3 questions about social media in development

There is good reason to be optimistic about social media in development. The use of Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring, and in responses to humanitarian crises (such as the Nepal earthquakes) is well documented. Social media offers a platform for those not usually heard in mainstream media, and has become a vital networking tool for NGOs and activist organisations internationally.
But like all tools for development, we need to be cautious. Here are three questions which add a dose of reality to discussions of social media in development, based on my research with a network of volunteers founded in 1998 which used information and communications technology to identify, mobilize and coordinate small NGOs and volunteers in Central America (henceforth “the network”). To do this they have utilised a variety of internet-based networking tools over the past 17 years, including a website, Yahoo groups, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogs. The network was one of the earliest and longest-lived examples of online networking and peer-to-peer collaboration in development, and as such I think it has plenty to tell us about social media and development.

Who are the intermediaries?
One of the goals of the network was to use internet-based networking tools to link volunteers and organisations in Central America directly with each other in order to coordinate and share information. This is what network theorists call disintermediation, the idea that online networks are open and flattened structures which cut out the middle-man and allow individuals to communicate directly. There is certainly significant potential in this, which is evident, for example, in the emergence and success of services such as airbnb and uber. However in many cases, rather than cutting out the middle man, the online context has seen the emergence of new intermediaries such as celebrities and philanthropists (for example in the Kony 2012 campaign), and content curators. In the case of the network, the founder and other key individuals with connections and influence have become new intermediaries, facilitating connections and filtering information. The network remains heavily reliant on a single founder and a small leadership group and rather than direct communication between participants, most information and coordination occurs through this small group.

Who is participating?
With the rapid spread and decreasing prices of mobile technology it stands to reason that larger numbers of people are able to participate in online networking, creating diverse networks where people are able to interact with those they might not normally meet. Indeed, techno-optomists often point to and the the potential for social media and online networking to contribute to a more plural and collaborative development. However claims regarding participation and diversity have also come under scrutiny. We humans have a well-documented tendency to associate with people like ourselves, and this is reflected in the social networks we create and participate in which tend to be homophilous, looking a lot like the their creators and mediators, and reflecting similar values and beliefs.
For example, within the network there is certainly some lively participation and diversity (in terms of age, profession and institutional affiliation), but from early on the network attracted a core of North American, middle class participants and the growth of the network has continued to be amongst organizations and volunteer groups with similar backgrounds and values. Despite efforts to involve more Central Americans , the discussions continue to be dominated by North Americans with a conservative approach to development – and by the viewpoints of that small group of new intermediaries.

Who is missing?
While techno-optomists might celebrate the way in which the online environment can give a voice to the marginalized and enable their participation in debates and projects which affect their lives, as the preceding discussion indicates, this is not assured. Indeed, any participation is dependent on a range of factors including practical constraints such as literacy levels and ability to access the internet, and broader concerns including the structure and culture of the online network, and the social and political environment in which the activity occurs.
The example of the network highlighted some particular concerns in this regard, as Central American voices were effectively (but not intentionally) excluded within the network due to both technological constraints and structural concerns. These included the dominance of the English language, and the focus on the activities of North American volunteers rather than on local organisations. Exacerbating this was the involvement of U.S. government and military representatives in the network from 2008, and the positioning of the network leadership following political tensions in 2009 which lead to the network becoming known more for its political position – one that allied with US interests – than for its work with the poor.

Online networks and social media are clearly limited by the ideologies, values and political understandings of their founders and users, and the new intermediaries that facilitate their growth. They are also products of the political, economic and social environment in which they emerge and operate. They can be the conduit for a more plural and collaborative form of development. They can empower and give voice to the marginalized. However they can also reinforce and extend the hegemony of neo-liberalism and the power of the privileged. The case study of the network illustrates this paradox. Although the network has been the catalyst for many connections and encounters over the years, the dominance of outsiders within the network illustrates the risks of digital exclusion and homophily. It became an example of a conventional and conservative development approach operating within an online space, promoting a political agenda that was at odds with local development and advocacy organisations. As such the history of the network provides a cautionary note to those who look to social media to provide answers to contemporary development dilemmas.

