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May 17, 2012

What's the connection between power, development and social media?

May 17, 2012
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This post also appears on the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation governance blog, although sadly, without the neanderthal

I recently gave a talk about ICT and Development at the annual Re:Campaign conference in Berlin, organized by Oxfam Germany. Anyone who knows me will realize that this is a bit odd – despite being a blogaholic, I am actually Rubbish At Technology. In front of 300 trendy,

So let me explain how Facebook works.......

So let me explain how Facebook works.......

young (sigh) i-thingy wielding activists, I felt like a Neanderthal at a cocktail party. Still, at least the fear of being shamed up finally got me tweeting two weeks before the conference.

I decided to make a virtue of necessity and set out some core processes in development, and then reflected on what ICT does/doesn’t contribute. Why take this approach (apart from being a techno-caveman, that is)? Because there’s too much magic bulletism in development –microfinance, GM crops and now ‘cyber utopianism’. What all of these have in common is that they are too often presented as ‘get out of jail free’ cards, delivering development without all the messy business of politics and struggle. At best, new technologies shift power balances, sometimes favourably, sometimes not, but they don’t replace the process of struggle in development.

The core of my talk was to take the ‘four powers’ model of power within, power with, power to and power over and see how the spread of IT affects each of them in turn.

Power within – that lightbulb ‘get up, stand up’ moment when an individual becomes aware of their identity and rights – is often the first step on the path of social and political change. It can come through conflict, education, conversation or through old technologies such as community radio for indigenous minorities – Quechua, a language spoken by some 10 million people in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, is rarely heard on television and is completely absent from the Internet. By contrast, 180 radio stations offer programmes in Quechua. What I haven’t yet seen is much link between social media and power within (do correct me if I’m wrong – this really is a first draft piece). Possible future avenues include distance learning, but often what is needed is low tech education – trained and paid teachers, chairs, textbooks, ending user fees.

Power With – newly awakened people finding common cause with their fellows through social movements, faith-based organizations, trades unions, political parties etc etc. In this effort to build collective organization, IT can play a role, whether by facilitating access to information, or lowering the costs and barriers to organizing (think twitter and FB in Tahrir square). It can also help bring dispersed communities together in new and powerful ways – for example the truly impressive diaspora networks of Somalis and others that rely Pink-phonesheavily on social media, or one of my favourite Oxfam projects – pink phones in Cambodia.

Power To/Power Over involves aware, organized people expressing their needs and demands, and exercising some form of control over those in authority, first by putting the right issues on the table, and then getting the decisions and resources that are needed. Overall, I think this is where IT has most to offer. Some examples:

Getting news of human rights violations out fast, when urgency is vital, can alert national governments, international organizations and others.

Crowd-sourcing information so the authorities can’t deny what is going on, e.g. the Stop Stock-outs campaign, or Ushahidi: “Ushahidi”, which means “testimony” in Swahili, was a website that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Since then, the name “Ushahidi” has come to represent the people behind the “Ushahidi Platform”.

Markets: The biggest gains for farmers and fishers have come in access to credit and to agricultural market info.

Feedback and Accountability: Gaining access to official information in a comprehensible format is a core aspect of accountability, but IT can also increase the accountability of northern NGOs and campaigns to those in the South – e.g. the great work by Al Jazeera on the Kony2012 video.

All well and good, but IT is emphatically not a magic bullet. Malcolm Gladwell’s distinction between strong and weak ties is really helpful

Now that's what I call transformational technology....

Now that's what I call transformational technology....

here. Strong ties are those deep bonds of trust and comradeship that allow you to ‘walk towards the guns’. Weak ties are the shallower, broader bonds that convince you to join the demo or sign the petition. IT undoubtedly helps with the latter, but no-one ever decided to risk their neck because of Twitter.

And let’s not forget ‘Bad Power’. IT can move everything in the wrong direction – strengthening elites, enhancing a culture of surveillance and control, excluding poor people and communities. Here’s a nice 10 minute RSAnimate talk by Evgeny Morozov on the dark side of IT as a corrective.

