One of the most striking things about the mobile phone is its universality. You see the same phone, same make and model, in the hands of Ethiopian tribesmen, Himalayan herders, and Pakistani kids. It’s easy, sometimes too easy, for us to confuse the possession of mobile phones with the kind of social and political freedoms that only come with a stable government. For our current work in Iraq (on the Children’s Happiness Poll, a UNICEF project in collaboration with ThoughtWorks, Primus, DevSeed, and ZAIN Iraq), this appears far from true. It may be the same phone, but it’s a completely different world.

For example, we recently gathered a group of 25 kids just out of Iraq and asked some of them to submit answers to a survey question on a mobile phone. We asked them about their level of happiness, what stopped them from being happy, and how they felt their lives would compare to their parent’s lives. Pretty innocuous, right? The response:

  • They demanded to know where these messages were going and who would be reading them.
  • They did not feel comfortable sharing their answers even with other children in the group.
  • They were not convinced that the teacher would tell them everything they needed to know about the exercise.
  • The last question elicited conversations about the future, which were permeated with uncertainty and loss of control. While they had tangible hopes for their lives, theses hopes were couched in the sober belief that they were at the mercy of events beyond their control.
  • Kids as young as 8 years old focused on problems of racism, religious strife, and personal security.

Even in these kids, arguably some of the most fortunate in the country, we see a generation of fear and mistrust in the making. We’ve seen projects live and die by the trust that exists between its members. What does it mean for a country when the kids no longer trust the schools, the institutions – even a cell phone?

It is easy for us in the West to take for granted the securities that our governments will uphold for us. We expect that our emails are private. We announce our opinions and beliefs in online forums, confident that doing so will not put ourselves or our families in danger. We text passwords and opinions freely, and it doesn’t matter to us that we’re leaving a digital trail of our thoughts on the phone and with the operator.  Yet, for some people, in some countries, the digital cloud is no refuge from the war outside.

But I’m not here to paint a hopeless picture. Rather, my point is that we need to be aware of these considerations and be respectful and doubly creative in our innovations. For instance: in this project, the students will be sharing the facilitator’s phone, so that they don’t have to reveal their own, or their parent’s, numbers. We originally wanted our participants to submit photos of themselves, but it quickly became obvious that that was a risk many were not comfortable with (particularly women). We don’t force kids to critique. We don’t record names. We don’t ask for political affiliations.

Hopefully, it won’t always be this way. Hopefully this is just one step in fostering a citizenship which is more vocal, better connected, and empowered to use the best tools available in order to mobilize for change.