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Innovative Way for Poverty Reduction? Income Generation Through Mobile Phones

By Naoko Asano Enomoto

In recent years, mobile phones have become even more popular among the poor in developing regions. Therefore, it is understandable that international organizations such as the World Bank view mobile phones as a new means for income generation for the poor. In this context, I will discuss the possibilities and challenges of job creation through mobile phones based on the article from mWomen posted February 2012.

Picture credit: IDEAS project

With the support of UKaid, World Bank’s infoDev and Nokia’s IdeasProject have launched a global partnership project called “m2Work” as of February 1, 2012. It is now opening a competition, calling for people around the globe to “shape the future of microworks and to make a difference for hundreds of thousands of potential microworkers in developing countries”. Microworks here mean the small packet of digital tasks, such as data inputting from handwritten notes.

Current microworks are mainly for those who have access to personal computers, which are expensive and really on additional infrastructure such as electricity, internet subscription and so on. Yet, m2Work aims to expand microworks to mobile phone users in developing countries, who are estimated to be approximately five billion people, by creating small digital works suitable for common cell phones. Therefore, m2Work is now waiting for ideas to create small digital jobs from February 1to April 2.  Ideas of any stage will be considered during m2Work selection process, from the very initial stage to solid enough to launch. They are offering up to US$20,000 in individual cash prizes as well as business mentorship opportunities for participants with excellent ideas. Through this competition, m2Work is encouraging a global race to innovation, and fostering global discourse centered on job creation for mobile phone users.  The grand prize winner will be announced in the summer.

This article makes me think about issues of income generation through mobile phones. Although the m2Work initiative for creating m-microworks for the poor has just launched, in the business field, we can find some business models for microworks. For example, Amazon’s mechanical turk provides meeting place where people who want to work and people or company who seeks to workforce to get some specific tasks done.

Also, if you see Task Army, you can see lots of posts from freelance workers such as drawing a cartoon portrait, making web surveys etc. In china, zhubajie(猪八戒)  is the largest sites, which offers various microworks in Mandarin.[NA1]  Within the international development community, the idea of microworks through cell phones has attracted the attention of organizations like The World Bank as an innovative method towards poverty reduction. The cartoon of m2Work (I cited above) clearly indicates microworks’ intended recipients are the global poor, using the image of an African rural woman earning “good cash” through mobile phones.  Certainly, mobile-microworks (m-microworks) could potentially allow poor entrepreneurs to earn some cash, being free from constraints of place (wherever), time (whenever) and status (whoever). However, judging from the lessons of past development policies that were based on the idea that there is a strong link between economic growth and poverty reduction we know that this link along does not mean a project will be successful.  There is certainly room for doubting m-microworks. I personally feel that the three benefits (wherever, whenever, and whoever) of m-microworks can also work for increasing the vulnerability of the poor microworkers who are potentially limited and establishing stable or reliable income.

As for the first two benefits of m-microworks, the greater flexibility in time and place makes the issue of workplace safety and compensation difficult to solve. Why so? Unlike the traditional job environment where the workplace is fixed to some extent, the workplace of m-microworks can be different for every worker. Some may do data inputting on the fishing boat while they are waiting for a school of fish, and some may fix the data order while on crowded street of Bangkok. Therefore, it is complicated to draw a fine line for where workplace begins and where it stops.  How will the worker be compensated if something happens to him/her? For example, if a worker suffers Repetitive Strain Injury, after a lot of data inputting, can this be a case for compensation?  There may be a case where employers’ and workers’ environments are across several different countries. In such a case, another challenge will certainly be, which countries’ labor laws and regulations should be applied and followed?

Moreover, it may be true that the flexibility in identification may beneficial, especially for those who have been discriminated against in employment, because of sex, race or age, for example. Yet, the loose identification can allow school-aged children to work. For instance, parents might force their children to work through mobile phones instead of going to school.  Also, the loose requirement for microworkers may raise the issue of the status of employment.  In general, jobs that require weaker identification would go to independent contractors rather than regular employees. From employers’ perspective, independent contractors require lesser legal responsibility than regular employees, and can be a cheap and convenient labor force.

To summarize, at this moment when the rights and protection for m-microworkers are not clear, the state of microworkers is still unstable, because, employers have greater discretionary power over workers. This can lead to serious labor exploitation when it comes to microworks for the poor who live on limited means and have little choice for employment. In order to make the situation envisioned by m2Work come true, not only innovative business ideas and models are needed; innovative business and work ethics must receive comparable attention and planning.

How do you see that microworks for mobile phone can potentially bring poverty reduction?


“InfoDev taps job-creation potential of mobile phones”, article by Julia Burchell, mWomen posted on February 2012 (exact date is not specified)

m2Work, official website:

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