Dr Amanda Watson is a communication researcher and trainer with expertise in new communication technology for developing nations.

Could mobile telephony be harnessed for development in Papua New Guinea?

As Danielle Cave has pointed out, mobile phone uptake has increased rapidly throughout the Pacific in very recent years. In PNG, mobile phone coverage has extended greatly since the introduction of competition into the sector in mid-2007. To this day, landline phone service is essentially limited to urban centres. Despite urbanisation, a huge percentage of PNG people live in rural areas. Thus, the mobile phone is for many the only available modern communication tool. While affordability has remained a challenge, the tool has been embraced as people enjoy the benefit of being able to contact relatives living away from the home village.

As one commentator has remarked, 'the international-development community is having a love affair with the mobile phone'. It is wise to be cautious about any technology solving all woes. Indeed, previous technologies such as radio broadcasting, television and video did not live up to the hopes of development theorists and practitioners. But mobile phones enable two-way communication, whereas previous technologies allowed only one-way broadcasting. And compared to landline telephones, fax machines, computers and so on, the mobile phone is portable and relatively cheap.

This means the mobile phone is seen as having the potential to directly assist poor people, particularly those in remote or isolated locations. Trials around the world have shown the potential for strategic mobile phone interventions to improve health and education, as well as in the lives of women and other disadvantaged groups.

Commentators have suggested the use of mobile phones for mHealth applications in the Pacific region. Telemedicine is one type of mHealth, and a pilot project was recently launched in Milne Bay Province to test its effectiveness in PNG. It is hoped this province-wide research project will give direction and guidance to the funder and others about the use of telemedicine in PNG. Another free-call line related to maternal health in PNG is the Susu Mamas Hotline. Other community service hotlines in PNG include the BAHA line for information on HIV/AIDS and the Famli Seif Line for domestic violence cases.
 
Receptiveness to the use of mobile phones for development in PNG is high. Mobile operators are open to M4D projects ('mobile phones for development'), and development sector organisations are also expressing interest in M4D, though most projects are only in the idea phase. Non-government organisations are keenly thinking discussing M4D, but their concerns include costs for the end user, the cost for the organisation, and the problem of charging mobile phone batteries in locations with no mains electricity supply.

Non-government organisations and church agencies of various sizes and issues of concern want to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the expansion of mobile phone networks in PNG. However, most do not have the technical capacity or understanding to implement the projects they envisage. Others are not sure of what is technically possible.

As Danielle Cave has suggested, a coordinated approach to the use of mobile phones in development could be beneficial. It may also be that there is a role for a funder to provide enabling support such as technical advice, relationships with providers and perhaps even funding. Such support could bring into being project ideas that have the potential to benefit disadvantaged or marginalised people in PNG or other Pacific nations.

Photo by Flickr user Butterfly Works Social Campaigns and Learning. A longer version of this post will be published in the next edition of Contemporary PNG Studies: DWU Research Journal.