On the 6th March 2016, strongman Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia for three decades, posted a thanks on his Facebook page for reaching 3m likes. “I would like to thank my national compatriots and youths in the country and overseas who support my Facebook page, which has received 3 million likes…Facebook has brought me closer with people and allowed me to listen and receive more requests directly from them. Through Facebook, I have solved some problems quickly and effectively.”
The Prime Minister highlighted some of the big claims for Social media and development: a feedback mechanism for governance, engaging with youth, improving dialogue with citizenry, and a means of rapidly responding to development needs.
But the growing social media footprint in Cambodia, (3.4m users in a population of 15m) exists simultaneously with an actual shrinking of the political sphere. In self-imposed exile in France, opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s has had to rely primarily on social media – twitter, facebook (3.7m followers), to connect to the people of Cambodia. When he accused Hun Sen of buying Facebook likes from India and Philipines to boost his online presence, Rainsy was charged with defamation (again). In February 2017, Sam Rainsy resigned and since there has been a prompt tightening of opposition party laws. The introduction of Article 18, in the Amended Laws on Political Parties proposes that anyone who has a conviction for a crime would be unable to lead a political party. The target was obvious.
Despite leaving the political arena, Rainsy took to Twitter on 16th February to call for the EU and other donors to consider their role as the political space shrinks to draconian levels. “#Cambodia‘s govt. to give itself carte blanche to dissolve opposition for any reason. Donors need to face what they’ve paid for. #SamRainsy
The pointed criticism of the donor community is clear; their tangled history with the ruling CPP party and in particular their funding for the Cambodia Election Committee. In this one example, the relationship between social media, social change (particularly political activism), and the role that development partners have in it, is far more complicated than it might first appear.
But there are many other challenges for the relationship between social media and development. The unfolding case in Cameroon is a stark example. On the 17th February 2017 The Technology Review commented that the politically motivated internet outage in Cameroon has left 20% of the country without access to the internet. “The affected regions have recently been the scene of several antigovernment protests: English-speaking citizens complain about a Francophile government that, they claim, is marginalizing them.” It went on to quote a Brookings Insititution analyst, estimating that in a single year, “81 disruptions in 19 countries cost those economies a total of at least $2.4 billion.”
Another interesting angle we will be exploring is present in the analysis of the project in Ethiopia called Yegna which used social media to raise awareness of girls rights. Yegna is multi-platform brand that addresses issues such as early forced marriage, violence and barriers to education through a radio drama, music, talkshows, and a YouTube channel. This example draws us into a different question; what constitutes development and to whom? The project drew the wrath of the UK’s Daily Mail which let a sustained campaign to cut its funding and accused the government of squandering taxpayers money on overseas “girl bands.”
As austerity bites in the West, international development assistance has increasingly become synonymous with humanitarian assistance – natural disasters, famine relief etc. Supporting social media for development is considered a “’blood boiling’ waste of taxpayers’ money,” when it would be better spent on domestic needs. As MP Peter Bone, stated, ‘How can we be spending millions on a girl band when the money could be much better spent at home on helping the elderly?…This is not helping starving people, this is not helping refugees.’
There are so many elements to this debate that it warrants its own post. And there are many more areas that we will be looking at as we explore why social media is being hailed as a panacea for a much-discredited development paradigm, whether this claim is justified, and what challenges remain. What is clear is that the relationship between social media and development is contentious and problematic.
Please come back for more updates. We welcome your thoughts and comments on this thread.