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Organisational Use of Social Media: A Perspective on International Development NGOs

28 September 2018 Leave a comment

Social media have become a ubiquitous phenomenon; no-one would argue nowadays. From sharing personal experiences to connecting with other people the implications of these technologies are beyond the eye can reach. Social media have entered the international development area too. The ICT-for-development field is exploring and trying to understand the potential of social media and emerging technologies such as cloud. The impact of social media for development purposes is still an ongoing research process [2]. The potential of social media in the context of international development covers four broad areas, which are: connecting with others; collaborating with other people; creating and sharing content; and finding, using, organising and reusing content [1].

How organisations make sense of technology use for their goals is an ongoing research topic. This also applies to non-governmental organisations (NGOs). NGOs are active players in the field of international development, both as providers of aid and services to underprivileged communities as well as policy advocates [3, 4]. Despite the enormous diversity of NGOs, a general characterisation of NGOs is nonetheless possible within the context of this study. NGOs have the following five characteristics: institutionalised organisation, separate from the government (non-state), non-profit, self-governing and often some degree of voluntary participation in its activities [5-7].

Table 1. A classification of Northern development NGOs

Table 1 is a classification of Northern development NGOs. “North” in development discourse often means the OECD countries are considered, whereas “South” depicts non-OECD countries [8]. The first generation of NGOs focused on emergency relief and welfare. As a development strategy relief and welfare are mostly a temporary alleviation of the signs of underdevelopment. The second generation brought more attention to small-scale and self-reliant local community development. However, NGOs soon realised the limited impact of this approach, and this led to the third generation, aiming at sustainable systems development, in local public and private organisations that are linked into a supportive national development system. These NGOs are moving from a service delivery role to a facilitating one, where they facilitate other organisations to create capacities, relationships and responsibilities required to address designated needs in a sustainable way [9]. Korten [5] and De Senillosa [10] go even further suggesting the need for a fourth-generation category, which will facilitate the coming together of loosely-defined networks of people and organisations to transform the institutions of global society [5]. Fowler [11] speaks of civic innovation for creating innovative solutions to old and new social problems based on action and support from the citizen base.  A fifth scenario is that development NGOs are beginning to stimulate the role of international and local businesses in the social sustainability of the South [12] or even to take up that role themselves as social entrepreneurs using commercial undertakings to cross-subsidise social interventions [13].

Some NGOs tend to focus solely on emergency aid but nowadays development NGOs often have activities that cover a mixture of these so-called generations or development mindset goals, thus showing a combination of roles the NGOs take within the same organisational entity. NGOs are not static throughout their lifespan and some of their activities may be dropped or evolve to others that fit better with a different NGO role in another column as shown in Table 1.

Organisational Social Media Use for Development NGOs 

More and more development NGOs are harnessing the power of social media to affect change [14]. Social media have been used for activities such as organising community activism, for empowering citizens, and for coordinating emergency or disaster relief efforts [15]. Examples of mapping disaster-struck regions using social media after earthquakes or after hurricanes have shown the potential of crowdsourcing for NGOs involved with relief activities [16-18]. Table 2 illustrates the specific uses of social media for the various roles and accompanying dominant mind-set the development NGOs have as found in research I have undertaken.

NGO’s development mindset Example
Social Media Use in Relation to NGO’s Activities for Emergency Assistance A Dutch NGO developed an emergency app that mapped the needs of communities in need in a disaster struck area. Local communities can relay information on what’s needed via mobile phones (even via text messages), or via Internet-connected devices.
Social Media Use in Relation with Development Activities An NGO created an online community mainly of villages in the global South who share indigenous knowledge and experience, mainly on agricultural practices. The community connected villages from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Social Media Use when Development Becomes a Self-Reliant Political Process An NGO has created online resources to inform citizens on digital activism. They have also established emergency response capacity and support for bloggers, cyber activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists, that are under threat. 
Social Media Use for Human and Sustainable Development An example of this case is a network of young practitioners from various development NGOs who organised an online (and offline) community to address prejudices in international development and particularly reframing the message and perception of the global South. They have set up an annual online contest to showcase good and bad examples from social media campaigns by Dutch development NGOs.
Social Media Use when Development Goes Beyond Aid

 

An example is one NGO that is transforming from being a crowdsourcing platform for small-scale private initiatives for development projects, toward a social enterprise that will work increasingly with businesses and cities by offering them a “do good” platform for their employees and citizens. This has also changed a North-South dichotomy as the projects are both in the global North as well as in the global South.

