Saturday, February 11, 2012

Helping Someone: The Enemy of Helping Everyone?

Slate carried an article this Thursday entitled "Mobile Phones Will Not Save the Poorest of the Poor." Cell phones have received a lot of coverage regarding the opportunities they've provided in developing nations, but the claim is probably defensible - those earning $5 day can't afford phones, and therefore can't take advantage of their services.

The article immediately became more intriguing when I clicked and saw the subtitle: The Cost of Cellphone-Based Services is Hurting Large Swaths of the Developing World. I'm always up for an argument that challenges my perceptions, and the idea that cellphone access is actually a bad thing certainly offers a challenge to my paradigm.

The crux of the argument is this paragraph:

But there’s a downside to this program—and others like it—that’s too often ignored: These mobile money services do not effectively reach the poorest of the poor. In a 2010 study of M-PESA usage in Kenya, where mobile money penetration is greatest, 60 percent of the poorest quartile did not use the service. Part of the problem is access: Telecom companies have relatively little incentive to build out infrastructure, especially in poorer, rural markets.

A second argument is then made that the fees for using this service are too expensive for some people to afford.


So the poorest people are hurt because the kind-of-poor now have access to a technology that may allow them to rise to the middle class? While I'm not a huge fan of income disparity, this is an awful argument for two reasons:
1. A method for bettering a peoples' position in life should not be criticized if it's not hurting someone else. The article literally condemns upward progress because some people are not able to take advantage of new technologies that others have access to.
2. A rising tide can raise boats. Issues of inflation, exploitation, corruption, and a host of other factors will keep always keep the very poor in underdeveloped countries from achieving success. Hell, these issues prevent upward mobility in the U.S. too. But if a segment of a lower class finds itself financially secure for the first time in history, they're gonna buy more goods, pay for more services, and some of that will trickle down to rural farmers producing these goods.

I get the idealism of wanting to save everyone. I don't get the logic of decrying an opportunity to help some if it doesn't help everyone. I'll recognize that the ability to make payments on a cell phone isn't a panacea. The writers should recognize it's a helluva lot better than the status quo of five years ago.

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