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‘As Important to Me as Water’: How Refugees in Rome Use Smartphones to Improve Their Well-being (2017)

Posted on:
November 24, 2017

A thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of International Development at Massey University, Palmerston North, Manawatū New Zealand.


Mobile phones and smartphones have been hailed as instrumental in assisting migrants and refugees to make the perilous journey to Europe. Civil society groups and humanitarian agencies are responding by developing a plethora of technological aid initiatives to assist refugees and asylum-seekers - a phenomenon dubbed “ICT4Refugees”. However, without a sound understanding of smartphones enable people to be and do, such well-intended projects may fail. Within ICT4D the Capability Approach has become a popular conceptual tool for analysing and discussing the role of technology in improving the well-being of the poor and disadvantaged. Proponents argue it is not access to technology that matters; it is how people use it to enhance their capabilities and achieve valuable lives.

Therefore, this thesis investigates how refugees in Rome, Italy, use smartphones to improve their well-being and whether, according to the Capability Approach, smartphones can expand refugees’ capabilities, choices and freedoms. The research is based on qualitative, semi-structured interviews with refugee guests and staff at a refugee centre in Rome, conducted in May 2016. Findings were analysed using an evaluative framework based on capability models created for ICT4D settings, which provided an ecological view of the different factors which influence
smartphone use. Overall, the findings indicate that smartphones are critical to the psychological well-being of participants – “as important as water” for their survival - as they enable them to connect to friends and family conveniently and at little or no cost, providing they have access to the Internet. Frequent contact helps replenish participants’ resilience in an otherwise hostile environment. However, owning a smartphone has not improved the informational capabilities of all participants in this study. Thus, refugees may require support to develop the necessary digital and informational literacies needed to participate in an Information Society.

Additional information & findings

This report situates refugees’ use of smartphones within the context of the Network Society in which ICTs enable migrants to communicate and share information and social capital transnationally and translocally to lessen the risks and costs of migration. Studies of transnational families and communities show how migrants use different ICT media to manage remote relationships and help them to create a culture of bonds. Refugees have been largely invisible in this literature, yet they face significant issues in terms of social exclusion and in accessing reliable information. They may also be digitally disadvantaged by differences in their social, personal and environmental resources. The increasing availability of smartphones, with their array of media affordances is creating new possibilities for communication and information-gathering, although refugees may not have informational or digital literacies to harness the full potential of the technology. The disadvantages faced by refugees in accessing information and using technology should not, however, overshadow the fact that people can use the technology to achieve valuable capabilities, as the study by Andrade and Doolin (2016) shows.

In identifying these themes, this literature review has provided important context for this study. It has also highlighted the role of people’s social, personal and economic resources in converting the technology into the capabilities they need. As explained at the start of this chapter, there may be interpersonal differences in conversion factors which are framed by characteristics of the opportunity structure within which a person operates. In Italy this structure can be describe as an environment of unfreedoms (Sen, 1999).

As authors like Kleine and Gigler have sought to demonstrate, it is not just access to technology that matters, it is people’s ability to use ICTs and other resources to transform capabilities into functionings and the impacts that can have on the many dimensions of their lives.

Findings confirm that the smartphone is a lifeline for refugees in Rome. But simply owning a smartphone does not automatically enhance people’s agency or lead to improvements in their lives. Other factors come into play. By analysing the findings within the conceptual framework of the Capability Approach these issues may be better understood and appropriate supports or interventions identified.

Smartphone Evaluation Framework

The Smartphone Evaluation Framework

Like the models developed by Gigler and Kleine, the SEF addresses contextual factors influencing refugees’ smartphone use (far left). As in Kleine’s model these are conceived of as structural influences which impact on people’s opportunity to use ICTs to expand their capabilities. In the second box, I refer to personal assets and resources, and view these as components of agency, rather than as (economic) livelihood resources, as they are defined by Gigler. The third box, in the centre of the diagram, refers to the kinds of interventions or support that may be required from government and civil society to support refugees’ technology use: these will be ascertained when the evaluation is complete. In Gigler’s diagram these are referred to as existing institutional processes and would be relevant in evaluating existing ICT4D projects. However for this evaluation I am interested in identifying new interventions which will facilitate the use of smartphones to enhance people’s capabilities which may include institutional processes, programmes and intermediaries.

Looking at the well-being outcomes (orange box, Figure 5) participants have set and are pursuing their own goals: they are agents in their own development. But are they empowered? More specifically, are refugees empowered by their smartphones to achieve these outcomes? Partially: it depends how empowerment is evaluated.

The ability of participants to exercise agency to achieve these outcomes depends on the other elements of the framework: the nature of the opportunity structure in Italy in which participants become embedded, their personal resources, and their capabilities.

This focus on people’s capabilities is a key strength of this study. In adopting a Capability Approach, I have aimed to contribute a different perspective on refugees’ ICT practices, based on a view of human development that sees refugees as agents in their own lives and that the role of technology should be to enable them to develop certain capabilities essential to their well-being. The Capability Approach has provided a useful conceptual lens which enabled me to take a systemic approach to map all the different factors shaping participants’ technology use. However, there are some limitations to this approach.

Operational frameworks, such as the evaluation framework used in this study (Figure 5), and those of Gigler (2011, 2015) and Kleine (2010, 2013) are well suited to assessing individual capabilities and well-being, but it may be more difficult to take this approach in evaluating a group or community whose members have very different aspirations and whose levels of personal resources differ widely. In my research it was difficult to assess people’s information literacy without spending considerably more time with each individual, observing their smartphone practices firsthand or the content of their communications. Intangible resources such as psychological well-being are also hard to measure without subjecting people to a battery of tests. Also, without a lot more information, it is difficult to show direct, causal relationships among structural or environmental factors, a person’s resources, their capabilities and their well-being outcomes. Finally there is the notion of choice. Kleine (2010) says the primary outcome of any ICT project should be improved choice, but people can make bad, good or irrelevant choices with no obvious improvement in well-being.

Setting these issues aside, however, the value of the Capabilities Approach is that it requires reflection on the meaning of “development” and how ICT might support refugees to pursue a life that is meaningful to them, as well as how to create opportunities for them to participate in society. Future studies on poor people’s technology use may benefit from taking a Capabilities Approach. For example, this study indicates participants’ infrequent use of the information gathering facilities of the smartphones may result from inequalities in people’s resource endowments: particularly in terms of education literacy and language skills. Quantitative data in the form of a larger survey of refugees’ communication practices would be useful to gauge whether there is any correlation or whether other variables are at work.

A gendered analysis of these variables would be particularly useful given the paucity of data in this area. At the same time, much more needs to be known about how refugees access information – offline and online – so as to support them effectively on their journeys and in their integration in Europe. Without such information, well intentioned efforts to develop apps and websites may miss their mark, resulting in wasted energy and resources.


This thesis investigates how refugees in Rome, Italy, use smartphones to improve their well-being and whether, according to the Capability Approach, smartphones can expand refugees’ capabilities, choices and freedoms.