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Global Development Institute

Understanding Mobile Phone Impact on Livelihoods in Developing Countries: A New Research Framework

Richard Duncombe


Mobile phones are diffusing rapidly in developing countries, but research conceptualisations have been lagging behind practice, particularly those that link mobile phones to livelihoods.  This working paper seeks to fill this gap in two ways.

First, by means of a literature review that uses key livelihoods concepts as a template for analysis.  It starts by analysing mobile phones according to how they impact upon assets – through facilitating asset substitution, enhancement, combination, exchange and forms of dis-embodiment.  The analysis also incorporates an understanding of the intervening structures and processes that intermediate assets through passive diffusion and active innovation of mobile technologies.  On this basis key roles for mobile phones are defined within livelihood strategies.

The second part of the paper revisits the livelihood framework and suggests a number of adaptations that: a) integrate a broader conception of capitals; b) emphasise underlying information processes within livelihoods analysis; c) interpret forms of intermediation; and d) delineate outputs, outcomes and impacts.  Finally, the paper suggests areas of research concerning mobile phones and livelihoods where the revised framework can be applied.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. Why are mobile phones of growing importance to livelihoods in developing countries?  [Parts A+C].
  2. By what means do mobile phones directly impact upon the assets of the poor?  [Part A].
  3. Intermediation of assets can be both "passive" and "active".  How are each of these terms defined in the paper?  [Part B].
  4. Outline the livelihood strategies that mobiles can support.  [Part C].
  5. What are some of the weaknesses in the traditional livelihoods framework for carrying out analysis of the use and impact of mobile phones?  [Part D].

Development questions

  1. Current research suggests both positive and negative impacts of mobile phone use on asset status.  Suggest what some of these impacts are.
  2. The paper suggests that "information is the primary resource upon which mobile phones act".  Why is it important to understand the role of information within livelihoods prior to specifying a role for mobile phones?
  3. Why is the term "passive diffusion" inadequate for understanding innovation processes that involve mobile phones?
  4. Mobile phone networks create new opportunities for livelihood diversification, as well as placing new demands on users.  How is this changing our conception of "capitals" within the livelihoods framework?
  5. Adoption and use of mobile phones is market driven, which gives rise to significant inequalities of access.  How is active innovation being used to overcome inequalities?
  6. What other new opportunities are being opened up for the poor through use of mobile phones, and what do you think are some of the dangers of mobile phone use in this context?