[Based on paper published June 2015 in Information Technology and Development. Full text available here]

Voluntourism: A crowded conversation?

The author as a voluntourist, Honduras circa 2004

The author as a voluntourist, Honduras circa 2004

If you follow my Twitter feed you have probably seen links to posts on voluntourists, DIY humanitarians, white saviours,  the ‘do-gooder industrial complex‘, the ‘development entertainment industrial complex‘ and (most recently) ‘humanitarian douchery‘. Volunteer tourism is obviously as ongoing interest of mine, one that dates back to my Master’s and PhD research, and my own experiences as a nurse and volunteer in Vanuatu, the Philippines and Central America. This interest has been on the back burner while I have been doing a post-doc looking at Corporate Community Development in the Pacific but it is a space I’m itching to get back into.

However as the list of labels at the beginning of this post indicates, while I have been reading and writing about CSR, CCD, tourism and mining, there has been a flurry of activity in the voluntourism sphere. When I did my postgraduate research I could see the increasing numbers of volunteers in places like Honduras, and wondered at the development impacts of all these Western travelers wanting to help out and give back. With voluntourism is now considered one of the fastest growing niche tourism markets in the world, this has translated into significant academic interest. Indeed, although there was little in the way of academic literature on volunteer tourism ten years ago, a search on Google scholar today turns up hundreds of articles debating the potential and pitfalls of voluntourism.

So where does that leave me? Despite the flurry of academic writing and blog posts I think there is still a space for more research. Indeed, I think there is a need for more research. I believe that voluntourists are not only having an impact (positive or negative) in the region in which they travel and work, they are also shaping representations of development the way in which we understand the ‘other’. I wonder what it means for development when a teenager views a friends shared image of volunteering in Honduras, or when the first ‘gringo’ a Honduran child meets is a voluntourist (who is here now, but gone next week). Since the phenomenon of volunteer tourism is not going away, I’m also interested in how it might be utilised in a more appropriate manner (the idea of Fair trade learning is an intriguing one). So I’m working on plans and funding applications so I can do more fieldwork on this, and there will likely be more posts on the topic here — please check in again soon!

Riding The Beast

It is not often you see a story about Hondurans on the front page of Stuff.co.nz. I just wish it could be more positive… that the situation had improved rather than worsened. And I wish this had explored the causes of the problem in more depth. It is about more than gangs and poverty. It is complex, messy, ugly and real, It is tied up in political chaos, inequality, drug violence and US American interventionism and neo-colonialism.

I’ve met people who have made this journey. I know people who wanted to make this journey. And if life events and personalities had been a little different, this could have been the story of someone very important to me. Honduras is breaking my heart again.

14 yearsFor three months I hung onto, jumped across, crawled over and slept on top of more than a dozen freight trains to capture the experiences of youngsters heading to the border. Working with reporter Sonia Nazario, we produced “Enrique’s Journey – The Boy Left Behind,” a six-part series published in The Times in 2002.

Fourteen years after that journey, I was in Denis’ hometown, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the murder capital of the world. Another Times reporter and I were doing a story on the sharp increase in the number of Central American minors – tens of thousands of them – who have been crossing the Texas border without their parents. Just like in 2000, many of them are stowaways on The Beast.

Read more

Afterlives of Development

My second journal article has now been published in a special edition of PoLAR (Political and legal Anthropology Review). The special edition focuses on the afterlives of development. The title and abstract for my paper are below – please contact me if you would like to read a full version of the paper.

