Posts Tagged ‘Development Assistance’

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.


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  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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