Infoshare, Colombo, Sri Lanka

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The influx of mobile telephony is revolutionising lives and expediting vivid forms of accessibility and communication in Sri Lanka

“Don’t get grandma hear it” was what US soldier Stephen Philips was reported in the Newsweek as saying when his cell phone redialled home during a fire-fight in Afghanistan and broadcast the chaos into his parent’s answering machine1. Though it would have been traumatic for the parents of Stephen Philips, yet this is an example of how mobile phones connect us all to far-flung yet vital realities. From Zimbabwe2 and Kenya3 to China and Kuwait4, from electoral processes and women’s suffrage to the voicing dissent against oppression, mobiles are already revolutionising our approach to and understanding of public participation in governance. Mobiles have already demonstrated in many countries around the world that in the hands of a vibrant civil society they are powerful tools that hold government and public institutions accountable, their interactions transparent and their transactions efficient. Conversations inspired, produced, stored and disseminated through mobiles are rapidly changing the manner in which we imagine the State, interact with government and participate in the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance.

Conflict, mobiles and development

There is today a healthy interest in the economic benefits of mobile phone use, ownership and access. The connection between a per capita increase in mobile phones ownership/usage and economic growth is a field of increasing study. A well known example is the finding by Leonard Waverman (2005), of the London Business School, which says that an extra 10 mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country leads to an additional 0.59 percentage points of growth in GDP per person.5  My problem with this kind of stand-alone analysis is that it ignores the underlying socio-political fabric and realities of a country. Protracted violent ethnic conflicts, as is found in Sri Lanka, severely vitiate sustainable economic growth and channels State resources into aspects of national security (border protection, army, policing, intelligence, propaganda and war) to the detriment of investment in communications infrastructure, health and education, to name a few aspects vital to our long-term development. Often, this just ends up in alienating more peoples and communities. Yet, when marginalised communities and peoples find a voice

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