Table 2. Specific uses of social media for the various roles and accompanying dominant mindset of development NGOs

If we take the five aforementioned NGO strategic activities and cross-reference these with the four potential activity areas of social media use in the context of aid and development [1], we arrive at an applicability framework as shown in Table 3. The social media activities are sorted along the four areas for each NGO’s strategic developmental activity. This work-in-progress framework provides NGOs with a practical instrument for assessing the use of social media for international development purposes.

Table 3. Classification of social media activities related to development objectives of NGOs

This work-in-progress artefact provides a useful and nuanced starting point for development NGOs to explore their organisational use of social media and align these to the NGO activities as mentioned in the columns of the table. Based on the NGO’s activities one or more columns are relevant for assessing the use of social media. The cells in the table that are found when intersecting the column with the rows provide information on how social media acts for that specific development purpose and social media activity in the context of development in mind. The arrows indicate that these cells are similar to the cell on the left of them.

Social media have the potential of transforming patterns of work and interactions of organisations [19]. For the changing role that NGOs take when development goes beyond aid, this aspect of social media may prove to be very useful.

The framework as shown in Table 3 is being discussed with practitioners from development NGOs to assess its practical contribution. Some are cautious about development outcome of ICT and social media [20]. “Social media for development is a contested process that might amplify rather than dissipate powerful voices, and transform a fairly open online space as a proxy for mediated participation in support of the status quo”, they argue. The table is hoped to help explore such issues further.

References

  1. Zuniga, L. and N. White, Module Web 2.0 and Social Media for Development, in Information Management Resource Kit (IMARK). 2009, FAO.
  2. Heeks, R., ICT4D 2016: New Priorities for ICT4D Policy, Practice and WSIS in a Post-2015 World, in Development Informatics Working Paper Series. 2014, Centre for Development Informatics, Institute for Development Policy and Management, SEED, University of Mancheste: Manchester.
  3. Clarke, G., Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Politics in the Developing World. Political Studies, 1998. 46(1): p. 36-52.
  4. Atack, I., Four Criteria of Development NGO Legitimacy. World Development, 1999. 27(5): p. 855-864.
  5. Korten, D.C., Getting to the 21st century: voluntary action and the global agenda. 1990: Kumarian Press.
  6. Salamon, L.M. and H.K. Anheier, In Search of the Nonprofit Sector I: The Question of Definitions. 1992: Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.
  7. Lewis, D. and N. Kanji, Non-Governmental Organizations and Development. 2009: Taylor & Francis.
  8. Mitlin, D.C., A study of relations between Northern and Southern NGOs in Kenya. 2003, London School of Economics and Political Science (United Kingdom).
  9. Korten, D.C., Third generation NGO strategies: A key to people-centered development. World Development, 1987. 15, Supplement 1(0): p. 145-159.
  10. De Senillosa, I., A new age of social movements: A fifth generation of non-governmental development organizations in the making? Development in Practice, 1998. 8(1): p. 40-53.
  11. Fowler, A., NGDOs as a moment in history: Beyond aid to social entrepreneurship or civic innovation? Third World Quarterly, 2000. 21(4): p. 637-654.
  12. Bendell, J. and D.F. Murphy, Partners in Time? Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development. 1999, The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD): Geneva.
  13. Fowler, A., NGO futures: Beyond aid: NGDO values and the fourth position. Third World Quarterly, 2000. 21(4): p. 589-603.
  14. Ørecomm, Social Media in Development Cooperation, ed. R.S. Braskov. 2012, Malmö University and Roskilde University: Ørecomm – Centre for Communication and Glocal Change.
  15. Bresciani, S. and A. Schmeil. Social media platforms for social good. in Digital Ecosystems Technologies (DEST), 2012 6th IEEE International Conference on. 2012.
  16. Crowley, J. and J. Chan, Disaster relief 2.0: the future of information sharing in humanitarian emergencies, in Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. 2011, iRevolution – From Innovation to Revolution: Washington D.C. and Berkshire, UK.
  17. Livingston, S. and G. Walter-Drop, Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood. 2014: OUP USA.
  18. Meier, P. Using AIDR to Collect and Analyze Tweets from Chile Earthquake. iRevolution Blog: From innovation to Revolution 2014 3 April 2014 [cited 2014 3 May]; Available from: http://irevolution.net/2014/04/03/using-aidr-to-collect-and-analyze-tweets-from-chile-earthquake/.
  19. Suarez, D.F., Nonprofit Advocacy and Civic Engagement on the Internet. Administration Society, 2009. 41(3): p. 267-289.
  20. McLennan, S.J., Techno-optimism or Information Imperialism: Paradoxes in Online Networking, Social Media and Development. Information Technology for Development, 2015: p. 1-20.
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The Demographics of Digital Development

