Leveraging mobile phones to attain sustainable development

Rotondi, Valentina and Kashyap, Ridhi and Pesando, Luca Maria and Spinelli, Simone and Billari, Francesco C. (2020) Leveraging mobile phones to attain sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117 (24). pp. 13413-13420.

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Although mobile phones have diffused rapidly even in remote parts of the world with otherwise poor infrastructure, digital divides persist. This study provides large-scale evidence that the expansion of mobile phones is associated with lower gender inequalities, higher contraceptive use, and lower maternal and child mortality, with bigger payoffs among the poorest countries. Micro-level analyses further show that the ownership of mobile phones has narrowed the information gap about reproductive and sexual health and empowered women to make independent decisions. Boosting mobile-phone access and coverage and overcoming digital divides within and among the poorest countries has immense implications for sustainable development. Findings from this study speak to scholars and policymakers interested in the effect of technology on sustainable development goals.For billions of people across the globe, mobile phones enable relatively cheap and effective communication, as well as access to information and vital services on health, education, society, and the economy. Drawing on context-specific evidence on the effects of the digital revolution, this study provides empirical support for the idea that mobile phones are a vehicle for sustainable development at the global scale. It does so by assembling a wealth of publicly available macro- and individual-level data, exploring a wide range of demographic and social development outcomes, and leveraging a combination of methodological approaches. Macro-level analyses covering 200+ countries reveal that mobile-phone access is associated with lower gender inequality, higher contraceptive uptake, and lower maternal and child mortality. Individual-level analyses of survey data from sub-Saharan Africa, linked with detailed geospatial information, further show that women who own a mobile phone are better informed about sexual and reproductive health services and empowered to make independent decisions. Payoffs are larger among the least-developed countries and among the most disadvantaged micro-level clusters. Overall, our findings suggest that boosting mobile-phone access and coverage and closing digital divides, particularly among women, can be powerful tools to attain empowerment-related sustainable development goals, in an ultimate effort to enhance population health and well-being and reduce poverty.

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