Social Media and Development: an introduction Part 1

On July 1st 2016, Louise Linton wrote an article for the UK’s Daily Telegraph entitled, “How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare” based on her book In Congo’s Shadow. The online backlash to the “white saviour complex” implicit in the account was swift, acrimonious and global, drawing particular ire for Zambia’s online community. The Telegraph retracted the article a few weeks later issuing a statement of apology “for any misleading impression that may have been given.” But the hashtag #LintonLies started to trend. One tweet wrote: “Ugh. Do people still think we don’t have internet in Africa? In the ‘jungle’. That we’ll never read what they write about us. ‪#LintonLies

Perhaps one of the biggest impacts of the global growth in social media on development has been to bring the Global North and South together in ways that had previously been impossible. This somewhat trivial incident serves to highlight that the Global South now has a forum to challenge the deeply entrenched power dynamics inherent in the development paradigm. Development as a concept is no longer the domain of powerhouses from the Global North imposed on the South, but can exist as a dialogue – commented on, monitored, and directed, through mobiles, hashtags and facebook posts in which everyone connected can have their say. On global, national and sub-national levels the opportunity for individuals to challenge, participate in, and organize themselves around the decisions that impact their lives has never been greater. This connectivity is at the heart of the euphoria that social media is irrevocably changing development practice and impact.

Before we continue it’s perhaps worth getting a global snapshot of the world’s digital imprint.

Impressive. But look at the growth areas:

In 2010 USAID sampled a host of mobile phone development projects across a number of different fields including:

  • Egypt: Tracking Sexual Harassment of Women using HarassMap and SMS
  • India: daily SMS messages show/forecast commodity prices for each market
  • Mexico, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh: Health Hotlines provide health-related information, advice, referrals and prescriptions, all through phone calls and SMS
  • Indonesia/SE Asia: SMS used as fastest way of distributing information after the tsunami in 2004; and after the hurricane in 2006.
  • Bangladesh: Entrepreneurship/Business/Banking through GrameenPhone
  • Malaysia (and Ukraine): Combating human trafficking through SMS and mobile

The so-called “Facebook Revolutions” of the Arab Spring, the social media mapping of Nepal earthquake, the growth of mPesa, the mobile money solution in Kenya; just three more examples which lend credence to the notion that there is a dramatic paradigm shift in the way global society is organizing, governing, and protesting, and how the social media revolution is impacting economic growth and development by allowing greater participation and empowerment than ever before.

Impressive and unprecedented as these examples are, in the second part of this introductory blog I will add a note of caution about social media and the digital revolution being a panacea for development practice. And highlight some of the challenges that remain or are created by this relationship.

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