13 April 2017 2 comments

Any emergent digital development paradigm will be shaped by three changing demographics of ICT usage: geographical, maturational and experiential.

Geographically, we have already moved from domination of the old Internet world (the US and Europe) to domination of the new Internet world (emerging nations of the global East and South), as summarised in the table below[1].  Use of digital technology in developing countries[2] now represents the majority not minority global experience.

 

Region % Share in 2001 % Share in 2017
RISING SHARE
Africa 1% 9%
Middle East 1% 4%
Latin America/Caribbean 5% 10%
Asia 32% 50%
FALLING SHARE
North America 30% 9%
Oceania 2% 1%
Europe 29% 17%

Regional Share of Global Internet Users (2001, 2017)

 

Maturationally, there are growing numbers of digital natives: defined as those 15-24 year olds with five or more years of online experience[3].  While only around one-fifth of the youth cohort in developing countries are digital natives (compared to four-fifths in the global North), youth in the global South as twice as likely to be digital natives as the total population, and so they have a disproportionate role which might be worth specific encouragement.  Given they see ICTs as more important and more beneficial than others do, and given they make proportionately greater use of digital technologies and of social networks, then engagement of digital natives – for example in education or politics – may be enhanced by ensuring there are effective digital channels in these sectors.

Experientially, ICT users are experiencing changes that include[4]:

  • Time-space compression: a shortening of timespans for activities moving towards Castells’ notion of “timeless time” in which biological and clock time are replaced by compressed, desequenced notions of time; and a new geography that replaces physical distance with virtual space so that individual experience moves from a “space of places” to a “space of flows”[5].
  • Public to private: moving from shared-use to individual-use models of ICT interaction. Voice communication is moving from public payphones to shared mobile phones to individually-owned mobile phones.  Internet access is moving from public access telecentres and cybercafés to semi-public home or work computers to personal mobile devices.  The digital experience thus becomes increasingly private and personal.
  • Fixed to mobile: as mobile devices become the dominant means of access to digital infrastructure and content.
  • Text/audio to audio-visual: while it may be premature to call the emergence of a post-literate society, increasing bandwidth and technical capabilities mean digital experiences can increasingly resemble rich, natural real-life experiences rather than the artificial restrictions of just text or just audio.

One can argue that all four cases, represent an increasing presence yet decreasing visibility of the digital as its mediation merges more seamlessly into everyday life and activities.  This growth-but-disappearance of mediation thus represents a final experiential trend – that digital technologies more-and-more intercede between us and our experiences, and yet we notice them doing this less-and-less.  If the medium is the message, our conscious awareness of the message may be diminishing.

All three of these trends – geographical, maturational and experiential – form the emerging background underlying digital development, which is the subject of a Development Informatics working paper: “Examining “Digital Development”: The Shape of Things to Come?”, and will be the topic for future blog entries.

