The other day, I had a conversation about emerging development topics. In this instance, I was referring to a discusson on “Development 2.0 - using social media for development projects” among colleagues of mine which in a very short period of time got quite an active following. And the question is raised whether “Development 2.0” should be an actual service line in an organization's portfolio of advisory service topics.
One response I got was that this is not a new topic at all, but that “ICT for Development” has been around as a service line in the development community for a long time. I startled for a moment, as it never occurred to me that someone could use these two terms as interchangeable synonyms. Only then I realized why we sometimes struggle to get the message about the potential of social media in development work across: It might be indeed because so many people equate social media with ICT4D.
From a purely bureaucratic perspective, this might not even be entirely wrong. Yes, looking at the literal term, Web 2.0/social media tools are technologies used for information and communication. Yet, lumping them together with what we traditionally label as ICTs, makes it impossible for us to understand the nature and implications of social media. Because the true nature or identify of social media is not technology, but culture.
The term ICT4D comes from a time where our major concern was to “bridge the ‘digital divide’” between rich and poor countries, connecting countries and communities to the internet, providing communication infrastructure and building capacity for the use of ICT to support access to information and economic growth. It was about getting computers into schools and mobile phones into the hands of small businesses. It was a mostly about infrastructure and training.
Social media is entirely different. It assumes ICT is there and available. What it does, however, is introducing a new way of working, engaging and communicating. This new way is bottom-up, participatory, democratic, networked, open, transparent, fluid, ad-hoc, serendipitous. It is not replacing, but complementing existing process and structures by a dimension which was previously underleveraged. It affects the culture of an entire generation and with it the workforce that emerges out of it. And thus, eventually, the way our organizations do business and societies live.
What is happening when we are currently discussing how to leverage social media within development projects, is not so much that we talk about how we apply technology (although this is also in parts the case), but how we can leverage the fundamental strategic principles of Web 2.0 within our projects: How to initiate an inclusive and participatory deliberation process about our activities and results. How to tap into the collective knowledge, experience and creativity of stakeholders to improve effectiveness and quality of results. How to raise awareness and reach out to more stakeholders more effectively. How to make planning, decisions, activities and results more transparent and open them up for wider accountability. Those are clearly not technology questions answered by engineers and IT experts, the profession primarily involved in ICT4D. Those are question raised by thematic development experts who do not think about the tool they want to use (in fact they couldn’t care less about tools), but about behavioral change they want to initiate as part of their project objectives.
And it doesn’t stop here. Social media is not just changing the way we work within our projects, but it raises questions regarding culture change within societies, as we recently witnessed in an exemplary fashion in the Middle East. What role do Web 2.0 tools play in democratic processes, regime change, access to information and services, and the development of knowledge economies? Again, these are not technology questions, but questions coming from the fields of social science, political science and economics.
With this in mind, we understand that using Development 2.0 interchangeably with ICT4D not only falls short of the full picture, but deprives us of the chance to understand and apply the true nature and potential of this emerging field. Only by handling Development 2.0 as something essentially new, we can make full use of all the opportunities that social media offers to us. And by acknowledging that it is really the widespread application of the principles behind social media which are of importance, rather than the tools and the fact that there is some technology involved.