Sustainable Development

More than just a phone: mobile’s impact on sustainable development

An indigenous Brazilian man checks his face in a mobile phone at the Terra Livre camp in Brasilia, April 2018.

Mobile technology is having a positive impact across all 17 SDGs. Image: Reuters/Adriano Machado

Mats Granryd
Chairman, Vattenfall
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

Can you live without your mobile phone? We all depend on mobile connectivity in our daily lives, but for many billions of people across the globe, mobile is more than just a useful communications device – it’s the only means of getting online, the only way of accessing education and health services, and a vital tool to help lift themselves out of poverty.

Mobile is a key enabler of sustainable economic growth and a major contributor to the delivery of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of audacious targets to end poverty, halt climate change, and fight injustice and inequality – all to be achieved by 2030.

In 2016, the mobile industry became the first sector in the world to commit to the SDGs – pledging to leverage the networks that mobile operators have built and the services they are delivering. Three years on, we can point to real-world evidence that shows the positive impact mobile technology is making across all 17 of the SDGs.

More than 5 billion people are now connected to a mobile network, equivalent to roughly two-thirds of the world’s population. This number continues to grow as mobile operators develop solutions to extend affordable service to some of the lowest income and remotest populations. This has, in turn, created a platform of opportunity for people to use their devices to access the internet for the first time, providing them with access to a range of life-enhancing services.

Since 2015, almost 600 million additional people, the vast majority of whom live in low- and middle-income countries, have begun using mobile internet services. This has given them access to basic rights such as health, education, and even the ability to vote in elections, that were previously unavailable to them. For example, there are now more than a quarter of a million education-related apps available on smartphones – up 62% from 2015 – which has enabled 1.2 billion people using mobile to improve their education or the education of their children. By the end of this decade – less than 18 months away – we expect half of the world’s population to be accessing the internet via their phones, up from 36% in 2015. This demonstrates the strong progress we are making in bridging the skills and affordability gaps that keep people offline, and providing content and services that people find both relevant and useful.

Where mobile is making an impact

The 2018 edition of the GSMA Mobile Industry Impact Report highlights the how the industry’s impact on SDGs has increased since they were established in 2015. While contributing to all 17 of the SDGs, mobile’s influence is more evident in some areas than others, and often in sectors you wouldn’t expect.

Take, as an example, SDG 2: Zero hunger, which aims to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. This is especially important for rural populations. Since 2015, almost 150 million people living in rural areas in developing countries have started using mobile technology. Some amazing work is being done here, for example through the Living Goods project in Uganda, where community health workers use apps to register members of a household and record relevant health information. This initiative has shifted behaviours in a country where poor nutrition is a key factor in child mortality and 29% of children under five years old suffer stunted development. For new mothers using the service, there was a 32 percentage-point improvement in the number of women successfully initiating breastfeeding compared to non-users.

Another area is mobile money, which has transformed lives in emerging markets and been central in driving financial inclusion and reducing inequalities (SDG 10). With nearly 700 million registered accounts at the end of 2017, up 62% from 2015, mobile money has evolved into the leading payment platform for the digital economy in many emerging markets. This success has been built on domestic payments and cash transfers but is now being replicated in international remittances too, as seen in the Pacific region, where more than 70% of formal remittances between New Zealand and Tonga are processed through the KlickEx/Digicel service.

Consider also the success of mobile-enabled, pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar in the off-grid energy sector, which has enabled the delivery of clean energy solutions across parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America since the early 2010s, contributing to SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy. Since 2014, PAYG solar sales increased six-fold to reach over 1.6 million units by 2017, resulting in an estimated 8.5 million individuals having access to clean and reliable energy in their homes, vastly improving their lives in a range of areas.

Protecting and improving our communities

Let’s also take a look at SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities – an area where mobile has made exceptional progress in recent years. SDG 11 focuses on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, tackling the environmental impact caused by growing urbanisation and reducing vulnerability to disasters.

The mobile industry is providing resilient infrastructure to assist with disaster response efforts, in collaboration with governments and NGOs. Mobile operators from more than 100 countries have now signed up to the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter to coordinate these efforts, and last year provided essential humanitarian assistance to more than 30 million people during epidemics and natural disasters. Examples include AT&T’s supply of drone-based “cells on wings” to re-connect citizens in Puerto Rico following the 2017 hurricane, as well as Ncell’s early warning system in Nepal, which alerted vulnerable populations to the large-scale floods and landslides that affected the country in August 2017.

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Meanwhile, developments in areas such as the internet of things and big data have come together to provide solutions for environmental monitoring. Big data analytics derived from aggregated and anonymized mobile network usage data is already being employed by some operators to gain an understanding of people and traffic movements, which can then be used, for example, to inform transport planning. As part of the GSMA Big Data for Social Good initiative, Telefónica has been able to predict traffic-related pollution in São Paulo up to two days in advance, allowing the city to take precautions.

Where do we go next?

As our latest report highlights, the mobile industry is making important progress in advancing the SDGs – progress made possible by operators integrating the SDGs into their core strategies, activities and values. But there is still work to do. We must continue to develop initiatives that connect the unconnected and drive mobile internet adoption, while scaling up the mobile-enabled products and services that are providing real-world solutions to developmental challenges.

The 2030 deadline to meet the SDGs may seem a distant prospect today, but it’s only a little over 4,000 days away and we cannot afford any delay in addressing the monumental issues facing our world: poverty, climate change, conflict, inequality and so many others. Together, across the private and public sectors, we must work now to preserve our planet and ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for its inhabitants.

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