[1] IWS (2017) Internet Usage Statistics, Internet World Stats http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

[2] http://www.oecd.org/dac/stats/daclist.htm

[3] ITU (2013) Measuring the Information Society 2013, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/publications/mis2013.aspx

[4] Barney, D. (2004) The Network Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK; Boettiger, S., Toyama, K. & Abed, R. (2012) Natural obsolescence of Village Phone, in: ICTD’12, ACM, New York, NY, 221-229; Molony, T. (2012) ICT and human mobility: cases from developing countries and beyond, Information Technology for Development, 18(2), 87-90; Ridley, M. (2009) Beyond literacy, in: Pushing the Edge, D.M. Mueller (ed), American Library Association, Chicago, IL, 210-213

[5] Castells, M. (2000) Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society, British Journal of Sociology, 51(1), 5-24

Technology Foundations for Digital Development

If there is to be a coming digital development paradigm, on what technologies will it be based?

Mobile, broadband, and mobile broadband (hence smartphones and tablets) will be a key foundation for the digital development paradigm.  They are already present or rapidly diffusing in developing countries.

As these diffuse, cloud, social media and other Web 2.0 applications necessary for digital platforms will become dominant.  The highest growth rates for cloud are already in the global South[1].  Social media is already dominated by the global South: by 2016 North America and Europe made up just 26% of global social network users, with 52% in Asia (including Oceania), 13% in Central/South America, and 9% in the Middle East and Africa[2].

Looking further ahead, of technologies likely to have a significant impact on development, the Internet of things is a main contender: the online connectivity of increasing numbers of objects.  The main growth area – 50 billion devices predicted by 2020[3] – is seen to be two types of connection.  First, stand-alone sensors – for example providing agricultural readings from fields, or medical readings from health centres.  Second, sensors integrated into mainstream objects from cars and refrigerators to toilets and shoes.

All these applications become smart when they move from a passive ability to collect and transmit data to an active ability to take a decision and action on the basis of that data: smart irrigation systems that automatically water dry crops; smart electricity grids that automatically isolate and re-route around transmission failures.   Even more than cloud, smart systems bring significant potential to increase efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure and business, alongside significant potential to increase dependency and vulnerabilities to cybercrime and surveillance[4].

Digital ICTs have already moved us along the time dimension to a world of 24/7 everywhen connectivity (see Figure 1[5]).  Thanks to telecommunications advances, anywhere can now be connected, and we are slowly erasing the blank spaces on the digital map and moving towards everywhere being connected.  In terms of nodes, pretty well anyone and anything could now be connected thanks to ubiquitous computing.  There is still a very long way to go but within a generation almost everyone will be connected, and we will be steadily moving closer to everything being connected thus vastly multiplying the number of “points of potential control, resistance, and contestation”[6].

Figure 1: The Growing Domain of Digital Connectivity

We can therefore think of three generations of technological infrastructure for digital development (see Figure 2).  The first, already well-rooted, is based largely around mobile devices.  The second, currently emerging, is based around digital platforms and the Internet including Web 2.0 applications.  The third, currently nascent, will be based around a ubiquitous computing model of sensors, embedded processing and near-universal connectivity, and widespread use of smart applications.

Figure 2: The Generations of Digital Infrastructure for Development

Digital development is the subject of a Development Informatics working paper: “Examining “Digital Development”: The Shape of Things to Come?”, and is the topic for other blog entries.

 

[1] UNCSTD (2013) Issues Paper on ICTs for Inclusive Social and Economic Development, UN Commission on Science Technology and Development, Geneva

[2] WAS (2016) Digital in 2016, We Are Social, Singapore

[3] Pew Research Center (2014) The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025, Pew Research Center, Washington, DC

[4] UNCSTD (ibid.)

[5] Adapted from ITU (2005) The Internet of Things, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva

[6] p24 of Deibert, R. & Rohozinski, R. (2012) Contesting cyberspace and the coming crisis of authority, in: Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace, Deibert, R.J., Palfrey, J.G., Rohozinski, R. & Zittrain, J. (eds), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 21-41

An Emerging Digital Development Paradigm?

28 February 2017 5 comments

Taking a longer-term view, the relationship between digital ICTs and international development can be divided into three paradigms – “pre-digital”, “ICT4D”, and “digital development” – that rise and fall over time (see Figure below).

ict4d-paradigms

Changing Paradigms of ICTs and Development

 

The pre-digital paradigm dominated from the mid-1940s to mid-1990s, and conceptualised a separation between digital ICTs and development[1].  During this period, digital ICTs were increasingly available but they were initially ignored by the development mainstream.  When, later, digital technologies began to diffuse into developing countries, they were still isolated from the development mainstream.  ICTs were used to support the internal processes of large public and private organisations, or to create elite IT sector jobs in a few countries.  But they did not touch the lives of the great majority of those living in the global South.

