Compassion sponsor, Laura, posted this suggestion on our community support page a while back in reference to technology in developing countries:
“Our family has sponsored since the 1990s…In the past year or two we’ve been hearing more and more about sponsored children (especially teens) having access to Facebook, cell phones, etc. and having televisions and video games in their homes. Our family cuts some costs by not owning Smart Phones, not paying for cable TV, etc., so it is hard for us to understand why families in Compassion’s programs would have what we consider to be luxuries, when physical and educational needs are not being met without help from Compassion sponsorship.”
Over the last few years, I have heard this concern from many other sponsors about their sponsored children’s access to technology. I will try to respond to this concern by sharing a little about the way people in the developing world view and acquire technology.
Why would my sponsored child’s family have these “luxuries” when they are struggling to meet basic needs?
This is the kicker – the question I get over and over. The simple answer is that families in developing nations do not view cell phones and other technology as luxury items. They view technology as a needed tool for survival. And they can acquire these tools for much less than we think.
It’s very common for children in our programs to have access to the Internet. However, it’s important to clarify that, for the most part, they do not have computers and Internet access at home. Most get access somewhere else in their community.
Internet cafés, where Internet use can cost as little as pennies per minute on a public computer, are common. Also, many of our student centers have computer labs with Internet access in order to teach valuable vocational skills. And some developing countries have government programs that will provide technology, like tablets or Internet access to students.
Once people are online, they overwhelmingly adapt to social networking because Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are free. Many adolescents in our program have social media profiles just like kids might in developed countries like the US.
While teens are taught to never contact their sponsor on Facebook or Twitter, many of them are very curious about their sponsor – especially if they haven’t had much contact with them through letters or photos. They may “Facebook stalk” their sponsors to try to see who they are.
And that curiosity may lead to a friend request, even though it is against the rules. If you receive a friend request or other contact from your sponsored child on social media, it is important to ignore that request for the protection of both you and your child.
Vanity is common on social media no matter what country you live in – we all want our lives to look better online than they really are. This is why sponsored children in developing countries will often borrow someone else’s camera or use their own cell phone (more on that below) to take pictures of themselves standing in front of a public building, instead of the slum they really live in.
For this reason, you may notice that in your sponsored child’s social media profile, he or she appears to be standing in a nice neighborhood or area.
The developing world is skipping over one hundred years of building telecom infrastructure. Basically, instead of starting with land lines, they are skipping development and going straight to mobile phones.
This is particularly evident in Africa, where just a sliver of the population has a landline due to monopoly, corruption, and bad management of the nationally owned telephone companies that never took off. Then you see Maasai tribe members in Kenya herding cattle…with cell phones held to their ears.
The cell phone market from the get-go has been much more competitive by marketing to the poorest in the population and offering low-priced cell phones (often Chinese knock-offs) and prepaid SIM cards.
This means that people can pay a dollar or less and have access to phone calls, texts and even the Internet on a phone for a limited time. They pay as they go, and only pay what they can afford.
Innovations like Kenya’s M-PESA, which helps cell phone owners easily and securely send money, are significant. In some ways, new technologies are progressing faster in developing countries, and they are allowing people to do business more safely and improve efficiency.
During the political instability in 2008, M-PESA became especially useful. People could confidently store and send their money on their phones at a time when many banks were unstable due to ethnic tensions. Many of our centers in Kenya use M-PESA to make money transfers for staff salaries and support for children
Without land lines, 911 emergency lines and ambulances, a simple cell phone can be a life-saving alert system and access to emergency assistance from others in the community when needed.
Barrack Okal, who helped develop much of the technology systems that we use in eastern Africa, told me a story of someone living in the country who texted their doctor to see if they needed to go to the hospital. Once it was determined that it was an emergency situation, they were taken to the hospital in a wheelbarrow.
Similarly, old tube televisions or radios can be acquired inexpensively. They can be a crucial means of receiving warning signals during natural disasters or weather forecasts that inform agricultural decisions like when to plant and harvest.
A TV can also provide a form of education or entertainment that was not previously available to the family. I saw this personally when staying with middle class families in eastern Africa. Libraries are nowhere to be found and books can be difficult to acquire.
A box of colored pencils may be very expensive at the local market, and the family may not have money to buy toys for their children. We provide coloring supplies and a safe place for kids to play at the center but what do kids do on school breaks?
I know many scorn the idea of propping kids in front of the television. However, in dangerous areas, when impoverished parents are not able to watch their children all the time, television is a safe and relatively educational option.
If you consider the low cost of many of these technologies and the lack of other community resources that we take for granted, you can start to see how technology in developing countries can be seen as an important tool for survival.
And when wisely deployed, it can provide a multitude of benefits that keep people safe, connected and informed — all important steps in the path out of poverty.
This article was originally published March 27, 2015.