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Steering Social Media for Development


“The future of the Internet is ours to shape for the next generation. Humanity must be at the center of tomorrow’s Internet”.  The ever-evolving Internet community provide the world with an inclusive, multi-stakeholder, gender-neutral digital space allowing anyone-anywhere a voice. They also provide portals that are excellent fields for interoperability when humans come together for work and play (Global Internet Report, 2017; UNESCO-IITE, 2013).

Development organizations also depend on the interoperability of social networks to cover multi-sectoral humane and relief efforts across the world. The rescue and rehabilitation work in disaster-hit areas seamlessly combine with long-term infrastructure and social development endeavors, a dream come true for development agencies. Social Media (SM) helped to converge different aspects of developmental work to make the whole process efficient.

The development partners are able to now come together and customize their SM tools to analyze, design, and digitally track progress of projects in a more unified and efficient way, than ever before.

In the pre-digital age, development experts picked up the work where humanitarian agencies left off, referred to as “continuous” development. With the advent of social media, humanitarian and development teams are able to work together in a more integrated way from the get-go in a “contiguous” manner, making the whole delivery process more efficient. Two real world examples discussed below.

First, in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, installation of a reliable internet connection was a game-changer for everyone living and working there. Several NGOs, aid organizations, technology companies (e.g. NetHope, Microsoft, Cisco, Inveneo, USAID), and of course, the residents themselves were able to come together digitally and engage effectively. They not only improved the day-to-day problems of the camp, but also were able to collaborate with each other and with the universities in the outside world to put together educational and vocational programs to prepare for life after the camp.

Dadaab Refugee Camp; Source: Oxfam

In the refugee camp, digital efforts started with the expansion of connectivity and training on how to use email and web services. Dadaab inmates used more and more digital learning tools to acquire the education and entrepreneurial skills. Gradually, local and international universities joined forces with Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) to provide Dadaab refugees and locals with primary, secondary, and post-secondary courses—many of these delivered online. With these courses, young refugees were able to qualify for subsequent academic degrees. They even continued their education after they returned home. Vocational courses also allowed post-secondary students to train for specific jobs like teachers, interpreters and translators and contribute to the ongoing development efforts with better skills. When forced displacement caused so many people to put their education and lives on hold, these SM based initiatives limited generational loss and gave refugees the hope of a better future. The operational costs reduced to a third and the savings reinjected into the recovery effort itself.

Second example that underpins the same idea of cohesive and engendered sustainable development based on SM is the Digital Youth Summit (DYS). An annual tech conference held in a fragile and conflict area of Pakistan jointly funded by the World Bank and Government of Pakistan.

Young entrepreneur at DYS

DYS offers online initiatives such as early age programming for digital literacy among school children, funding and capacity building for creative youth entrepreneurship apps, etc. DYS aims to promote youth entrepreneurship from the geographically and economically remote areas and merge them to the global digital economy.

The SM platforms of DYS entered the traditional male dominated marketplace to offer access to additional markets digitally. With time, urged by DYS, more and more women started using SM platforms and transformed it into a gender-inclusive entrepreneurial space. Young women thronged to the conference to learn about digital jobs and gain online entrepreneurship skills. Newer avenues opened up to the women segregated within the local domestic household to express their untapped skills and crafts. Their natural hidden entrepreneurial spirits now find an access to the global mainstream of digital marketplace. DYS succeeded in breaking through the cultural museum and created a vibrant workspace for the youth of KP without disturbing local values.

Youth at DYS

The beauty of SM platforms and mobile apps is that they can be tailored to adapt to any situation at hand. DYS used this feature to navigate through the “triple burden” (i.e. housework, childcare and jobs) that women experience (Women and Web, 2013). The mobile Internet penetration in this area also helped women to access to global SNS from within the closed physical confines of a very high masculine society. About one billion more people in the world use smartphones than five years ago (Statista, 2019). The “leap-frogging” of mobile Internet accessibility opened numerous possibilities particularly for women in development worlds.

The digital platforms of DYS along with their SNS come with an extendable potential. Should this portion of the Himalayan terrain suffer any natural disasters (earthquakes or floods it is prone to), the existing digital platforms in the DYS can convert into a powerful state-of-the-art disaster management HQ with the local SM users becoming stakeholders in the recovery. A crisis specific app incorporated into the ‘Durshal’ gateways on the DYS platform could do this job.  (OCHA, 2015)

Social media networks called the offspring of the Internet, the mother of all networks. Together they contribute to a paradigm shift of humanitarian efforts from mere delivery to creating inclusive and diverse enabling environments. Today’s digital platforms provide unified spaces for “gendered beings”. Looking at people as gendered beings incorporates essential gender inclusivity all the way from the strategic planning to grassroots implementation and enablement processes to meet post disaster employment needs for women. (International Recovery Platform, 2009)

Digital spaces offer a scope to launch a frontal attack on gender inequality on both developmental and humanitarian efforts. SNS global reach enables collaboration, flexibility, permission-less innovation, sharing of content, and connectivity among users (Global Internet Report, 2019).

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