More People Have Cellphones Than Toilets

A blog about business and economics.
March 22 2013 2:21 PM

More People Have Cellphones Than Toilets

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These Jakartans have Blackberrys, but do they have running water?

Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

The future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed and thus it is now more common to have a mobile phone than a working toilet:

Surprisingly, the UN reports there are now more people with mobile phones (six billion for world population of seven billion) on earth than there are with access to clean toilets (4.5 billion).
That phenomenon is easily visible in Indonesia, for example, where it is common to see people who live in metal roofed shacks without bathrooms surfing Facebook on their smartphones or feature phones. And it shows how, in the developing world, multinationals are often better at responding to peoples’ needs than governments are.
Open defacation, while not widely discussed, causes illnesses such as diarrhea thatkill 4,500 children daily. Poor sanitation also hobbles emerging markets economically. According to the UN, the problem costs India $53.8 billion a year, while Nigeria loses $3 billion annually.
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In rich countries we tend to think about technologies in terms of their order of adoption and it seems obvious that plumbing is more basic. But from an infrastructure investment standpoint, it's easier to build a mobile phone network than a sewer system. For that same reason, even though there tends not to be all that much competition in wireless telephony it's a lot less monopolistic than electricity. In other words, part of what makes the mobile phone a great technology is that it's useful to people even in parts of the world where the basic institutions of governance are really bad.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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