Several weeks ago, I decided to sign up for Twitter. Previously, I had considered Twitter to be the bastion and habitat for the celebrity-obsessed, where they tell us they are going to the gym, to tan, or to do laundry. And Conan O’Brien and Sarah Palin. I had never given it serious thought and resolved to let it pass as a fad. Yet in time, I found myself drawn in and now I am a professed fan. I am not an expert in social media, but I am certainly willing to sing its praises.
The reason for my plunge into Twitter was for good intentions. My work in Ethiopia includes a public engagement component, and I have been regularly posting blogs about our work. I didn’t really know how many people were reading the posts, and thought that Twitter, along with my trusty old-friend Facebook (user since 2007), could help drive people toward the site. Using another old-friend, Google, I quickly found instructions on how to gain followers on Twitter and learned its three symbol language of #, @, and RT. I now have seven followers!
Twitter opened my eyes. I read posts on international development, foreign aid, and sports, and receive links to new articles and interesting blogs that I have begun to read with great pleasure. Soon, on the suggestion of these bloggers, I have aggregated everything into Google Reader through RSS, and the world of international development is a mouse click away.
My conclusion after two months on Twitter, and by extension blogs founds through RSS/Google Reader, is that I will soon, if I have not already, learn more about development then I did during my MA in Development Studies.
This is not an evaluation of my actual degree program, which had pros and cons, but an assessment of the impacts social media can have on the study of development, as compared to using only traditional forms of study.
Development is a huge and complicated subject that is inherently global and fast-paced. It has evolved immensely since its origins in the 1950’s. Experts in development are scattered around the globe, in the North and South, at universities and thankfully at project-level. Many people, at least in the North, can read Hans Rosling, William Easterly, Jeffery Sachs, Amartya Sen, or Dambisa Moyo, but few can access lectures, let alone receive training from them.
Blogs form a limited answer to restrictions of time, money and space. If I want to know what Easterly thinks is important right now, I can check his blog. Or, even better, he will tell me when he tweets. Or even greater, Google Reader will show that all of the above and many more have posted blogs recently, perhaps in response to each other. For example, on July 16, Easterly told me that he read a great article on bureaucracy in development aid through a tweet, and then through his blog, Aid Watch. Then, I read that article and posted it on my twitter account. How awesome is that? I did not wait for or scour for academic journal article in bandwidth hogging PDF, travel to Columbia University or buy an expensive new book. I know what some of the best people in development are thinking and talking about, right now.
These blogs and tweets, by the Rockstars of the international development field, are supplemented by dozens of blogs of lesser known, but equally brilliant, practitioners in the field of development. In particular, Owen Barder, Duncan Green, Alanna Shaikh and a few others are practitioners, researchers and devotees of development who put forward great ideas, stinging critiques, and most importantly keep tabs on the trends in development. Recently, Hans Rosling had a new TED video, using IKEA boxes to show his take on world population and child health. Within hours, the links created by Twitter had allowed these well-followed tweeters to send out the message to thousands of people. I am sure hundreds further posted the link on their Facebook pages and personal blogs as well, disseminating a great piece of knowledge to a huge audience. I was once lucky enough to see Hans Rosling speak, and if you ever get the chance, you have to take it. Yet, I can’t help but think that these alternatives that have been brought to us by some smart entrepreneurs in California, USA, should drastically change how we learn about development.
So, should one forgo a formal education, particularly at the graduate level, for blogs, videos and twitters by Aid Thoughts? No, though it’s a great blog as well. The chief reason for formal education is its professional standing. If you want a job in development, you are going to need a level of education and the designations that come along with it. In the end, university is good for you; it teaches you to analyze situations in a critical manner, to draw comparisons, to think. You are more interesting at dinner parties.