The ICT4D paradigm has emerged since the mid-1990s, and conceptualised digital ICTs as a useful tool for development[2].  The paradigm arose because of the rough synchrony between general availability of the Internet – a tool in search of purposes, and the Millennium Development Goals – a purpose in search of tools.  ICTs were initially idolised as the tool for delivery of development but later began to be integrated more into development plans and projects as a tool for delivery of development.

The isolationism of the pre-digital paradigm remains present: we still find policy content and policy structures that segregate ICTs.  But integrationism is progressing, mainstreaming ICTs as a tool to achieve the various development goals.  From the development side, we see this expressed in national policy portfolios, in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, in UN Development Assistance Frameworks.  From the ICT side, we see this expressed in national ICT policies and World Summit on the Information Society action lines.

The ICT4D paradigm is currently dominant and will be for some years to come.  Yet just at the moment when it is starting to be widely adopted within national and international development systems, a new form is hoving into view: a digital development paradigm which conceptualises ICT not as one tool among many that enables particular aspects of development, but as the platform that increasingly mediates development.

This is the subject of a Development Informatics working paper: “Examining “Digital Development”: The Shape of Things to Come?”, and will be the topic for future blog entries.

 

[1] Heeks, R. (2009) The ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto: Where Next for ICTs and International Development?, Development Informatics Working Paper no.42, IDPM, University of Manchester, UK

[2] ibid.

Data Justice for Development

13 October 2016 1 comment

What would “data justice for development” mean?  This is a topic of increasing interest.  It sits at the intersection of greater use of justice in development theory, and greater use of data in development practice.  Until recently, very little had been written about it but this has been addressed via a recent Centre for Development Informatics working paper: “Data Justice For Development: What Would It Mean?” and linked presentation / podcast.

Why concern ourselves with data justice in development?  Primarily because there are data injustices that require a response: governments hacking data on political opponents; mobile phone records being released without consent; communities unable to access data on how development funds are being spent.

But to understand what data justice means, we have to return to foundational ideas on ethics, rights and justice.  These identify three different mainstream perspectives on data justice:

  • Instrumental data justice, meaning fair use of data. This argues there is no notion of justice inherent to data ownership or handling.  Instead what matters is the purposes for which data is used.
  • Procedural data justice, meaning fair handling of data. This argues that citizens must give consent to the way in which data about them is processed.
  • Distributive data justice, meaning fair distribution of data. This could directly relate to the issue of who has what data, or could be interpreted in terms of rights-based data justice, relating to rights of data privacy, access, control, and inclusion / representation.

We can use these perspectives to understand the way data is used in development.  But we also need to take account of two key criticisms of these mainstream views.  First, that they pay too little attention to agency and practice including individual differences and choices and the role of individuals as data users rather than just data producers.  Second, that they pay too little attention to social structure, when it is social structure that at least partly determines issues such as the maldistribution of data in the global South, and the fact that data systems in developing countries benefit some and not others.

To properly understand what data justice for development means, then, we need a theory of data justice that goes beyond the mainstream views to more clearly include both structure and agency.

The working paper proposes three possible approaches, each of which provides a pathway for future research on data-intensive development; albeit the current ideas are stronger on the “data justice” than the “for development” component:

  • Cosmopolitan ideas such as Iris Marion Young’s social connection model of justice could link data justice to the social position of individuals within networks of relations.
  • Critical data studies is a formative field that could readily be developed through structural models of the political economy of data (e.g. “data assemblages”) combined with a critical modernist sensitivity that incorporates a network view of power-in-practice.
  • Capability theory that might be able to encompass all views on data justice within a single overarching framework.