Networks for Development: Volunteer Tourism, Information and Communications Technology, and the Paradoxes of Alternative Development

The projecthonduras network identifies itself as “an alternative concept for the development of Honduras using information and communications technology (ICT) to identify, mobilize and coordinate all the available human capital in Honduras and around the world.” These ambitious goals reflect a wider commitment to non-traditional, non-state-directed alternative development that calls on a network of volunteers, encouraging them to exercise their knowledge and compassion to aid in the development of Honduras. This article analyzes the promotion of volunteerism within the projecthonduras network, and the use of internet-enabled networking to multiply the impact of volunteers in development. This is a contested assemblage in which the promises of technological opportunities and people-led development are confronted by critiques of neo-colonialism and modernization in the contemporary neoliberal context. The article ethnographically documents how, despite the promises of networking and volunteerism and the humanitarian foundations of the network, strong traces of modernist principles remain within projecthonduras. It casts light on the concept of networks for development, and illuminates a central paradox of the projecthonduras model for development: despite its goal to be an alternative model, its rhetoric and practices build on developmentalist legacies and contributes to the neo-liberalization of Honduras.

Medical voluntourism in Honduras: ‘Helping’ the poor?

My paper on medical voluntourism in Honduras has finally been published:

Abstract: Medical voluntourism, where health professionals travel to another country to provide medical services is a growing, but under-researched phenomenon. This article, based on qualitative research with medical voluntourists in Honduras, uses Scheyven’s (2001) continuum of voluntourism to explore the complexities of medical voluntourism. The research found that while ostensibly ‘helpful’, volunteer tourism in Honduras is often harmful, entrenching paternalism and inequitable relationships; and that many voluntourists are ignorant of the underlying power and privilege issues inherent in voluntourism. While there are examples of volunteer tourism as both educational and as a form of social action, the article argues that these are not natural consequences of voluntourism but must be nurtured. As such this article highlights some implications for practice, noting that addressing the paternalism inherent in much medical voluntourism requires an honest appraisal of the benefits and harm of voluntourism by sending and host organizations, education and consciousness-raising amongst volunteers, and long-term relationship building.

The article can be accessed here.

Some thought-provoking questions on giving

A number of people ask me what they can bring or send to help people here in Honduras?
The obvious answer is money. But many people want to send something tangible.

So people think of collecting stuff to send. And so the poor in Honduras are offered clothes, shoes, school supplies, hygiene products and much more. God knows how much material comes here, especially with more than 50,000 coming here on “mission” trips.

But is there something wrong with this? Does this really help? Or is it just a band-aid or worse, something that has unforeseen negative consequences? Does this type of giving really keep the cycle of poverty going?
What do you think?

Good question. For years I’ve thought about, talked about and written about the role of expats in development and the question of gifts and donations is one that I am very interested in. It is also something many aid workers struggle with… indeed the term “SWEDOW” (Stuff WE DOn’t Want - referring to inappropriate, useless and potentially damaging donations) was coined by development workers as a tongue-in-cheek Twitter hash-tag to get people thinking and talking about the issue.

The question of donations is also of interest to aid and development academics. I’ve recently been doing some reading around gift theory, in the context of corporate social responsibility and corporate-community relations in developing nations (assisting with research proposal development at this point… more about that later if it comes to anything more). Very broadly, the conclusion of much of this work is that the nature of the interactions between donors and recipients privileges the interests of the giver and as such, can reinforce relations of patronage and dependency and undermine community capacity and long-term development prospects.

While this work concentrates on larger-scale aid, I think it is worth considering in regard to the smaller-scale donations and gifts John asks about. Although most gifting is well-meaning and without a conscious expectation of  anything in return, there may indeed be unintended negative consequences, and it certainly has an impact on relationships, reinforcing the power imbalance between giver and receiver.

Elvia Alvarado sums up the dilemma well:

I’m very grateful to all these organizations in the United States, especially the private and religious organizations. I appreciate the food and clothing they send. I thank them sincerely for their willingness to help, and I know they do it with great love. But I’d also like to say that this relationship–where we’re dependent on the goodwill of outsiders–isn’t the kind of relationship we’d like to have…. We’re not going to solve our problem through handouts. Because our problem is a social one. And until we change this system, all the charity in the world won’t take us out of poverty.

