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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mobile Phones Outnumber Toilets in Developing Countries

President Obama has just completed a trip to India, one purpose of which was to shore up opportunities for US businesses to expand in a way that would benefit US workers. Organizations doing business in India are most apt to interact with the well-educated, English-speaking middle and upper classes, but it is important to remember that there is a huge underclass in India--an enormous (and still rapidly growing) segment of the population that lives on only a few dollars a day. As in much of the developing world, their scope in life is enhanced a bit by the now ubiquitous mobile phone, and ahead of the President's visit to India, it was reported that there are more cell phones in India than there are toilets. Data from UN-Habitat suggest that this is probably true in every developing country. Communication is an important part of modern life, but people also need public health and education (both of which require huge investments in infrastructure) if their lives are to materially improve. Mobile phones get around some of the infrastructure requirements of land lines, just as bottled or other packaged water gets clean drinking water into the hands of people without a huge water piping project. But that should not lull us into believing that all infrastructure problems are readily solved in this way.  


  1. I think it is a great paradox that it is more mobile phones in India than toilets when we do now how important it is for improving health and stall sickness to have a good sanitation system. Before we could manage in the the daily live without a cell phone but now even in the poorest slums in the world people can´t manage without them. What has really happend? Has the world gone crazy or is this the cost of globalization? Is it not more important to use resources to give poor people a good sanitation system and clean drinking water? I can understand that people want the newest technology and want to get connected to the rest of the world and the cell phone is unique because it gives you the opportunity in areas which have no telephone lines or internett connections but there is surtenly something wrong with society when people do not have toilets which I will describe as a basic to call it society but do have cell phones. The mobile producers and operators are some of the wealthies companies in the world. What if they could provide a share of the profit to buildt toilets for the poor?

  2. Thank you for your post and providing this perspective. I have responded in my post,
    Cell Phones in Developing Countries

  3. Paul, I think one of the main points of mobile technology in developing countries is that it develops the economy to the point that toilets can become commonplace. It's microfinance

  4. I would be willing to bet that a good number of people in developing nations may prefer the ability to be connected with their loved ones and being able to establish new connections and conduct business on the cell phone over having more public toilets. Not to say that they wouldn't also like to have better sanitation, but they may put more value in social relations than convenience if they are currently getting by with out facilities. It may and does take governments a long time and a substantial amount of capital to be able to provide waste management infrastructure. Installing cell phone towers however are not as costly. When I was working on a sustainable development project in Honduras i did notice people in rural areas have cell phones and live pretty much in shacks. Cell phones were a god send since the mountainous region made it difficult to install lines out there.
    It is noteworthy however on another sustainable architecture project in Panama we installed a compostable outhouse where the waste was directed into a bucket where sawdust was applied and placed on the fields as fertilizer. This was environmentally sustainable. The family was pretty emphatic that they were going to remove it after we left and install a flushable toilet or even just a toilet that didn't flush, but you could dump water to wash down the waste because they said they wanted a nice bathroom like the tourists in the city have. This was progress to them. I will always remember that perceptions and values are not universal.