To a Western audience, these headlines in a respected daily newspaper would turn heads and draw jeers.

“Woman rewarded for sparking ‘toilet revolution’ in her village”

“Half of Indian popln defecate in open, but more have mobile”

“Women want mobiles, not toilets, says Ramesh”

To many, they are the signs of impoverished nations, racing along a chaotic track of development.  Perhaps.  The headlines are even sensationalist to a certain degree here, in India (but here, that is why they get published in the newspaper in the first place.)

Upon closer inspection, outside of the sensationalism, I think they illustrate a momentous trend.  Mobile cell phones are transforming lives.

Think back ten or fifteen years ago.  Did you have one of the early model mobile phones?  What did you use it for?  Was it a supplement to your daily life?  A new-fangled, must-have gadget?  A leash for your spouse, parents or children?  Or was it a lifeline, a symbol of your livelihood, a technology with the potential to transform your economic outlook.

To many in the Western world, cell phones complement our daily lives, bringing information to our finger tips, connectivity in remote places to our loved ones, and near constant connection to an interconnected world.  In many developing countries, however, the potential is so much more.

Yes, I can quote impressive numbers of mobile subscribers in India or the growth rate of mobile phone penetration.  I can link to fancy graphs of mobile phone penetration per 100 people or a host of other hard stats, facts, and blurbs – but these astronomical numbers have a hard time conveying  the reality on the ground.  Mobile phones are changing the behavior of millions of people, something that non-profit organizations and NGOs have been trying to do for decades through health and education outreach.

Take the first article mentioned above, “Woman rewarded for sparking ‘toilet revolution’ in her village” published in the Hindustan Times on February 16, 2012.  The first paragraph reads:

“A woman has been rewarded for her “bold” decision to leave her marital home within days of the wedding to protest the lack of a toilet in the household, an official said on Thursday. Anita Narre was handed $10,000 by Sulabh International, a non-profit group, for refusing to defecate in the open and sparking a “toilet revolution” in her village in central Madhya Pradesh, according to the district magistrate.”

This first article isn’t so much about mobile phones, but is here to set the scene.  Extremely traditional values of marriage and the role of a wife are thrown to the wind as she protests at the lack of a toilet in the household.  Often viewed as ‘dirty’ if they are inside a home, the majority of Indians relieve themselves almost at will, anywhere they see fit (its not uncommon, even in Delhi, for cars/scooter to pull off of the road, stop traffic, and go to the bathroom on the sidewalk.)  But I digress…  The barriers of sanitation and hygiene are tough to break – and sometimes its something so counter-cultural, like a wife’s bold decision to leave her husband over the matter that makes a bold enough statement to draw attention.

“Half of Indian popln defecate in open, but more have mobile” – Hindustan Times – March 14, 2012.

“Half the country’s population may not have a toilet at home but they are not without a mobile phone. Bringing to light this feature of the population, Census 2011 data on houses, household amenities and assets released today said 49.8 per cent Indian households defecate in open but in sharp contrast 63.2 per cent households own a telephone connection, 53.2 per cent of them a mobile. The data reflected the controversial remarks of Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh who said recently that women demand mobile phones but they are not demanding toilets.”

This headline may also be an eye opener – but only to Western eyes.  To many in the developing world, this is a no brainer, as mobile phones are one of the first items a family invests disposible income in when they start to move up the economic ladder.

Jonathan Donner, a thought leader in the field at Microsoft Research, explains in a paper in much more detail and eloquence outlined here the power of a mobile for the developing world.

“The burst of connectivity in the developing world during the decade of 2001-2010 has made telecommunications accessible for half the world. This promises to change the configuration of people to each other and to the formal/global economy, which has excluded so many of them. It is going to do so in ways that are tied to social locations as much (if not more) as to economic transactions. Symbolically, blurring reflects and drives societal beliefs about the mobile. The telephone helped shape the economic landscape of the 20th century, reflecting and reinforcing some locations in economic and production networks, while excluding others. Widespread mobile use promises to reduce that exclusion. Yet, for individual users, the mobile it is not merely a symbol of economic development or productivity. Rather, it is one of self-expression, agency, and social connection as well.”

And to tie it all back to toilets, the last article in the Hindustan Times: “Women want mobiles, not toilets, says Ramesh”.

“Sanitation is a much more difficult issue (than telecommunication). Now we are talking of behavioural changes, and women demand mobile phones. They are not demanding toilets. That is the mindset we have.”

The article goes on to state, “Ramesh said that India is a land of paradoxes, as the country accounts for almost 60% of those relieving themselves in the open across the globe – at a time when it has 700 million mobile phones. “(There is) 60% of open defecation in a country which has 700 million mobile phones. ….We build toilets but the toilets are not used.”

I can assure you that those 700 million mobile subscriptions is being used.