Mobile Money, More Freedom? The Impact of M-PESA’s Network Power on Development as Freedom

Kevin P. Donovan


The role of ICTs in development is contested between those who believe they will facilitate human development and those who believe they are, at most, impotent, and at worst, counterproductive. This article uses an examination of M-PESA, a large-scale mobile financial service in Kenya, to argue that the impact of ICTs on development as freedom differs with both the specific conceptualization of freedom used, and the institutional arrangement of the technology in question. The article’s novel conceptual model links the adoption of mobile money to its impact, suggesting that the dominant individualistic and instrumental approaches to ICT4D overlook the ways in which power and domination function alongside freedom when these factors are considered relationally and substantively. I demonstrate that the internal plurality of the concept of freedom leads to both new forms of empowerment, but also to limitations on choice and new forms of dominance. In closing, I suggest institutional and technological arrangements that are most likely to maximize the development potential of mobile money.

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