Is a mobile phone better than shoes on an African child’s feet?

During my most recent trip to Ruhanga SW Uganda  I was handed a letter by the older sister of  the girls that my friends and I sponsor. The letter was from their mother. In the letter she thanked me for supporting her children, wished me good luck and asked if I could buy her a mobile phone because her last phone had been stolen. At the time of getting her letter I had caught up with the girls and noticed that they had no shoes and had spoken to their teacher about getting a message to their mother so that we could arrange to go shopping. Although the teacher had agreed to arrange this and ask the mother to meet at the school, nothing came of it.

I then had the chance to see the girls’ mother on the last day of term and the issues of shoes came up, she told me she had no money to buy the shoes, I agreed to give her the money for the shoes the following day as I felt this was more important than a mobile phone but she did not turn up to collect it.

I was a little surprised. Did this mother value a mobile phone over shoes on her children’s feet?

I told my travel companion about it and her response-

Ida you are wrong, a mobile is a necessity in this part of Africa

Oh, how so?

Well I have observed that people can order produce by telephone, call village meetings, order a taxi etc and all this activity puts money in people’s pockets. I can’t imagine how hard all that would be without the use of a telephone

Hmmm, did she have a point? I set out to test her views on twitter and these are answers I got back

SwaziSecretsSwaziSecrets@ethnicsupplies No easy answers here – does she need the phone to generate business income for her family? To buy them food?
BeautyofRwandaBeautyofRwanda: no they are not! #OnlyOneBasket@Ethnicsupplies: Are mobile phones more important than shoes on children’s feet in africa?”
TheMumBiTheMumBi: RT @Ethnicsupplies: Are mobile phones mo important than shoes on children’s feet in ? << yes.. mobile phones are access. SHoes depreciate

I asked @TheMumbi if I could explore her view with her. Why did she think access was more important than shoes on a child’s feet?

MumBiMumBi@TheMumBi: @Ethnicsupplies its like having money in the bank vs on hand. Bank.. means officially recognised, access to credit/loans a job vs $ to spend>> there are an extended lifeline and opportunities. People even hire out phones e.g like a public phone.
Saif SiddiquiSaif Siddiqui@SaifSiddiqui@Ethnicsupplies yes. She can rent the fone for an income also. Become a local std office. Microfinance other people through call credit etc

Don’t think me naive, I entirely get it mobile phones have become a lifeline in rural Africa, they offer a window to the outside world and this post is really about getting  a conversation going on the role of mobile phones in the development of rural Africa.

Another point this incident raises is one that anyone involved in development should stop and think about. WHO DECIDES WHAT IS A PRIORITY WHEN IT COMES TO DEVELOPMENT? Do we involve the end user in the planning and development of development programmes or do we simply give them what we think they need and expect them to be grateful? I certainly got caught out on this one. I do promise to get a mobile phone to that mother!

Please do add your voice/views to the conversation!

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. jane Hatton says

    How fascinating Ida! It’s so easy for “us” to think we know what other people need the most – and this is a fantastic example of the assumptions we migiht make. As always, the people who need the help are the best people to know what help is needed. Like you, I would have assumed that shoes for children were a necessity, a mobile ‘phone for the mother a luxury. And here in Britain that would usually be the case. It’s another illustration of how very complex the issue of aid can be.

    Thank you for really challenging my thinking.

  2. says

    Hi Ida, I have to agree with you and Jane on the idea that we should allow those with the need to make the decisions about what it is they need. At the core, it seems we have a need to feel that we know how to best “help” others. However, we seem to forget that we have a limited field of vision. We have problems looking at the problems from the perspective of others. This is a common problem in development projects. Even when we “partner” with others, we often pre-set program structures that restrict us from really carrying out activities that benefit anyone. Whether working with individuals or large groups we need to continually dialogue and confront our assumptions. This story reminds me of some of the problems I’ve seen when designing and delivering training and education programs. We often discount the knowledge that our participants bring with them to a learning situation. Instead of asking the participants about what it is they want to learn, and what it is they already know about a subject, we tend to proceed with teaching and then wonder why it is everyone isn’t pleased with the experience.

    • says

      You raise an interesting point Deb, we often disregard what we can learn from program recipients and don’t ask the right questions either as a result we fail to learn from those that know best so we fail and fail again.

  3. says

    To take @TheMumBi’s point a little further, if you give a consumable, you solve a problem today but run the risk of creating one for tomorrow – I have seen individuals and communities incapacitated by the way that giving can create dependency on that giving. If you donate something that the individual can invest to create a living for herself and her family, that can be an infinitely greater gift. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying you should walk past a starving child, but rather think how can you give in a way that helps her to help herself in the longer term.

    • says

      That one that scares me the most in my work is the possibility that I could create or contribute to that dependency culture. That is the worst thing any of us can do to anyone, the out come is scary.

      On the issue of consumables I wonder if this is partly the reason that diaspora remittances do not make an impact per se as they are mostly given for consumables. Given the value of those remittances I wonder what the development impact would be if there were channelled through investment and not daily consumption
      ethnicsupplies recently posted..Is a mobile phone better than shoes on an African child’s feet?

  4. says

    Ida, the point you make at the end is the most salient for me. WHO determines the priorities is what’s most important. Your willingness to share this story and discuss the underlying attitudes of the “helpers” is important for us all. I also agree with talking with the family about what’s needed for the long-term. The questions we ask and the encouragement we offer are sometimes just as important as the resources we bring.
    You might also appreciate this story about shoes:
    All the best to you in 2012!
    Jennifer Lentfer recently posted..The Year Ends. The Pendulum Swings.

  5. says

    Another couple of true shoe stories that have happened at Ida’s project in Ruhanga –

    Some time ago when we only had about 30 children a volunteer bought all the children shoes who were at school with out any. Next day – kids still barefooted – following day – same – so she went to the homes to investigate -“Oh we are keerping them to wear at Church”…..

    More recently – one of our barefooted children had cut his foot badly and it was going septic. A volunteer cleaned and bandaged it and took him to buy a pair of shoes. I only just heard what followed – the next day several children were seen cutting their feet with the razor blades – (which they expertly use to sharpen their pencils) – in the vain hope that they too would be bought shoes. That is a true story…

    I try very hard to be totally fair and equal to all the children – so for Xmas with donations we managed to buy our 250 children each a sweatshirt (gets cold in the mountains) and a new pair of plastic shoes. I wonder how many will be wearing them next term? Also I do think of the other children in their families and how envious they probably were.

    They were all so excited and it seems that so far the phone culture has not actually reached the Ugandan 6 year olds as it has here in the UK!