Thursday, September 17, 2009

How Many Mobile Phones Does it Take to Change a Bandage?

Photo: This donkey is more likely to save lives than a mobile phone.

The media never tire of writing self-satisfied articles about how brilliant technology is and how so many things can be done now because of technological advances. No doubt, there have been remarkable advances and we can now do things that were never dreamed of a few decades or even a few years ago.

Despite this, there is an increasing number of poor and undernourished people. Most, if not all the Millennium Development Goals are going to be missed by most developing countries. People are dying of preventable and curable diseases. Yes, preventable and curable. They can be prevented and they can be cured but, for some reason, they are neither prevented nor cured.

There is a whole rash of articles on the use of mobile phones for HIV care and prevention, articles written with all the confidence you would expect of suit-wearing, job-holding academics and consultants. But all these articles appear to be based on anecdote rather than on comprehensive data. You can support adherence, send prevention and health messages, even diagnose diseases and perhaps issue prescriptions.

But that's only if there is some kind of infrastructure available. There's little point in issuing a prescription to people who can't afford the medicine or the trip to the pharmacy or where the pharmacy has run out of supplies or if there's no public transport or if there is no clean water to take pills or...etc, etc. Even where the infrastructure is in place, Kenya is not blessed with adequate numbers of trained health personnel.

I'm not running down technology, I agree mobile phones are great, as are handheld computers, laptops, mobile internet and anything else that can be dreamed up. But ultimately, people also need the basic things that the survival of the human race up till now has depended on.

That's what's missing, food, water, sanitation, basic health, basic education. Missing are the education, health and social service facilities and, more importantly, the trained, skilled and well equipped people who provide services.

All of the health care workers I've met recently have mobile phones. Notably, they are also all volunteers, with very little training. There are not too many people they can call, least of all skilled medical personnel, as they are in very short supply. And if someone calls them late at night, most of them don't even have a bicycle to get to the client. If the client needs to be moved, they might have a wheelbarrow or a cart to get the client to the nearest public transport vehicle. This is not a joke.

There is also a shortage of electricity here and a shortage of money for credit. Many handsets don't work or don't work very well because of the heat and dust or because they are cheap handsets that don't function for very long. True, people can use solar energy to charge their phones but most don't because this particular technology is too expensive.

Mobile services could even be paid for by the state. But the state doesn't provide the few pennies necessary to treat and prevent intestinal parasites that stunt the physical growth and mental development of vast numbers of children every year.

I'm sure people are very happy that we 'can' do all these marvelous things with technology but they'll be a whole lot happier if their immediate needs are attended to, whether they require technology or not.


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