Alongside this conceptual agenda could be an action agenda; perhaps a Data-Justice-for-Development Manifesto that would:

  1. Demand just and legal uses of development data.
  2. Demand data consent of citizens that is truly informed.
  3. Build upstream and downstream data-related capabilities among those who lack them in developing countries.
  4. Promote rights of data access, data privacy, data ownership and data representation.
  5. Support “small data” uses by individuals and communities in developing countries.
  6. Advocate sustainable use of data and data systems.
  7. Create a social movement for the “data subalterns” of the global South.
  8. Stimulate an alternative discourse around data-intensive development that places issues of justice at its heart.
  9. Develop new organisational forms such as data-intensive development cooperatives.
  10. Lobby for new data justice-based laws and policies in developing countries (including action on data monopolies).
  11. Open up, challenge and provide alternatives to the data-related technical structures (code, algorithms, standards, etc) that increasingly control international development.

A Research Agenda for Data-Intensive Development

18 July 2016 1 comment

In practice, there is a growing role for data within international development: what we can call “data-intensive development”.  But what should be the research agenda for this emerging phenomenon?

On 12th July 2016, a group of 40 researchers and practitioners gathered in Manchester at the workshop on “Big and Open Data for Development”, organised by the Centre for Development Informatics.  Identifying a research agenda was a main purpose for the workshop; particularly looking for commonalities that avoid fractionating our field by data type: big data vs. open data vs. real-time data vs. geo-located data, etc; each in its own little silo.

IMG_0828

A key challenge for data-intensive development research is locating the “window of relevance”.  Focus too far back on the curve of technical change – largely determined in the Western private sector – and you may fail to gain attention and interest in your research.  Focus too far forward and you may find there no actual examples in developing countries that you can research.

In 2014 and 2015, we had two failed attempts to organise conference tracks on data-and-development; each generating just a couple of papers.  By contrast, the 2016 workshop received two dozen submissions; too many to accommodate but suggesting a critical mass of research is finally starting to appear.

It is still early days – the reports from practice still give a strong sense of data struggling to find development purposes; development purposes struggling to find data.  But the workshop provided enough foundational ideas, emergent issues, and reports-back from pilot initiatives to show we are putting the basic building blocks of a research domain in place.

But where next?  Through a mix of day-long placing of Post-It notes on walls, presentation responses, and a set of group then plenary discussions[1], we identified a set of future research priorities, as shown below and also here as PDF.

DID Research Agenda

 

 

The agenda divided into four sub-domains:

  • Describing/Defining: working out the basic boundaries, contours and contents of the data-intensive development domain.
  • Practising: measuring and learning from the practice of data-intensive development.
  • Analysing: evaluating the impact of data-intensive development through various analytical lenses.
  • Resisting: guiding practical actions to challenge potential state and corporate data hegemony in developing countries.

Given the size and eclectic mix of the group, many different research interests were expressed.  But two came up much more than others.

First, power, politics and data-intensive development: analysing the power structures that shape DID initiatives, and that are inscribed into data systems; analysing the way in which DID produces and reproduces power; analysing what resistance to data hegemony would mean.

Second, justice, ethics, rights and data-intensive development: determining what a social justice perspective on DID would mean; analysing what DID can contribute to rights-based development; understanding how ethical principles would guide civil society interventions for better DID.

We hope, as a research community, to take these and other agenda items forward.  If you would like to join us, please sign up with the LinkedIn group on “Data-Intensive Development”.

 

[1] My thanks to Jaco Renken for collating these.

Network Geography and Global Development: Dependency Redux?

6 June 2016 1 comment

The SDGs can be taken as a marker of transition from international development to global development worldviews.  Among other aspects of global development is a universalisation of development: development is everywhere; not just associated with the global South.  What does this mean for the geography of development?

One response would be to retain a physical, spatial approach to geography, but to move on from the old bipolarity of developed vs. developing; North vs. South.  Alongside moving upward to the global, this would move downward to the local; for example to regions, cities, “pockets of poverty” and the like[i].

An alternative would be to move to a network geography of development.  Social networks and transportation links mean networks have always been fundamental to development.  But telecommunication links – particularly digital links during the 21st century – have significantly accelerated the presence and salience and complexity of networks in development.  These exist as physical networks (such as physical infrastructure grids), virtual networks (such as online communities of practice) and most often as hybrid networks (such as supply chains and their parallel digital representations), so a network geography combines the physical and non-physical.  The explosive growth of networks in development demands greater use of network-based conceptualisations, including network geographies[ii].