In the rich countries, ICT undoubtledly has huge potential for transforming two key aspects of the North’s role in development: Do No Harm and Aid. ‘Do No Harm’ covers everything from climate change to intellectual property restrictions to the arms trade. In all of those IT can improve the speed and scale of campaigns, link up citizens in the North to the consequences of their governments’ or societies’ decisions in developing countries, and challenge pervasive ‘hegemonic discourses’ on everything from resource-intensive growth to privatization of social services.

On Aid, there’s clearly been growing interest in transparency and accountability (e.g. IATI), but the EITI (aargh, acronym-poisoning) provided a cautionary lesson that supply (of information) doesn’t simply create demand (for accountability). IT plus growing disenchantment with institutions, is also likely to drive interest in ‘disintermediation’ in aid, linking punters directly to poor people (GiveDirectly) or budding entrepreneurs (Kiva). At the business end, fast money disbursement via mobiles can massively improve disaster response. IT can also help us plug the realtime data gap after shocks hit.

Final thoughts? For the technophiles like those gathered in Berlin, the key thing is to remember, however platitudinous it may sound, that ICT is a means not an end – are you clear what the end is? What is your theory of change, beyond scattering new kit everywhere?
In developing countries, the key is how poor/excluded people adopt, adapt and use technology: start there, and you’ll find exciting possibilities (see Twaweza in East Africa). Be too tech-led, and you may well end up in a dead end.

As you’ve probably realized, I have a long way to go in linking up the power analysis and IT worlds, so any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

And if you have 30 minutes to spare, you can see me here

10 comments

  1. I think another aspect that is worth considering is that developing nations seem to be an experimental playground for developed nations to test out their theories of change and technological progress. Governments often give aid in the form of technology developed by companies and experts in their own nation as a sort of showcase which promotes their ideology. Things they wouldn’t dare try back home. Always one to watch out for – how much are we overlaying our own ideals and our own techno-fetishism onto people groups who really need a different solution?

    (I think somebody who is Rubbish At Technology is well-placed to point out this sort of thing to the i-thingy wielders…)

  2. Ha-Joon Chang’s analysis of the impact of technology could be relevant here. He argues that we tend to see technological developments that are closest to us in time as being bigger than they really are. He’s not arguing that the internet is not hugely important, but rather that other technological advances have changed the world more. This skewing of perspective matters because it affects decisions about which development projects to peruse. He argues this has resulted in an over emphasis of development projects using IT. I’m not sure I totally agree, but it’s interesting. It’s “thing number 4″ in his 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism.

  3. Hi Duncan, love the caveman reference. I used to be called caveman in college because of my prowess in social media tech and lack of interaction with people at large. Anyways, things have changed. Social media has become a powerful tool in recent times, a good example being in Tahrir Square. I think the most promising aspect will be the use of social media in helping the poor access markets. Here’s a link to a study we are doing currently http://www.centre-for-microfinance.com/research-projects/livelihoods/avaaj-otalo-investigating-impact-mobile-based-agricultural-extension-service/

  4. Glad you had the courage to give a dose of realism to the techno- utopianists.

    A couple of quick comments:

    1. I think there are more examples of technology for the “power within” than you give credit for here. This area was a major focus of much ICT for Development work that predates use of mobile and social networking technologies. It has had mixed degrees of success and would include initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child, but also projects like the Jokko initiative that teaches literacy and human rights to women using mobile phones in West Africa.
    2. I think the strong/weak ties element of social media is frequently oversimplified. Yes, social media enables the creation of lots of weak ties, but weak ties are often the most important way of diffusing new ideas (since you already know most of what your strong ties know). Similarly from the breadth of weak ties you make on social media, a few of them can develop into strong ties – ones you wouldn’t otherwise have had – I know this is true for me professionally. So social media is the introduction – but can them be followed up by real life interactions. Social media is also good to help maintain strong ties with people who are physically separated whose connections might otherwise erode.
    3. One key element of whether ICT projects work or not is adoption i.e. do people choose to use them or not, and why. Charles Kenny has a great blog on this over at CGD http://blogs.cgdev.org/globaldevelopment/2012/05/why-dont-they-want-what-we-know-they-need.php
    The key here is “human centred design” i.e. designing around what people can relate to and use (iteratively by working with them) rather than deciding what technology is “good for them”.

