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Mobile Phones Promote Literacy in Poorest Countries: UN Report

A new report from UNESCO suggests that mobile phones aren't just promoting communication and commerce in the world's poorest countries, they're also encouraging literacy — especially among women. But technical and content barriers remain.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization surveyed thousands of mobile phone users in Africa, India and the Middle East about how and why they read on their phones. Some of the results are surprising, and overall it paints a hopeful picture for the future of literacy in those areas.

Image: A man checks his phone in Kibera, Kenya
A man checks his phone in Kibera, Africa's largest slum, in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 6, 2013. Jerome Delay / AP file

Most of the data comes from users of the WorldReader app, which brings thousands of free (and a few non-free) books to the feature phones so common in developing countries. There are few fancy iPhones here, much less Kindles, and even paper books are scarce. That means often people read on the tiny screens of their mobiles or not at all.

Some statistics are as one might expect: Mobile readers tend to be younger men with at least a high-school-level education. But one interesting twist is that women, despite comprising less than a quarter of mobile readers, accounted for two-thirds of the reading done. On average, men spent just above half an hour a month reading on their phones, while women read for over 200 minutes.

UNESCO

It's convenient, after all, since phones are often right there, and it's extremely cheap: a 500-page book can be delivered for pennies' worth of data. That said, the books are "streamed" page by page, so a constant connection is required — meaning no taking "Pride and Prejudice" outside of cell range.

The other main complaint seems to be selection: not enough in a native language, or in a certain genre.

The UNESCO report recommends further research, but concludes for now that mobiles are a powerful tool for increasing literacy and empowering women and disadvantaged children.