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What's the Connection between Power, Development and Social Media?

Duncan Green's picture

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, 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 heavily 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 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.
 

Photo Credit: Oxfam

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