Immiserating the Poor: We Have An App For That (Social Media vs. the iPhone in Egypt and a Kenyan slum)

Posted on February 11, 2011


As others, I have recently been transfixed by the Economist’s recitation of wondrous examples of:

“Development 2.0”—meaning a mobile-driven transformation of how poor countries develop… the potential of mobile services should not be underestimated. If they take off, they could transform lives and livelihoods, not just by connecting the world’s poor to the infrastructure of the digital economy, but by allowing them to become digital producers and innovators.

So, I was interested in following up on the below as perhaps a useful example of these  magical functionalities.

Can ICT Improve Clean Water Delivery Systems in Slums? Lessons from Kibera CDDRL, PGJ, Program on Liberation Technology, Stanford University

Water is scarce, costly, and contaminated in Kibera, Nairobi — one of Africa‘s largest urban slums. On good days, the women and children spend just under an hour finding clean water in their community. On bad days, the price of water increases tenfold and the search takes all day. Often, people ask jokingly whether it is water or cholera they are buying.

Access to clean water is a significant problem in Kibira, a slum with some 250,000 to 1,000,000 residents (estimates vary wildly) but which has no permanent sewer or water system and with an average daily income of approximately US 1.00. As the population has grown, depending on the time of year and the prevailing weather there may be significant shortages of clean water to the point where:

residents of the slum, which has no public water or sewer system, pay 3 shillings to fill used 20-liter cooking oil jugs with fresh water from a Coke-sponsored well. At a new bathroom Coke is helping to build in the poorest section of the slum, it will cost 2 shillings to use the toilet or the shower. Kimeu buys soft drinks as many as four times a week. It’s not a treat. She’s mostly just thirsty. A seamstress, Kimeu earns about 1,000 Kenya shillings ($12) a week when business is good. At 35 shillings a bottle, the soft drinks consume 14 percent or more of her income.”

The project description goes on:

Many slums like Kibera lack access to clean drinking water, but they don’t lack access to mobile phones. This is the insight behind M-Maji, a start-up non-profit project that uses mobile phones to empower communities with better information about water availability, price, and quality. …

The blog site associated with the project goes on to describe the project and the app which it has produced…

Step 1: At the start of each day, water vendors notify M-Maji …  that they have water to sell, the price they are selling it for, and where they are selling it. They also have the option to advertise the last date of water purification and the results of any recent water testing. All of these vendor notifications from across Kibera are collected and stored in a central M-Maji database in real-time.

Step 2: Water buyers who are searching for water initiate a …session with M-Maji, to generate a location-relevant listing of local water vendors who have notified us that day that they have water to sell, the price they are selling it for, where they are selling it, the date of last purification, and their vendor ratings

Step 3: If a water buyer subsequently finds out that a vendor misreported water availability, price, or quality, the buyer can file a complaint with M-Maji. The database will keep track of complaints and alert future buyers of such negative histories through the use of vendor ratings.

M-Maji is designed to improve access to clean water by empowering residents with better information about water availability, price, and quality. By coordinating and centralizing water information from multiple sources, it provides to users information that might otherwise be unavailable (e.g., through gossip and word-of-mouth). It also does so in a way that is economically sensitive, relying on basic GSM phones that are broadly accessible in slum communities and operating free of cost for users (USSD costs subsidized). Data accuracy is encouraged by the vendor rating system and the M-Maji support team on the ground, who will monitor the quality of our data through regular surveys and random evaluations (for example, through drop-in testing of water quality). Water sources that fail M-Maji tests are clearly red-flagged to alert consumers of contamination.

M-Maji…, by providing better water information to consumers, …might not only reduce the individual burden of finding clean water and increase its uptake, but also equalize water prices across villages of Kibera, making clean water affordable and accessible to larger segments of Kibera’s population.

What I understand is that the system provides for individual cell phone users (those with the financial resources to own and use a cell phone for this purpose) to acquire “information about water availability, price, and quality”. This information will give the subscribers an “information advantage” in being able to locate scarce and expensive water supplies as they are made available by the private water entrepreneurs in Kibera. Those with the cell phone, the app and the skill and knowledge to use these, and importantly the financial means to compete in the marketplace for access to the privatized supply will be able to satisfy their water requirements. As well, if the app works as the designers would like there will be  a group-sourced assessment of the quality statements of the water and the water suppliers.

