Friday, 29 March 2013

More cell-phones than toilets?

A UN study shows that more people have mobile phones than toilets.

This is interesting, but having lived amongst the kind of folk the UN is thinking about, and as someone with some statistical training at tertiary level, I think that the mere observation itself is of quite limited value.

The UN's web-page itself does not explain how they counted someone as having a cell-phone; it only says: "Of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have mobile phones." I find it hard to believe that only one in seven human beings lacks a cell-phone. According to the UN's own statistics (, twice as many human beings as that are not yet 15 years old. The one billion people without cell phones appears to equal the world's population of under-9 year-olds.

So perhaps the statistic means 'people with access to a mobile phone within their immediate family', or something like that. If it only means "mobile phones in existence" then that is very problematic. How many do you have?

Further research shows the same "six billion" figure from the UN in this article - This states that the six billion is registered SIM cards. That includes people with two SIM cards - which is very common indeed outside of the West (dual-SIM phones are the biggest sellers). In Kenya many people had three (I did). Then there's SIM cards in tablets and wireless Internet dongles - and such dongles are again often the most common way of accessing the Internet outside the West (though tablets appear to be generally a Western phenomena so far).

So, from what we can see, this figure appears to have little to do with what it is presented as being - the number of people who have cell phones.

This leaves me wondering how the 2.5 billion people without latrines were counted and what that figure actually corresponds to.

I've learnt by experience that many people without latrines don't have them because they didn't want them. Even people with mobile phones and without latrines. The UN article says that those without were "mostly in rural areas". Those in such areas are also those who can most easily build them - because they have space. In the town, in slums, you only have what your landlord provides - which might be one latrine to 50 people. (Were all 50 of those counted as having access?). But where there's land, you can build as many as you like, and put them out of sight.

Yet, from our experience, many people haven't. Latrines in many remote areas have arrived only when outsiders have arrived and explained their benefits. And experience shows that often people in these areas are much more interested in the latest phone than in improving their sanitation. Ignorance of how disease works is part of this. What can't be seen immediately at work is more difficult to believe in, and hard to explain those without education of if it's going to involve them doing some work. The immediate benefits of phones are clear. Of changing a thousand-year-old toilet habit? Not so much. Another factor is the complex web of human emotions to do with pride, envy and contentment - comparison with neighbours, being looked down upon by other groups, etc. What goes on in there is hard to entangle.

So - concerning the meaning of this statistics, I have many questions and few answers. I'm glad that the UN's article on the subject recognised some of the complexities here - these problems are usually community-dynamic problems, not funding problems.

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