How mobile connectivity will help the global middle class transform society.

A patient shows off her mobile phone, which holds her prescription. PharmAccess Foundations/Wikipedia Commons CC BY 2.0

By Ron Leung | August 23, 2016

The new middle class in developing countries has grown tremendously in the past decade and will likely play a central role in shaping society and governance.

Alongside this growth has been the expansion of mobile Internet connectivity and the declining cost of smartphones, both of which have reignited expectations of e-governance.

At present, emphasis is being placed on mobility and m-governance, as much of the new middle class will connect online via mobile devices rather than traditional desktop or laptop computers. The successes and experiments under way suggest this mobile revolution will transform governments as much as it is transforming economies.

Sizing the revolution

The new middle class is estimated to have doubled to 1bn in the past decade, a figure that is expected to double again over the next ten years.  At the same time, the Internet has become mobile and moved into the ‘cloud’.

Growth of the New Middle Class
Growth of the New Middle Class

The Delma Institute, 2016

Since Apple and Google introduced their first smartphones, the number of these devices has grown from 8.5m in 2007 to 3.2bn mobile broadband subscriptions in 2015. And, in developing countries, more than five times as many people access the internet from their mobile devices than from traditional fixed lines. Last year, more than 2.2bn internet users came from developing countries, with an additional 3bn expected by 2020.

These macro trends represent a major opportunity to transform governance.

From e-government to m-government

Optimism and new ideas on government (boosted by euphoria over the Internet) arrived in the form of e-government, the plans for which included a myriad of promises for improving effectiveness and productivity. More importantly, e-government also included visions of novel ways for governments to interact with citizens, opening new avenues in civic engagement and transparency. In turn, this was expected to reduce corruption, strengthen accountability, and accelerate overall economic growth. However, these promises were only partially fulfilled and, in the late 2000s, stalled. A 2009 McKinsey article stated: “Despite the continued allocation of enormous resources, progress on the e-government front appears to have plateaued over the past few years.”

In developing countries, one key barrier was the low rate of Internet penetration. But little did e-government advocates foresee how rapidly this would change in the following five years – the mobile revolution connecting 2bn people in the developing world. Nor did they foresee the explosion of mobile applications and platforms directed at improving people’s lives and communities.

Prospects and experiments

The new m-government provides an unprecedented opportunity for economic and political inclusion in developing countries. Initial success, coupled with the large number of initiatives under way, suggests the mobile revolution in governance will be much broader and more enduring than that imagined for e-government. For instance, in many developing countries, petty corruption and economic informality are day-to-day problems faced by the middle class and directly addressed by m-governments.

Benefits of Mobile Government
Benefits of Mobile Government

Source: The Delma Institute, 2016

Civic engagement
The Philippines’s VoteReportPH project, created in 2009, allowed citizens to report voting irregularities (and vote rigging) via social media and email. In Tbilisi, Georgia, the ‘Fix My Street’ app allows users to map street problems onto an open platform that connects with the local government. In Indonesia, officials are piloting a programme called ‘e-Prosperity for the Poor’ that has established community development centres to help poor and rural communities access the internet and improve their access to basic public services.

Daily local services
Like many developing countries, Kenya has long grappled with inefficiencies in government service delivery, characterised by bureaucratic holdups, petty corruption, and a lack of transparency and accountability. In recent years, the government has rolled out a number of programmes to tackle these problems. At the local level, residents and businesses can pay for council parking, rental properties, business permits, land rates, and construction permits. This reduces petty corruption as citizens and businesses can submit forms, pay directly, and receive official documentation online.

Public health and healthcare
In India, a number of initiatives have been launched to deliver healthcare to rural, underserved populations lacking public services, with the government exploring mobile-based solutions to connect these communities with healthcare workers and doctors. This need is especially acute where specialised knowledge is required, such as in diagnosing cancer and monitoring patients.

Digital identities and political inclusion
The capability of a government to deliver public services is contingent on its ability to identify its citizens, residents, and businesses. However, this has presented a major challenge in many developing countries. In 2014, half the population of sub-Saharan Africa did not have official identification documents, leading to their exclusion from basic services such as healthcare and education. Moreover, women without official identification often cannot legally obtain divorces or exert property rights. However, the rollout of biometric technologies in mobile devices and platforms has lowered the costs of creating digital official identities, thus making them affordable for developing countries.

More m-government and more local

Governments in developing countries are transforming themselves through mobile technology, bringing their services to the underserved; communities that include those with middle-class incomes as well as those with aspirations to join the middle class in the coming decade. Moving to mobile means governments are on the cusp of an unprecedented expansion in terms of political and economic inclusion. In doing so, they will become much more local and offer more granular delivery of services to their citizens.

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