Social Media in development work

This part of our literature review will look at a range of texts (books, articles, web pages) to further explore the discourse around social media and its use in international development work. It will be divided into two sub-sections; ‘Social Media on the home front’ and ‘Social Media in the field’[1].

Social Media on the home front

Since the start of the 21st century bridging the digital divide has been a keynote in development policy. Major institutions such as the UNDP and the World Bank all focus more on ICT through new IT systems, software, portals and conferences (Pieterse 2005: 285). Most of these actors also utilize some form of social media, regardless whether they are an institutional donor, NGO, government institution or private enterprise. Social media is quickly becoming one of the main means to market oneself, to raise funds, awareness and as a tool for advocacy.

Via social media tools such as blogs and Facebook development actors can communicate their mission and impact to a wider public, a public that is often also part of their funders and supporters. Many have even adopted social media policies or communication policies. Oxfam employees are for example encouraged to blog about Oxfam, but have strict guidelines on when and how (Carroll 2012). The blogs contribute to a more personal relationship between the organization and its followers and the opportunity for a deeper level of interaction. This also provides a stronger sense of connection between the two, which increases the likelihood of funding.

Social media is also an efficient tool for advocacy. Organizations such as the World Economic Forum and Charity Water have more than one million Twitter followers, which is an impressive tool when wanting to push a certain policy issue. Greenpeace International has more than 900.000 likes on Facebook (Villarino 2011A) where they immediately can answer to any questions or challenges. Doctors Without Borders’ American chapter (MSF-USA) used Twitter to push the US government to grant its planes access to Haiti shortly after the earthquake in 2010 (Villarino 2011B).

Not only does social media constitute a great basis for interaction with supporters and to advocate for ones cause. It is also an efficient way to acknowledge your supporters. Certain donors even have requirements on a ‘donor recognition’ plan being put into place. Via facebook and blogs the recognition of the donors becomes widespread[2]. It is also argued that the use of social media makes development and aid more transparent, as the insight in the activities increases (Villarino 2011C).

Social media on the home front is definitely on the increase, which can be seen in the range of web pages focused dedicated to the topic.

Social Media in the field

The use of ICT and social media is a fairly new occurrence in the development field. Rao argues that several initial projects which focused on the implementation of ICT systems, failed as they were too centered on only the provision of equipment, while the knowledge lacked. He speaks of that the information system cannot only focus on the connectivity, but has to center on the content (Rao in Hemer & Tufte 2005:275). This is an issue underlying all form of work on social media in the field, the access is less and the skill sets, both on the technique side and on content, are often lower than in the developed world. Pieterse even argues that this divide is growing rather than decreasing (Pieterse in Lovink & Zehle 2005:13-14) and that the systems are designed by developed countries entitled for developed country conditions (Pieterse in Lovink & Zehle 2005:1). He also argues that one should have less emphasize on the Internet, but more so on the telephone, radio and television (Pieterse in Lovink & Zehle 2005:11). Nwakanma on the other hand states that the Africa Civil Society for the Information Society (ACSIS) recognizes ICT as playing a significant role in development efforts and poverty alleviation (Nwakanma in Lovink & Zehle 2005:122). In this contradicting context, is social media used?

In the field there is less focus on marketing of the organization and awareness raising, but more focus on direct use in project implementation. UNICEF has for example incorporated social media in its programs ‘Connecting Classrooms’, a program that is implemented in eight African countries connecting pupils and teachers to work on common issues (Villarino 2011C). Butterfly Works, United States Institute of Peace and Search For Common Ground are just a few of the organizations that have some form of social media component in their projects.

Pieterse argues that it does not make sense to invest in ICT4D when hospitals e.g. lack medicines (Pieterse in Lovink & Zehle 2005:16). However, there are certain aspects of the use of ICT and social media that can facilitate that medicine actually do exist in the hospital, or that other necessary care is provided. In Rwanda, one is developing a system using the cell phone network to dispatch the few ambulances in the country, as well as oral autopsy teams to record deaths and births on a national level to determine health threats. While this does not provide medicines in the hospital, it does create information upon which the health care system can be improved (Jackson 2012).

To sum up, in the literature the extent to which social media is available to the actual ‘beneficiaries’ of the development activity is heavily debated. There is much literature and cases of where social media is used successfully on the ‘home front’, while less so on in the field. However, more and more projects are being created and implemented that entail a component of social media also in the field.


[1] ‘Field’ in this context refers to those developing countries/areas in which international development takes place.

[2] The EU in many of their Call for Proposals include a section on how to recognize their support.

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