Three main geographies can be applied to understand these networks.  First, a processual geography that focuses on the flows between nodes in the network (e.g. flows of aid between networks of development NGOs[iii]).  Second, a structural geography that focuses on the shape of the network (e.g. the impact of different network structures on water governance in Costa Rica[iv]).  Third, a relational geography that combines aspects of both flow and shape (e.g. the resource networks drawn on by development champions[v]).

Conceptualisation of these network geographies has come from a number of sources[vi].  Examples include social capital drawing from new institutional economics, global production networks drawing from economic geography, networked governance drawing from political science, embeddedness drawing from new economic sociology, and complex adaptive systems drawing from complexity theory.

However, if the spatial geography of old is to be supplanted, it will be by a new spatial geography; one that replaces position in the physical world with position in the network (physical, virtual, hybrid).  The positional network geography of development has often used the binary of being either inside or outside the network (e.g. Castells’ notion of the excluded “Fourth World”, or conceptions of the digital divide).  More sophisticated versions have added the category of “have lesses” between the “haves” and the “have nots”; those who are within the network but at the periphery.  Given, at least for digital networks, the dwindling numbers who are truly excluded, this is a more appropriate conceptualisation.  The positional geography of development thus becomes a geography of network position: distinguishing those actors at the core of the network from those at the periphery who are marginal and precarious.

While this might be an idea suitable for the 21st century nature of global development, it has earlier origins.  It sounds very similar to dependency theory, with its ideas of core and periphery.  Though long out of favour, this could provide one approach to a positional network geography of development; a revival supported by some in development studies[vii].

Aspects of dependency theory relevant to a wider network geography of development include:

  • Moving beyond the simple binary of core/periphery to world systems theory’s core/semi-periphery/periphery; or even to the idea of a spectrum of network positions.
  • Associating network position with differentiated roles vis-a-vis the production and capture of value, and with differentiated flows and ownership of resources.
  • Recognising the reproduction of network position through power; particularly the power of innovation, knowledge and technology.

A positional network geography of development would need to move away from dependency’s nation-state-centric approach, recognising many other units of analysis; and it would need to recognise the (constrained) potential for mobility of network position.  Work on global production networks has taken some of these ideas and demonstrated their relevance to another unit of analysis, but this needs to be extended to all forms of networks; not just global but regional and local; not just productive but political and social.  Indeed, one would need to recognise that any development actor lies not within a single network but within multiple networks; potentially with somewhat different positions in each.  These would include locally-embedded as well as disembedded networks.

Further developments needed include:

  • Recognition of the relational, institutional and cognitive/symbolic sources of power within the network; and the potential for network-specific conceptions of power[viii].
  • Recognition of the role played by the new technologies that increasingly mediate, enable and constrain the networks of global development; requiring some socio-materiality to be incorporated[ix].
  • Recognition of the increasing potential for quantification of positionality via social network analysis; a tool which can add absent methodological rigour[x].

 

[i] Horner, R. (2016) Unpacking the emergence of global development, unpublished draft

[ii] Bebbington, A. & Kothari, U. (2006) Transnational development networks, Environment and Planning A, 38(5), 849-866

[iii] Bebbington, A. (2004) NGOs and uneven development, Progress in Human Geography, 28(6), 725-745

[iv] Kuzdas, C., Wiek, A., Warner, B., Vignola, R., & Morataya, R. (2015) Integrated and participatory analysis of water governance regimes, World Development, 66, 254-268

[v] Renken, J. & Heeks, R. (2013) Conceptualising ICT4D project champions, paper presented at ICTD2013, Cape Town, 7-10 Dec

[vi] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

[vii] E.g. Fischer, A.M. (2015) The end of peripheries? On the enduring relevance of structuralism for understanding contemporary global development, Development and Change, 46(4), 700-732

[viii] E.g. Castells, M. (2011). A network theory of power, International Journal of Communication, 5, 773-787

[ix] E.g. Contractor, N., Monge, P. & Leonardi, P.M. (2011) Multidimensional networks and the dynamics of sociomateriality: bringing technology inside the network, International Journal of Communication, 5, 682-720

[x] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

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