The cell phone represents the most radical transformation in communication technology for the masses since... well, who knows when. Mobiles are a BFD, and they’re everywhere. However, I’m sometimes surprised that international development professionals designing program plans don’t always recognize this new world. Based on the lived realities of citizens in their target countries, proposals for future work should always use current communication tools in their plans of reaching and working with their intended audiences.
Any family with a mobile phone in has seen life change in a significant way. In almost all countries, that’s a very high percentage of families. Southern Sudan has the world’s rock-bottom rate of cell penetration at about 17% of individuals, but even that number masks a much higher number of households.
We’re never about tech for tech’s sake, but everyday patterns of life have changed around the world, and it’s incumbent on those designing programs to make sure that they are thinking about the ways people interact with each other today. More than that, mobile and internet adoption is growing exponentially; if you’re designing a program that will start next year and go for another three, think about what the tech median will be by the time things get rolling.
Of course, there are still lots of people, even in the most sophisticated countries, who are not making use of mobile technologies or the internet. (Hi dad!) Good program design should make sure not to ignore such individuals; what’s appropriate will depend as always on who your target audience is. In most programs, there’s a bevy of communications channels, so one needs to ensure that the plan can also reach those without more sophisticated systems. However, if core components of your target audience are using cell phones or social media and you only try to reach them with methods in use 20 years ago your project will look hopelessly fuddy-duddy to these more technologically fluent folks.
Simply duplicating what’s been done before is missing out on tremendous opportunities for communicating effectively or reaching new audiences for your goals. What’s more, donors understand this new reality; while they may at times obsessively focus on certain Hot New Things, they are more likely to fund your programs if they know that you know how people in the target countries communicate today.
If you find yourself hitting Ctl-C / Ctl-V too often, you’re doing it wrong. Make sure you’re as up-to-date as the citizens you’re hoping to empower.