Cargo Cults And Mobile Phones In Africa
By Mike Masnick, Wed Sep 22 23:30:00 GMT 2004

Some African leaders have decided that they can lift nations out of poverty if they just had more mobile phones. They might be better served trying to solve more fundamental issues first.


The concept of Cargo Cults has been around for a while. It's used to describe a few different groups of natives in the South Pacific who became a bit confused following World War II. During the war, they saw the military use their islands for air drops and base stations. After the war ended, they wanted to keep the "cargo" coming, even though the foreign military forces had all left. Realizing that the cargo came when those foreigners did certain things, they copied everything they remembered, setting up mock airstrips, building airplanes out of straw and even wearing wooden headphones in control towers that communicated with no real planes. The end result, of course, was that the cargo didn't come. The islanders copied what they saw, but never understood what was really happening.

You can't help but wonder if something similar (though, obviously, to a much lesser scale) is happening in Africa, as a group of African leaders are trying to build up a global fund to buy more mobile phones, noting that, "there are more telephones in Manhattan than in all Africa." There are reasons for that, but assuming that mobile phones automatically lead to better economic conditions rather than the other way around, is missing the bigger picture.

There are plenty of problems in various African nations. Better access to technology can clearly help solve certain problems, but only as part of a larger effort to solve the root causes of poverty on the continent. Using mobile phones and better Internet access as a small component of a larger campaign to deal with poverty makes sense, but this plan appears to be entirely separate. Even as such, there are better ways to handle such things. Witness situations in Bangladesh and India, where mobile phones were given to the poor, but as part of an effort to have them create their own businesses selling cheap mobile phone calls. Those who received the phones still had to pay for them, but in selling use of the phone they are able to make the money needed to pay for the phone, earning some money on their own, and also increasing their own neighborhoods' or villages' ability to communicate with others.

Solving the issues associated with poverty is no simple thing. However, getting down to the core issues that created so much poverty involves figuring out ways to help people get to a level where they can support themselves. It's not about just giving them enough mobile phones to match Manhattan. That's just like waiting for cargo to fall from the sky, wearing a set of wooden headphones.