfare. Very generally speaking poverty is bad, and if policies can be initiated to decrease the incidence of poverty and find ways to achieve economic growth (sustainable or otherwise) peace might find a way of staying imbedded in the society thus created.

The latest observation has been that there appears to be a close relationship between mobile or cellular phones and economic growth.  Says who? A study backed by UK based multinational Vodaphone argues that mobile phone use has increased faster in Africa as a whole than anywhere else in the world. The report, supported by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, shows that high rates of economic growth occur where mobile phone use is highest, despite the obvious fact that in the proportion of the total population using mobile phones is the lowest in the world. 

The Report said, according to the BBC:

  • More than 85% of small businesses run by black people, surveyed in South Africa, rely solely on mobile phones for telecommunications.
  • 62% of businesses in South Africa, and 59% in Egypt, said mobile use was linked to an increase in profits - despite higher call costs.
  • 97% of people surveyed in Tanzania said they could access a mobile phone, while just 28% could access a land line phone.

A developing country which has an average of 10 more mobile phones per 100 population between 1996 and 2003 had 0.59% higher GDP growth than an otherwise identical country.

It has long been observed that countries regarded as late industrialisers have the advantage of being able to leap-frog technologies. In the case of cell phones in Africa, this is a phenomenon we are clearly seeing and is acknowledged by Stephen Yeo, chief executive of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, which hosted the launch of the report on 8 March (2005). He confirmed that mobile phones had enabled developing countries to "leapfrog" old technologies. The BBC notes that "this research... provides the first empirical evidence of a link between social and economic development and the establishment of mobile phone networks."

But does it? This is the problem with causality. Does A cause B or vice a versa? In this case can you say, alternatively, that those countries experiencing economic growth turn to mobile phones as they expand? Are the two, growth and mobile phones, simply pari passu?

Vodaphone would hope that the report is right and that a giant multinational company can bring developmental benefits. Meanwhile there are those who would argue that the hunger for coltan, the key rare mineral required for cell phones, has pretty well destroyed the Congo. You pay your money, you er- get your cell phone. Whatever happens Vodapone should be doing OK. At the time of writing, there are 82 million mobile phone users in Africa and the number grows daily (less so in the Congo, ironically).

Simon Stander is the an Associate Professor of Peace Studies at the University for Peace