MOBILE PHONES – Leveraging mobile phones to attain sustainable development

by Valentina Rotondi, Ridhi Kashyap, Luca Maria Pesando, Simone Spinelli, Francesco C Billari

PNAS, 1 June 2020 (Open access)


For billions of people across the globe, mobile phones enable relatively cheap and effective communication, as well as access to information and vital services on health, education, society, and the economy. Drawing on context-specific evidence on the effects of the digital revolution, this study provides empirical support for the idea that mobile phones are a vehicle for sustainable development at the global scale. It does so by assembling a wealth of publicly available macro- and individual-level data, exploring a wide range of demographic and social development outcomes, and leveraging a combination of methodological approaches. Macro-level analyses covering 200+ countries reveal that mobile-phone access is associated with lower gender inequality, higher contraceptive uptake, and lower maternal and child mortality. Individual-level analyses of survey data from sub-Saharan Africa, linked with detailed geospatial information, further show that women who own a mobile phone are better informed about sexual and reproductive health services and empowered to make independent decisions. Payoffs are larger among the least-developed countries and among the most disadvantaged micro-level clusters. Overall, our findings suggest that boosting mobile-phone access and coverage and closing digital divides, particularly among women, can be powerful tools to attain empowerment-related sustainable development goals, in an ultimate effort to enhance population health and well-being and reduce poverty.

From main text

…Women’s empowerment and sexual and reproductive rights are essential building blocks in sustainable development strategies. According to UN estimates, in 2017 just over 50% of women between 15 and 49 y of age who are married or in union are able to make their own decisions about consensual sexual relations and make use of contraceptives and health services. The lack of appropriate information and poor connectivity to health services are significant bottlenecks for the uptake of contraceptives. The information and connectivity gap combined with a lack of decision-making power and autonomy has significant implications for the health and well-being of women, as well as that of their children. Improving access to information can play a crucial role in improving sexual and reproductive health, as informed women can make more conscious choices in terms of contraception, protection from sexually transmitted diseases, and antenatal care. Access to reproductive healthcare and information is, however, not easy in remote and poor areas around the world. Mobile phones can be instrumental in narrowing the information gap and in enabling service seeking to people in need. Higher-quality connectivity through mobile phones can also enable lesser-trained care providers to better support their target populations.

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