26 May 2010

Has the Internet Been a Force for Development?

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.

1 comment:

Tobias said...

This is an interesting post and as someone who spends quite a bit of
time online, I would like to reply briefly. I don't think 'the Internet' (social media, twitter etc) has much of an impact on 'the poor' (yet).
The lack of research may be a good indication. But what I find
interesting is that there are a lot of debates going on on the
'intermediary level', ie debates about development research, the
complexities of 'doing' development in the field and quirky, funny, sad
or outrageous 'blurbs' from the aid industry. Aidwatch, Chris Blattman's blog, aidthoughts or Tales from the Hood are only four of the blogs I read regularly. David Roodman's Open Book project on microfinance is an excellent example of critical development research
Bill Easterly's posts could easily form the basis of entire lectures and seminars and I have used the Huffington Post debate between him, Sachs and Moyo in my undergrad seminars. Easterly has also received a significant amount of money for his institute and I'm sure his online 'fame' has helped him. And 'Tales from the Hood' often provides fascinating insights into Haiti that are useful for any researcher, student and practitioner. The problem is that they are all written by men in the 'North'-but maybe that's also my selection bias as a man from the North?! What An African Woman Thinks and Alanna Shaikh's Blood and Milk blog are interesting examples written by women.

But is this helping the poor? The short answer is no. Sometimes even
Easterly adopts some kind of 'development celebrity status' and digresses into personal debates. It's a thin and difficult line. The longer answer is maybe. In some ways, development and its
practitioners seem to become more reflective and the Internet can help them to get out the word and share their experiences. If nothing else, 'we' can read about how complex aid is. This is an important first step-and a good way to engage/prepare younger
aid workers or students. Or maybe it just shows how much of a
'lifestyle' development has become?! As always, it's complicated and no blogging can replace good practice on the ground where Internet may not exist and ordinary mobile phones may be the communication tool of choice.