In 2003 China and India had 100 million Internet users. Today that number is 350 million. In most African countries the number of Internet users has tripled or quadrupled in the past five years. In 2004, two in 10 households in the developing world had a mobile phone subscription while today it is five in 10. In 2004 the social networking site Facebook was only used by Harvard students and now it has over 300 million active users. In 2004 YouTube did not exist, but now it gets 1 billion views a day.
So has any of this made a significant contribution to accelerating development? This is a fascinating research agenda, but so far I have not seen a centre of gravity emerge in the field, nor have I seen too much that is based on data from a wide range of contexts.
This lack of evidence became apparent when I tried to write this blog. I wanted to test the assertions in the Foreign Policy article "Think Again: The Internet".
The article by Evgeny Morozov generates a number of propositions (some very straw man-like) which he then demolishes one by one. Here are some of them, with his verdict in parentheses:
1. The Internet has been a force for good ("sadly enough a networked world is not inherently a more just world")
2. Twitter will undermine dictators ("does more information really translate into more power to right wrongs?")
3. The Internet makes governments more accountable ("It's political will, not more information that is still too often missing")
4. The Internet boosts political participation (in the US "both tuning in and tuning out of political discourse have never been easier")
5. The Internet brings us closer together ("The age of the splinternet beckons")
But the evidence base Morozov summons seemed narrow and perhaps vulnerable to more scrutiny, so I had a quick look for alternative sources of evidence. I could not find much.
And yet this is such a vital set of questions. As we know with nearly all new technologies, whether they work to promote poverty reduction and social justice depends on who is doing the prioritising, who has access, who is regulating and who is assessing risk. The STEPS Centre at IDS is a leader on these issues, albeit not on the Internet per se.
One small but important initiative is a roundtable being held on Thursday 27 May at IDS and organised by IDS Fellow Evangelia Berdou entitled "Participation 2.0: Are new, open innovation models for developing solutions for the poor part of the answer to the development crisis?". This is part of a larger IDS initiative called Reimagining Development.