Mobile people’s mobile phones – how do information and communication technologies (ICTs) affect mobility and migration in the Horn of Africa?

Chatting to friends, posting on social media, browsing the internet – ICTs such as the mobile phones owned globally by 3.5 billion of us today – are increasingly becoming the ubiquitous accessory to modern life. They are valuable tools, particularly for people on the move. Across the Horn of Africa (HoA), the use of mobile phones is widespread and internet access is expanding rapidly, albeit with inequalities in access and use of these technologies within and between countries in the region. Our latest report explores how this increased access and use of ICTs affects people’s aspirations, decisions, needs and capabilities to move.

Research prompted by European-bound ‘irregular’ migration around 2015 showed that migrants and refugees use ICTs to gather migration-relevant information, access social networks, keep in touch with fellow migrants, connect with smugglers or humanitarian organisations, or document their (often perilous) journeys for global audiences. Whilst ICTs can empower mobile people, researchers also pointed out that migrants’ digital traces can be used by states to monitor and control movements, and that social media connections can bring emotional burdens and expose people to dangers of mis-information. Although the Horn of Africa (HoA) is a significant source of migration towards European and Gulf states, the vast majority of this research – both in more recent migration studies and earlier diaspora media research – has focused on mobile populations who have either arrived in the ‘Global North’ or are en route. There is much less research on links between ICT use and mobility within the HoA.

Our research focuses on the effects of ICTs on mobility in the HoA. Through a review of literature, we investigated the ways in which ICT-related changes or continuities in different places could affect people’s mobility behaviours. We explored movements in terms of:

  • long-term international or internal rural-urban migration
  • everyday movements associated with how people earn a living
  • situations of forced displacement as a result of conflict or ecological shocks.

The review looks at the research in migration and diaspora media studies mentioned above, as well as the huge body of work concerned with ICT for development (‘ICT4D’), which explores the wider changes that access to digital technologies and media bring to societies, cultures and economies.

Key findings

Relationships between ICT access/use and wider socio-economic change are complex and multi-directional, and different types of people are affected by these changes in different ways. Therefore, making generalisations is problematic. For example, it is not straightforward to determine whether increased ICT access is driven by economic growth, or vice versa. Similarly, for some people, access to and use of ICTs such as mobile phones removes the need for certain types of physical travel by enabling people to connect remotely; while for others, the use of ICTs provides connections to information and social networks that might prompt and facilitate (essential) journeys.

Rural-city connections

Looking at wider African contexts, ICTs contribute to closer and more frequent connections between rural areas and cities in terms of people’s social networks, livelihood strategies, transfers of resources, and possibilities or aspirations for migration.

Speedy ‘tech diffusion’

Research worldwide has also shown how the movement of migrants back and forth between their places of origin and residence can speed up ‘tech diffusion’ – for example with people bringing back new ICT devices and know-how. The use of these technologies facilitates practical and imagined connections between rural and urban HoA communities, and with diasporas or temporary labour migrants abroad. Social media can deepen these connections with a wider range of tools for people to interact with dispersed networks.

Positive connectivity for marginalised groups

Some studies have shown how the mobility of marginalised groups such as rural women can potentially be positively affected by ICTs, through access to business opportunities or useful market information. Nonetheless, ‘empowerment’ depends on many other cultural and socio-economic factors, and ethnographic research tends to show that ICTs seldom completely transform existing social structures. Instead, people adopt and adapt technologies in various ways that support aspects of local cultures, solidarities and family ties.

Location and navigation tools

Mobile communications are increasingly being used by mobile populations in the HoA – for instance pastoralist communities in their coordination of movements of livestock and access to markets. Many internally displaced people have come to rely on mobile phones to move, navigate new surroundings and access humanitarian (cash) assistance through widely used mobile money systems.

Further research

More contextualised research is needed on the specific ways in which rural-urban migrants, displaced people or refugees within the HoA access and use ICTs in their everyday lives to connect with others, make a living, and access humanitarian assistance.

  • Some countries in the HoA are understudied in this regard, and further on-the-ground research is required to understand people’s capabilities with devices, existing digital literacies, and limits to access or full use. Given the importance of pastoralism across the region more research is needed to compare findings on Ethiopian, Kenyan and Tanzanian herders’ ICT use with under-studied contexts such as Somalia/Somaliland and South Sudan.
  • Globally, researchers are interested in the impacts of social media on political stability. In the HoA, conflict remains a significant driver of forced displacement and there are some indications that new media platforms (and users in the region and the diaspora) are contributing to conflict dynamics. Closer examination of social media practices in conflict contexts is needed to understand how (and from where) content flows, how it is engaged with, and how it impacts local security conditions.
  • As we were preparing this literature review, COVID-19 was dramatically affecting local and global mobilities. The long-term impacts of the pandemic in the HoA are still unclear, but research is now needed into how states and humanitarian actors have used ICTs to control mobilities in the region, and the ways in which mobile populations have responded to them.

Information and communication technologies and mobility in the Horn of Africa: a rapid review of the literature

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Dr Peter Chonka

Lecturer in Global Digital Cultures in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London.

Yidnekachew Haile

PhD/Doctoral researcher in Digital Technologies (RHUL)

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