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"The darkest secret of this country, I am afraid, is that too many of its citizens imagine that they belong to a much higher civilization.... This state of mind allows too many of us to lie and cheat and steal from the rest of us, to sell us junk and addictive poisons and corrupting entertainments. What are the rest of us, after all, but sub-human aborigines?"
—Kurt Vonnegut, in "Bluebeard"

Melinda Gates looks at the bright side of cellphones. The corporate side.

Cellphones are rapidly spreading through less developed countries. That they've spread so fast, largely through business rather than through aid, offers some insight into the driving forces of social change.

The title of Gates's article is about helping poor women. Her hard data is all about corporations helping themselves.

They will bring many obvious benefits, though the endlessly-repeated mantra that farmers with a cellphone can get better prices for their crops is probably more sales hype than reality — a great many other factors are at work in that arena.

Cellphones will also bring to poor communities the same problems they bring to wealthier ones, and often with less awareness: Two-year-old child become addicted to screens, teenagers lose sleep because they don't want to miss a message, college students grow afraid of face-to-face conversation, inexperienced drivers look at the wrong thing at the wrong time, adults forget work as they check Facebook.(1) That's not all. In regions with weak policing, kidnappers have found that cellphones and digital banking solve an annoying headache: How do you collect ransom money without putting yourself at risk?(2)

Those who promote cellphones as a tool of development don't advocate these uses, of course. They rarely even mention the downsides. They want women and poor farmers to have cellphones. But if you were a young mother at home with three children, one of them bawling and another about to, and you need to get the laundry done and then you would really like to sit down and close your eyes for two minutes, and you've got a little black box that will immediately make the children quiet and happy and you have no idea that spending hours with the black box might not be good for the kids' mental development.... what would you do?

A portrait of misery

Cellphones will spread regardless of such questions. But not fast enough for Melinda Gates. In April 2015, the New York Times published her article: "Cellphones for Women in Developing Nations Aid Ascent From Poverty,"(3) illustrated with a photo supplied by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Microsoft, the source of Melinda Gates's wealth and of her ability to get her opinions into the New York Times,(4) was struggling that month with its recent acquisition of Nokia, the mobile phone company. Later in April the tech giant warned that its "goodwill" from the Nokia deal might be far less than the $5.46 billion originally announced. This might seem like an obvious conflict of interest for someone pushing cellphones, but neither Gates nor the Times saw fit to mention it.

A picture of abject misery — which only cellphone banking can relieve

The Gates article begins: "Here is what life is like for a woman with no bank account in a developing country. She keeps her savings hidden — in pots, under mattresses, in fields. She constantly worries about thieves. She may even worry about her husband taking cash she has budgeted for their children's needs. Sending money to a family member in another village is risky and can take days. Obtaining a loan in an emergency is often impossible."

Further miseries are documented through another paragraph. We asked several women in a developing country, of varying ages, if this described their life. We got looks of miscomprehension. "Oh, no, I'm very happy!" was a typical reply.(5)

Perhaps, but she needs to check in with Melinda Gates about whether she ought to be so happy. Gates writes: "Women make up half the population. So it is obviously a huge wasted opportunity whenever women are isolated from the economy." And, she adds, it will be pretty good for the companies selling those cellphone services, too.

Indeed. The on-line New York Times version of Gates's article includes five links to sources:

1. "In low- and middle-income countries, a woman is 21 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than a man."

Here she's looking at market potential, not the impact on cellphone owners. The statement links to "Women and Mobile — A Global Opportunity."(6) This report was issued by the GSMA which "represents the interests of the worldwide mobile communications industry," plus a foundation and consulting firm. The report's Executive Summary begins with the bold-type headline: "300 Million Fewer Female than Male Subscribers: A US$13 Billion Opportunity". A bit later it suggests a $29 billion opportunity over a five-year period. As with all the GSMA reports, this one makes no pretense of weighing the full impact of cellphone use: The word "benefit" appears 80 times, usually as "social benefit" or "benefit to women"; there is no discussion of any possible downsides.

