Mobile Phones and Empowerment: A Field Experiment

Greetings – My name is Raychel Schwartz and I am a rising senior at William and Mary.  This summer will be an immense challenge and learning experience, as I work as an AidData research fellow in Tanzania.  Allow me to elaborate…

As a research fellow, I have the great fortune to be working with Prof Phillip Roessler on a randomized control trial assessing the impact of mobile phone ownership on women’s empowerment.  The mobile phone revolution has swept many sub-Saharan African countries, putting technology into the hands of the most marginalized and resource deprived.  A mobile phone opens the door to cheap and safe mobile banking, citizen engagement and organization, and access to information such as current market prices, weather conditions, and more.  Mobile phones are increasingly recognized as a powerful tool in development; this study is the first to rigorously measure the impact of mobile phone ownership on poverty alleviation and women’s empowerment.  My role is to monitor the rollout of Phase II, as we scale up to 500 women, helping screen and recruit a random sample and distributing mobile phones.

The other side of this research fellowship is an internship at Twaweza (“We can make it happen” in Swahili), an NGO focused on bottom-up change and impact evaluation in East Africa.  I will work with Sauti za Wananchi, a mobile phone based survey that amplifies the voices of Tanzanian citizens, gathering survey data quickly and efficiently to allow policy to be more responsive to the Tanzanian people.  I will assist in analyzing and synthesizing current data and writing policy briefs in support of Twaweza’s goals: creating the conditions for everyday people to seize control of the issues they consider important, hold government accountable and drive community development.  Twaweza stands out for its respect for people’s agency (fostering change rather than attempting to impose it) and its emphasis on impact evaluation, which is necessary to identifying and repeating successes.  I am honored and excited to work with this organization.

Though I will be busy with these two marvelous opportunities, I will also spend part of the summer honing my own research questions.  For the past few months I have been designing a study on best practices in microfinance in regards to women’s empowerment.  This summer, I will seek out contacts and lay the groundwork to execute this study, and modify it to suit a Tanzanian cultural context.  Crucial to this process will be yet another study– qualitative, interview based research to complement the quantitative, survey based mobile phone study.  This project seeks to identify the causal pathways involved in the impact of mobile phone ownership on women’s empowerment, particularly access to mobile phone banking, thus marrying my personal projects with the lessons I will absorb as an AidData research fellow.

This summer is an incredible opportunity to learn from experts in the field.  I will learn the pitfalls and practical skills of research, and learn how to translate data into concrete deliverables, like policy prescriptions that promote a better future for the marginalized.  I am so grateful for this opportunity – to contribute to the causes I hold dear while building a skill set to make bigger contributions in the future.

Until the next blog post!  Kwaheri.


  1. It’s interesting to me that there are initiatives to get mobile phones to areas that don’t have access to clean water and safe housing. I would like to see how access to resources via mobile phones can be a part in alleviating poverty. Is there a strong desire among communities in the areas you are studying to receive mobile phones? And in what ways are women empowered by mobile phones?