- Elvia Alvarado
Don’t Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart

As always however, I am cautious about being too harsh on those so willing to help, and don’t want to squash people’s heart-felt desires to contribute to the alleviation of another’s suffering. So what can we do?

I think, despite his questions, John has some good answers. Answers which link to the notion of reciprocity highlighted in Gift Theory, which posits that gifts are part of the creation and maintenance of relationships, and that although they are given freely they inevitably result in an obligation to reciprocate at some point in the future. As such — as John suggests — gifting should respect the values and capabilities of people, promote doing things together and be part of an ongoing relationship. And there should be space for reciprocation:

Any giving should be in the spirit of sharing, not coming just to give. Those coming from outside need to be willing to receive from the people who are often extremely generous, offering a meal even when they are very poor or giving the visitors little gifts. Receive these gifts with real gratitude. Don’t deny the people the opportunity to be generous.


An exploration of the role of short term medical missions in health care provision in Honduras

Master’s Thesis Abstract

Short term medical missions, or medical brigades are teams of expatriate health professionals and lay people, who travel to Latin America and other parts of the world for a week or two to provide health care to the poor. While the number and popularity of these teams appears to be increasing, to date there has been little literature or critical research addressing their role. This thesis addresses the role of Short Term Medical Missions (STMMs), who they are, what they do and how they fit into health service provision in developing nations. In particular it outlines the services provided by STMMs, including clinical services, resource provision and preventative services, it discusses the motivation for using STMMs as service providers and it also begins to explore the impact they have on the populations and on local health care services in the areas they operate. This is done within the context of Honduras, a nation that has seen an influx of these teams in recent years, particularly since Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Honduras faces many challenges in health and health care and STMMs have been seen by some as a means of “filling gaps”. This study questions whether STMMs are indeed actually filling real gaps, and if they are, whether they most appropriate means of doing so, as there are many limitations to the ability of short term, outside volunteers to provide quality services. While not directly measuring the impact of STMMs on the health status of the population, this study discusses the actual and potential impact of STMMs on local health services, and argues that there are potential long-term consequences to their use. These consequences include an increasing dependency on outside assistance that may be detrimental to the long-term development of National health services.

Full Thesis (PDF)

An alternative model for development? : promise and politics in the projecthonduras network

PhD Thesis Abstract

Projecthonduras is an online network of mostly voluntary organisations working in development in Honduras. It aims to be practical, positive and apolitical, and to create an ‘alternative model‘ for development based on mobilising people using information and communication technology (ICT). In the context of on-going debates regarding the problems with conventional development aid and the search for new approaches, the projecthonduras rhetoric appears to hold much promise. Indeed its early inception and more than a decade of operation make it stand out in a world of failed Internet start-ups, and its positive and constructive approach finds resonance with recent, more hopeful post-development literature. However after three years of research this thesis outlines a much more complex picture of projecthonduras. This is one with very quiet online forums but a growing political voice, particularly following the 2009 coup d‘état in Honduras. The thesis addresses this apparent paradox, unpacking the structure and discourse of projecthonduras, and identifying the underlying assumptions and understandings that underpin both the ‘alternative’ development rhetoric and the political activity. Researched and written as an ethnography, this thesis positions projecthonduras within the development studies literature and within the particular context of contemporary Honduras. Using on and offline interviews and participant observation, and making extensive use of Internet-based data, this study shows that the projecthonduras development model is based on a paternalistic and modernising model of development, one that is connected to a liberal, capitalist politics. The emergence of political themes in this research is reflective of the messy realities of development intervention, and of geo-political, economic and cultural power and privilege within Honduras. However as indicated by the title of this thesis, the concept of politics stands alongside that of promise, the potential held by the idea of ICT and social networking. This intersection of promise and politics highlights the contours of the structural and discursive boundaries in which projecthonduras operates, and emphasises the complexity inherent in the search for development alternatives.

Full Thesis (PDF)

note taking

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