2. Women "tend to invest more in the health and well-being of their families — as much as 10 times more."

With language like this, Gates could update the next edition of How To Lie With Statistics. She paints an extreme figure in the reader's mind ("10 times more"!) but on inspection, there's nothing there. Perhaps the correct number is 2 times less. We don't think that's right either; the point is, Gates doesn't even have a real statistic, all she has is an ailing mobile phone company and an accommodating contact at the New York Times. We expect hyperbole like this in ads for a new energy drink, not in honest inquiry.

As a source for her statement, Gates cites an article in Science magazine. The author is: Melinda Gates. And she simply makes the same statement.(7)

Why does Melinda Gates have so much trouble backing up her assertions?

3. "A child born in a household where the mother controls the family budget is 20 percent more likely to survive — and much more likely to thrive."

This cites a Gates Foundation blog(8) which merely says the same thing; the blog gives sources for another statistic but not for this one. It's entirely plausible that women might spend their money on more family-oriented things than men do, but it's not a self-evident conclusion. If these assertions are true, why does Gates have so much trouble backing them up? And in any case, might we consider the possibility of letting these men and women work it out themselves? If Melinda Gates claims a right to intervene with her proposed solution wherever a family isn't doing what she thinks is best (and remember, she hasn't produced one whit of evidence that she actually knows what is best), there is plenty of room for action in the U.S.A. But if she walked into an American home and started busting the excess whiskey bottles, there'd be trouble. If she rearranges the African economy, she's a hero.

4. "Closing the mobile phone gender gap could open a $170 billion market to the mobile industry alone over the next five years."

This comes from another GSMA report.(9) Cellphone investors will be tickled to see how dramatically this number has grown since the first footnote. When there's that much food on the table, you don't waste time on a careful census; you elbow your way to the front of the line.

5. "After a Somali mobile money service... began using female staff members to register female customers, women rose to 24 percent of the company's customer base from 17 percent in just one year.

This cites a third GSMA report.(10) We don't dispute this; no doubt they are right on the money.

Nowhere does Gates look at the downsides of cellphone use, and whether countries might benefit from more time to adapt to the changes that this technology will bring. Nor does she mention issues of security. Target, J.P. Morgan, and the Director of the CIA haven't been able to keep information secure in the United States. Will a bank in Somalia really do better?(11)

If we really want to "empower" people, might we consider the possibility of sometimes letting them work things out for themselves?

The question we ask is not whether cellphones, with all their benefits and all their hidden costs, will be good for a woman in Mali. The question is, who should decide that, and how should it be decided? Melinda Gates approaches the issue with an unmentioned financial interest; a family bias in favor of technology solutions; a hazy and paternalistic misunderstanding of what life is like for poor women; a desire to conclude that they are miserable and need a solution from her; and a determination to ignore the downsides of the technology she pushes. Why do she and the New York Times believe her opinion on the subject should carry so much weight?

Instead of pushing cellphones, why not set the goal that people in less developed countries should have the knowledge, the political power, and the right, to decide such things for themselves?

When a country commits genocide, many of us would recognize a moral imperative for other countries to intervene — though too often they do not, that's a nasty job and somebody might get hurt. But somewhere, surely, there is a threshold at which intervention becomes meddling. Cellphones will arrive. Meanwhile, if there is a poor woman in Mali who doesn't yet pay a monthly fee to a mobile phone company, is that so terrible? Is it, in fact, really any of Melinda Gates's business?

