Yes, poor people have mobile phones


The moment I spot the mobile phone I flash a look at our photographer. It says “Uh-oh, can we get that out of there?  If not physically, then at least out of the shot? I totally forgot about mobile phones…”

Then I continue to forget about mobiles because #otherfishtofry and clearly Alex doesn’t read the look, because when I check the photos later, there it is, in most of the pictures. The mobile. And this is a problem.

Because here’s the thing, folks: ‘poor people’ don’t have mobile phones. And since we’re in West Timor shooting footage and film to encourage people to get behind projects that support said ‘poor people’, the presence of this contradictory, offensive mobile phone means we’re in trouble.

Why don’t poor people have mobiles? Because they’re poor, obviously! Poor people should fulfil a range of criteria – brown skinned, humble, and definitely (tragically) without Nice Things Like Technology.

Most people in West Timor live on less than $2 a day. Yet in spite of their very significant poverty, many of them have mobiles, and this is true of people in most developing (and developed) countries. More than half of India’s sprawling population own phones – more in fact than own toilets. In the US, growing and grinding poverty is a massive problem, but people will go without food before they give up their phones.

Ok then, goes the logic. These people can’t need our help too badly.

Here’s where our understanding of poverty shows up in all its frailty.

It takes relatively little to own and maintain a resource like a mobile phone – you outlay the cost, pay a bill. But the impact is immediate and ongoing – from life-giving relationships, to staying safe, having access to vital information and being able to bank or trade easily. On the other hand, changing major structures like access to electricity, education and employment takes time and major investment.

In West Timor, I watched a man with virtually no sight, who works as a masseur, use his voice-activated mobile to line up clients in Kupang. Thanks to a low-interest loan that helped build up his business, he earns around $5 a day which has totally changed his life, but he still draws his water from a well next to the house.

There’s no doubt that the poorer, more desperate we think people are, the better we feel about giving to them. But does this make sense?

It’s a source of unending pain to me that many of us only give once the pictures of Africa’s starving children or the Pacific’s floating bodies are all over our television screens. It’s as though people are not really ‘poor’ or ‘desperate’ enough in this world to warrant our attention or generosity until they’re actually dead, or near death. And yet, if we invested just a layer above – at those who own the mobile phones and are starting to make their way in the world, no matter how difficult it might be – we could save hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of dollars. Shouldn’t this sheer numbers return on investment make us feel better about our giving than simply how tragic the situation is at the time?

In fact, every dollar invested before a disaster can save $15 after tragedy strikes. It is far cheaper to help protect people from the crushing poverty that makes them vulnerable to disaster, war and disease than it is to help them recover afterwards. Proper investment in the lives of people in South Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and throughout the Horn of Africa three years ago could have prevented what’s now being described as the greatest food threat since 1945.

Through a partnership with UnitingWorld and the local church in West Timor, 135,000 families have already been assisted using small loans to build lives for themselves that are meaningful and dignified.

By anyone’s standards, they’re still poor. But investing in these communities is about looking ahead and creating a whole society of people more likely to resist disease, conflict, radicalisation and the impact of changing climate, including devastation from natural disaster.

Right now, UnitingWorld is eligible for special funding that recognises our development expertise and the generosity of our donors. For every $5 we can access, we must raise at least $1 in supporter donations. In effect, this means gifts from Uniting Church people are six times more useful to us in the field, combined with Australian aid funding.

Please consider supporting strong, capable and creative people who can use your donation right now, combined with Australian aid funding, to create six times the impact beating poverty in West Timor, Bali and Zimbabwe. You can even donate straight from your mobile phone.


Cath Taylor works for UnitingWorld.

Call 1800 998 122 or for more information.

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