Mobile solutions can boost human capital gains disrupted by COVID-19 in developing countries


Smartphones have the potential to reverse the pandemic-induced learning crisis. © World Bank

Almost nine in ten children in sub-Saharan Africa have learning difficulties, in that they are unable to read and understand simple text before the age of 10. The pandemic is exacerbating this “learning crisis”, especially for poor and vulnerable households who do not have access to Online Resources. The operating potential of smartphones under development has so far remained largely untapped, but recent trends could reverse it:

The recent World Bank webinar “Using smartphones to build human capital for people online and offline. New Evidence and Collaborations for Global Scaling ”showcased experimental evidence and partnerships from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Below we summarize the presentations of the event and a panel discussion.

Mobiles to develop at every stage of life

In northern Nigeria, and with the support of an education project of the World Bank and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), the DIME trial “Movies & Mobiles” shows that films produced by Impact (Ed) increased parental aspirations and primary school attendance by 34%, and that when accompanied by the provision of preloaded smartphones with literacy apps, learning outcomes s ‘also improved by a quarter standard deviation. Additionally, preloaded smartphones have also improved learning outcomes and reduced teenage pregnancies from untargeted older siblings, underscoring the potential for smartphones to spill over into households. In partnership with Curious Learning, DIME is now investigating whether this approach also works for owners of smartphones already connected to the internet, with a focus on poor households. This scalable approach could potentially be very profitable. Formative research from the trial shows that it costs parents in Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods less than five US cents to download literacy apps, with the cost even lower for untargeted campaigns.

Another example, SkillCraft is a skills profiling app designed for unemployed youth to find employment that was developed by the World Bank’s Mind, Behavior and Development unit (known as eMBeD) with the Bank’s social protection and employment teams. The app helps young people track their professional skills and interests, identify skills gaps, facilitate access to free development programs, and provide recommendations when applying for a job. A pilot experience reveals that this app increased the intention of young people to apply for more jobs and hours devoted to job search.

Social media campaigns can granularly target sub-populations with persuasive communications about social and behavioral change. A research team consisting of eMBeD, the World Bank’s Development Impact Assessment Group (known as DIME) and Facebook Health is testing a ‘real world’ social media campaign aimed at prevent malaria in India. Preliminary results suggest that behavior-based advertising was effective in increasing the use of mosquito nets among those exposed in a controlled experiment. emphasizing the need for intentional targeting to reach vulnerable populations in large-scale campaigns.

The road to scale

The panel of decision makers who followed the research presentations concluded four things:

  1. Supply-side constraints must be addressed to connect today’s offline populations, such as the provision of broadband and solar technologies in rural settings. On the other hand, marketing campaigns have shown an increase in demand for complementary technologies, such as solar lights in rural areas of Senegal.
  2. Innovative SBCCs remain largely limited to public health messages. To increase the demand for broadband services and smartphones, more attractive applications must be made available. The mEducation Alliance, which, through innovative partnerships and competitions, has expanded the global offering of literacy and numeracy apps and videos, is a prime example.
  3. Free, high-impact apps in children’s native languages ​​can complement formal schooling efforts globally . For example, Feed The Monster and Global Digital Library (content that works in the Northern Nigeria trial) works in the vast majority of Android devices and has been translated into 50+ and 80+ languages, respectively.
  4. Development partners should support open source and openly licensed content and the development of content that is as “universal” as possible. National adaptations and additional campaigns can take place as a second step.

In summary, COVID-19 has disrupted human capital gains in developing countries. The evidence base for mobile solutions remains scarce for both online and offline populations. To maximize their development impact, testing of such interventions and other scalable innovations must continue.


Development Impact Assessment (DIME)

Spirit, Behavior and Development Unit (eMBeD)

DIME Entertainment Education Program (edutainment)

Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad)


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