Mobile Phones and Cultural Connections: Designing a Mutual World between the DR Congo and United States

Mobile Phones and Cultural Connections: Designing a Mutual World between the DR Congo and United States

Bernadette Longo (University of Minnesota, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-623-7.ch022
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When people in the United States seek to collaborate with partners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), even good intentions cannot overcome differing expectations for how people use technologies to facilitate communication – both interpersonal and among social groups. This case study looks at an ongoing collaboration between a faculty member at the University of Minnesota and two NGOs working in the DRC: First Step Initiative, providing microloans to women entrepreneurs, and Pact, an international development organization. In the course of this collaboration, it has become clear that differing expectations for communication channels to support the NGOs have resulted in complications for collaborators both in the U.S. and the DRC. This study explores whether social networking tools and cell phones can be used to establish new channels for communication that meet interpersonal expectations for participants in both the U.S. and the DRC.
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Our initial partner, First Step Initiative, is a nonprofit microfinance organization with the mission of enabling women entrepreneurs in Katanga Province to start small businesses through microloans of US$50-150. FSI was established in 2006 by Chingwell Mutombu, whose family is from the DRC, but who has lived in the U.S. since her high school years. I first met Ms. Mutombu at a church we both attended and I learned about FSI’s operations through our friendship. In 2007, when I began thinking about a project to work on in my information design class, I asked Ms. Mutombu if there was an FSI project that we could collaborate on in the Spring 2008 class. We decided to conduct an audit of the organization’s communication tools and methods, and I started learning about life in Katanga Province.

The DRC is a developing central African country with very limited public infrastructure and governmental services. Katanga, a province in the southeast with over four million people, has an unemployment rate as high as 90% and few business opportunities for hopeful entrepreneurs. Because the DRC has not yet developed a comprehensive public sector that empowers private businesses, many NGOs are filling in some gaps within both its public and private sectors. Education is not free and families must pay for their children to attend school; most children do not have the opportunity to get an education even though their families aspire to send them to school.

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