Of course, helping people to find clean water at a competitive price in an environment where there is overall a water scarcity is a very commendable activity. However, it should be noted that this is precisely the justification that those such as the World Bank and those corporate forces working to privatize water systems globally use as their public justification for attempting to seize and privatize previously public water resources .

Moreover, what I come away with from the description above is not a picture of happy people playing with their iPhones and chatting pleasantries as they meet up with the cheerful water supplier in their neighbourhood. Rather I have images of anxious parents frantically typing queries into their cell phones so as to be the first to access scarce clean water; and then racing to the site and then scrambling and jostling, climbing one over one to be the first in line, for the water promotion of the day offered to the first 5 clients to reach the local water truck.  I also have images of those who for whatever reason don’t win in this mad race or who because of extreme poverty or other reasons can’t make use of the app and participate in this marketplace having to make do with whatever dribs and drabs of water, however impure, that are left over.  In short I have an image of a Hobbesian survival of the fittest hell.

The fundamental problem with all of this comes in the failure to distinguish between the residents of Kibera as consumers using their cell phones and this “shiny app” to pursue their individual consumer dreams, and the residents of Kibera as citizens who could and should be insisting on the availability of water as a right of residence or alternatively developing some community based collaborative approach to responding to the water crisis.

The Nairobi Chronicle, a local newspaper, in a discussion on services in Kibera presents the following:

Clearly, the solution lies in rehabilitating to full capacity all the sources of Nairobi’s water supply. There is need to restore the forests of the Aberdares in order to attract rain and help store water through natural means. It will be necessary to disconnect fresh water supply to flower farms, whose produce anyway does not benefit the ordinary people. The Nairobi Water Company should become more efficient by stopping illegal connections that deny the city of revenues needed in maintaining the water system.

Allowing for a privatized and individualized approach to water provision simply means that those with the resources—to own and use cell phones, to devote time to chasing water suppliers and standing in water queues, and to financially compete for scarce water supplies in the local water marketplace–will be well served and those who don’t have those resources will be left behind and forgotten.

As well, by advantaging those who are the most able – the most technologically sophisticated, the wealthiest, the youngest and the most agile in the community—the possibility of developing community and collaborative strategies for addressing these fundamental issues will be drained away since those most able to respond effectively will have their needs met (and not incidentally as the description boasts, more efficiently and at a better price). If the actions of those immensely brave people demonstrating for democracy in Egypt and Tunisia, teaches us anything it is that major social issues such as the provision of clean and low cost water must be addressed by collective action rather than responding simply to individual actions which by their very nature in this context would be competitive, divisive and collectively disempowering.

The only long term solution to the provision of water in Kibera as a fundamental human right of citizenship is surely not the neo-liberal response of setting up a water “market” (which this app would seem to be enabling).  Rather the solution must be as for many of those who have rejected attempts to impose water privatization from above, the development of means to ensure that there is a public will to provide clean and abundant water for all and not simply those who are privileged whether by locality or by their access to ICTs and this particular ICT app.

As a final observation, what seems to emerge from the above reflections is the way in which much of mobile (Development 2.0) development would appear to be based on individualistic approaches to self-improvement.  What is particularly interesting watching the events in Egypt and Tunisia unfold is the way in which social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter interact with, reinforce and facilitate the creation of solidarity and collaborative/community responses to widely shared issues.

The app culture is one of individuals and individualized approaches.  Apps enable and empower the individual as a consumer, as a communicator, as an information handler.  However, many of the major issues in a developing world (and other) environment are not ones that lend themselves readily to individualized responses or individual solution.  Issues involving citizenship and particularly the rights and responsibilities of citizens including political behaviours and governance, human rights, land rights, water rights and so on are often highly political and highly contentious with huge financial interests involved and where individuals no matter how empowered they may be matter for little against entrenched political power and financial strength.

Many of these latter issues can only truly be addressed through collective—solidaristic—responses and in this, privileging the individual may only serve to empower the already empowered.  What we are seeing with the events in Tunisia and now in Egypt is the role and value of solidarity and how there can be a symbiotic and synergistic relationship between the social connections formed and maintained electronically and the creation of social solidarity in the street for political power and the realization of the collective/universal rights of citizens.

Perhaps the good folks in the Liberation Tech program might consider working on a social media application that would help to organize and empower the people of Kibera to agitate for a general solution to the problem of clean water or even better to organize a community response to the long term issue as for example outlined in the quote from the Nairobi Chronicle above.