  5. ICTs are the means to achieve many goals. Including making available the information society and the impacts derived.

    My impression is that the model of the “Four Powers” reflects a process of empowerment. Starting by empowering of individuals (within), along with the group (with) and ending with the transformer (to/over).

    A process that, first, entails realizing what we are able to do, then to get together with people whom we can share goals and, finally, take action. ICT, in whole process, help to realize. to stay together and to take action. But just like another tool. If there really exist a silver bullet, this is the person and his conscience to do things.

    I find it difficult to separate between the developed and the developing world under this “Four Powers” model. Ultimately, the concept of “ICT as facilitator for empowerment” is also applicable in countries called “developed” (perhaps because all countries are constantly developing). As an example, fixmystreet.com. Follows the process of empowerment within/with/to/over and use ICT-Social Media as a means.

  6. Interesting talk, but what about ICT and education aspects? What about the capacity of poor people to actually use and manipulate technology? The one laptop a child programme offers some lessons in this regards.

  7. Great piece, Duncan: it’s always good to have a sideways look, and the power model is a useful tool. But like all models it oversimplifies, which is always tricky where people are concerned. I’m interested in the ‘power within’ element and I think we need to recognise that different things spark the light bulb in different people. I know there are people who get their inspiration from contemplation, or solo experimentation but even they need someone to tell, to test, to work with. There are also many of us who need social interaction to light our fires – indeed isn’t learning social? And since the recognition of our own power is personal I think we need to look for both individual and larger scale demonstrations of how digital technology effects changes. For example, doesn’t simply being better connected – via any of the digital techs – to distant family, to other campaigners, to public outlets operate in similar ways to having enough food, as a necessary enabler for a next step? And hasn’t the ability to publish – solo, or with others – into a public space that was controlled and patrolled by powerful specialist people been transformative of both the space and all of those who add their tiny bits of content through social media? For larger scale examples it’s worth looking at the many, many projects which publish and promote endogenous content (local or indigenous traditional knowledge) – see http://www.celac.or.ug/ for one example. While the content output is valuable, probably the most significant outcome is the validation of personal or community knowledge, which can be immensely empowering to those engaged in the process. And http://www.digitalgreen.org is busy demonstrating how that process can scale, as long as it is embedded into more traditional development processes. Maybe the next step is to genuinely mainstream digital tech into development, systematically, as it’s become integral to the lives of anyone who’s reading this blog.

  8. Nice post Duncan. @Fortuny captures the main point well, that technology is no silver bullet, but that when used within a well-conceived process of empowerment, technology amplify voices, extend reach and support people building communities of shared interest for change.

    Whilst there have been wild over-claims for centrality of social media in the Egyptian uprising there is little doubt that it amplified the power of the movement.

  9. Good post! Glad the focus isn’t on technology as such but it being a means to an end – and the end must be change and transformation. Guess social media must be about changing the rules of the game to access/influencing power? I was listening to a recent Carnegie sponsored discussion on digital diplomacy which reminded me of the way in which elites were also using technology to connect to wider networks so there’s something very special happening with social media if both elites and the powerless want to use it. Anything that disrupts the power of hierarchies has to be transformative… whether this is in local villages in Bangladesh, in Apple Inc. Oxfam, DFID or the World Bank.

    I love how in international relations we are now discussing the role of social media in the list of non-state actors that can disrupt the power of the sovereign state and other large, established sources of authorities.

    What’s the best outcome for development? To give the powerless access to technology and tools so they can define the solutions and innovation needed?

  10. I’m very pessimist with that kind of projects where technology is used to change poors’ condition. What changes condition is mind-changing plus basic education. Technology is just a tool

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