Notes and Sources

1. These consequences of the cellphone age have all been widely reported. To take just one recent example, the New York Times carried a story on 13 Oct. 2015, " Compulsive Texting Takes Toll on Teenagers," about a study which found that girls were 4 times as likely as boys to engage in compulsive texting; it also found that "unlike girls, boys in the study who were compulsive texters were not at risk of doing poorly in school." Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation, documents many of these behaviors through her own interviews; she also provides extensive footnotes for studies that show how addictive cellphone use affects behaviour of children, parents, students, and workers. As for bad drivers getting worse: If you won't believe this unless we can cite a study, then you won't believe it even if we do. (back)

2. The Bangladesh Daily Star reported in 2013 that the Police Department got 10-12 complaints a day about demands for extortion or ransom to be paid via mobile money transfer services. In London, the Independent reported that "Twitter, social networking sites, pay-as-you go mobile phones and on-line banking all aid gangs seeking ransom money or revenge." This aspect of mobile banking hasn't been mentioned much in the media. Have a couple of newspapers just blown it out of proportion? We really don't know; it did seem worth a mention. (back)

3. "Cellphones for Women in Developing Nations Aid Ascent From Poverty," New York Times, 2 April 2015 (back)

4. If you have a better theory about why Gates is able to get articles of dubious quality published in so many high-end places, ahead of writers with far more experience and sharper reasoning, please let us know. The Gates Foundation is not shy about using its money to get the coverage it wants. The Seattle Times has asked "Does Gates funding of media taint objectivity?" That story notes that the foundation spends $1 billion a year on "advocacy and policy," churning out endless material for the media, and that "experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from the New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin." (back)

5. This is similar to a World Bank report which showed that its staff greatly misjudged the people it was trying to serve, imagining a much greater need for themselves than was actually the case. See our story Pygmalion and Golem. (back)

6. "Women and Mobile - A Global Opportunity." This 57-page report gives no publication date, not even a year. There are many references to 2009 data, and none after that, suggesting that it was issued in 2010, but the URL includes the year 2013. (back)

7. "Putting women and girls at the center of development," by Melinda French Gates, Science magazine, 12 Sept. 2014. There, she gives four sources for her claim. One is a 371-page World Bank report available only to members and we aren't a member. Two were published in 1995 and 1997, also not readily available. The fourth is E. Duflo, "Women's empowerment and economic development." No page citation was given for this 44-page PDF; searching for the word "invest," the only passage of relevance that we found was: "Micro-credit schemes, for example, have been directed almost exclusively at women, because, it is argued, women invest the money in goods and services that improve the well-being of families, in goods that are conducive to development." In other words, it's hearsay. (back)

8. Gates Foundation blog, 12 October, 2014 (back)

9. "Connected Women 2015, Bridging the gender gap: Mobile access and usage in low and middle-income countries." The report notes that "The GSMA Connected Women Global Development Alliance is a programme in partnership with Australian AID [and] USAID." In our opinion, if these taxpayer-supported programs wish to claim they are providing aid to poorer countries, they should sponsor objective research about what will really help people in those countries, rather than reports about how much profit their own corporations can make by pushing their goods. (back)

10. "Reaching half of the market: Women and mobile money," Sept. 2014. This report, like the 2015 report, was prepared "in partnership with" Australian AID and USAID; it was "supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MasterCard Foundation, and Omidyar Network." (back)

11. Not surprisingly, many varieties of cellphone fraud are already widely reported. Typically the individual amounts are small by Western standards, but not to the people involved. Getting responsive action is no easier dealing with an African mobile carrier than with an American or British carrier. And, in fact, while Vodacom is referred to as a South African company, majority ownership is held by Vodafone in the U.K. Bloomberg Business covered one common scam in "Hackers Target AT&T to Vodacom in SIM-Card Scam," by Jordan Robertson, 7 Oct. 2013: "At wireless carriers such as AT&T Inc. and South Africa’s Vodacom Group Ltd., a new hacking threat has emerged.... Criminals call users and impersonate the companies to glean personal information, which they use to hijack the chips and customer accounts, paving the way for online banking fraud and international calling theft." It quotes a security consultant saying that "It will evolve into something bigger. At the moment you have some guys getting a low to medium yield with some tricks, and it will dawn on them they could do more." (back)