A quick look at the Neoliberalist approach to data

Can a tweet (or a blog post, or an on-line article) deliver real impact in the Development world? As a journalist and as a Multimedia Editor of a small, international charity, I do want to believe so. However, reality goes on despite what we believe or not: so, let’s get a quick look at the academic literature that can help us defining the issue and start a discussion about it.

As Tobias Denksus and Daniel Esser point out in their essay on ‘Social Media and Global Development Rituals’, “research on the use of social media in the context of international development has so far been limited in scope.” (2013, p.405)

While there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about the role played by Social Media and Information Communication Technologies (ICT) in recent political developments (see for example the so called ‘Arab Spring’), the same doesn’t apply to the broader Development field – and in particular to the impact of global conferences, “discursive rituals” that serve also as “vehicles through which epistemic communities create shared discourses” (2013, p.406).

Having closely followed many of such high-level conferences from a social media perspective as part of my job, I want to reflect on how (and if) communication shared within them has reached the general public.

To do so, this first post will take a quick look at how the concept of Development has shaped its modern form. Its interpretation during the Cold War was clearly of a bright optimism, where Development was supposed to ‘raise the masses’ toward the Western idea of modernity – founded on the basis of the Bretton Woods system, focused on industrialization and economic growth (Pieterse, 2010, p.7).

This concept has then been widened in the Eighties, when Neoliberalism made the whole world a global market, almost worshipping the ‘invisible hand’ of the market supposedly able to achieve global economic growth for all without any contrast. Even if Post-Development challenged this view in more recent years, crucially asking which kind of ‘modernity’ development we want to achieve – and focusing on culture and representation (McEwan, 2014, p.27) – the three main strains of the idea of Development (modernization, poverty reduction, partnership) remain crucial in today’s discourse.

In turn, the emphasis on productivity and the business problem-solving mentality has made crucial in the field numbers, data and every kind of measurable information. Even if it is still a contested, “paradoxical field of theory and practice” (Enghel, 2013, p.119), for a long time ‘Communication for Development’ (C4D) has been interpreted as a Western tool to promote its agenda of modernization through the diffusion of information and innovation (Wilkins, 2008, p.1).

This ‘top-down’ approach starkly contrasts with a more recent ‘participatory development’, focused on a horizontal and broader idea of social change rather than a broad distribution of information to a passive audience. While the so-called “Web 2.0” has technically enabled the audience with the tool to be much more responsive and give not only feedbacks but even produce information by itself, today many agents in the Development field still see participation “as a means toward an end, defined by the institution itself” rather than a comprehensive, empowering strategy to enable a discussion and share knowledge. (Wilkins, 2008, p.2).

One of the clearer examples of this is the ‘social marketing’, which targets individual consumers to change their behavior – in particular sharing messages on health, nutrition and population projects – with the goal of inducing behavior change among individuals. To do so, data and in particular ‘big data’ play a central role, with the promise of shaping discourses and behaviors in a chirurgic, scientific, number-based way.

However, as Stephen Spratt and Justin Baker point out, ‘digital divide’ due to lack of access to technology by large sectors of the population (2016, p.11), and the intrinsic fallacy of statistics and probabilities (p.15) challenge this Neoliberal linear progression of Development.

What are then the cracks opened in this field, where the almost instant technology of the Web 2.0 meets the (paradoxically) slow-developing arena of Development, still dominated by a Neoliberalist faith in its certainty on the power of numbers and mechanistic? We’ll take a look at that in the second post. In the meantime, please feel free to comment, enrich – and to challenge! – the ideas briefly expressed here.



Denskus, T. & Esser, D. (2013). Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 MDG Summit. Third World Quarterly, 34(3), 405-422.

Enghel, F. (2013) ‘Communication, development, and social change: future alternatives’, in Global Communication: New Agendas in Communication, edited by Wilkins, K., Straubhaar, J. and Kumar, S. – Hoboken: Taylor and Francis

McEwan, C. (2014) ‘PostColonialism’, in Desai, V., & Potter, R. (eds). The Companion to Development Studies, Third Edition. London: Routledge.

Pieterse, J. N. (2010). Development theory. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Spratt, S. & Baker, J. (2016). Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options. Brighton: IDS

Wilkins, K. G. (2008). ‘Development Communication’ in Donsbach, Wolfgang (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Blackwell Publishing

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