The problem with these formal education pathways, at least in development, is they can’t keep up with the real time trends in development. When you get out into the “real world” you find that all that theory you learned is good because it taught you critical thinking but significantly less useful in say, sourcing malaria nets, promoting aid transparency, or running business trainings for shoe shiners. And, at least for me, what we often discussed in class was dated compared to what is being discussed by leaders in the field. For example, World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policies were often batted around as the personification of evil on earth. It is good to know the history of these events, but they are not, from what I can tell, “trends” in development. What is trending, to borrow a twitter phrase, right now includes:
China, Aid transparency, relief in Haiti and its discontents, the coming changes in US foreign assistance policy, AIDS2010 Vienna, microfinance pro’s and cons’
Often, the nature of development programs at the graduate level sees students that are looking for a career change or a higher professional designation. They will come armed with limited theoretical knowledge of development beyond a few readings of the heavy hitters I mentioned above. At least that was the case for me and many of my fellow students. This may depend on the pervasiveness of undergraduate study in development in a given country or perhaps on the quality of students they are admitting. This would be akin to studying philosophy at a graduate level and having only read Plato, and there is a lot to learn in a short amount of time (one or two years maximum for a MA). This naturally means there is a catch up process. This is potentially problematic, as development is a topic that is difficult, wide-spread, and scattered. Most importantly, it’s about people’s fragile, constantly changing lives. This inherent difficulty. Coupled with the fast moving pace of events in the development field and the study of dated material (this will vary widely so perhaps is a generalization) may leave people short on key skills and knowledge as they enter professional situations.
Now, I anticipate many people saying that Twitter and blogs cannot provide the theoretical backbone to your learning that intensive study at a graduate level provides. I agree. Individuals who study development need a theoretical base which to work off of, though I contend it provides only a limited amount of efficacy on your ability to work well in development. But what is a theoretical base in development? Are we talking about economic development, human development, social development, or community development? Or property development, which is what my 91 year old Grandmother thinks I do for a living, bless her heart. It would take the entire length of an academic program to properly learn the true theoretical base of development as an academic discipline. And then you get that internship in Vanuatu or Ecuador and then what? Training on Stiglitz?
Often, when people talk about development in the classroom, a seminar, in a workshop, it’s one long list of bad projects, misspent aid, backward policies and other follies. It’s good to talk about mistakes as to avoid repeating them. However, it tends to be limiting and takes away from the new imaginative ideas in development. Social media takes the discussion a positive step ahead. Social media allows individuals all over the world to learn about positive new advances (and step backs in some cases) in development quickly, easily, early and often.
This is why I think Twitter, Google Reader and social media fit development perfectly. Development, as I noted above, is really hard. It’s really difficult, really expensive, and prone to mistakes. There is no consensus on what works, and only slight consensus on what doesn’t. Given the nature of studying development theory, which then gives over to the learn by doing – good luck out there – reality of development work, don’t these social media tools breath new light into development studies? They create a link between the theoretical base and the practical skills needed in development all in real time.
Do you need to know more about how USAID works? Then follow them on Twitter, or follow blogs that analyze USAID? Right now, Hillary Clinton is battling it out with the White House over USAID independence, which I learned on a blog, which I learned about through Twitter – real time information that could potentially affect how billions of dollars of aid money is spent.
I found out, through Twitter and Chris Blattman’s blog, that the services sector has overtaken the agriculture sector within the Ethiopia economy. That is a seminal event and I wouldn’t have known anything about it if it wasn’t for social media. And to add another link in the chain, I sent this information out to all my Ethiopian contacts for them to analyze and debate.
This has to be equally or more fruitful than reading an academic PDF on “Import-Substituting Industrialization” that is ten years old. Again, I am not discounting knowing theories of development, but instead trying to elucidate how helpful current information can be in addition to a traditional theoretical base. Information will also not be nearly as distorted as the mainstream media, if in the unlikely event it is noticed over the din of the 24 hour news cycle.
I have found dozens of organizations that are doing something similar to my work in youth livelihoods through internet research, including Twitter. Through this research and even better through coordination, my communities’ projects will benefit. The research will certainly benefit the program more than analyzing the Asian development model or the 1997 Asian financial crisis from a post [insert theory] neo [insert ideology] point of view.
Social media has another potential. If accessing the knowledge of the world’s development experts is an expensive and timely task for me (Canada GDP (PPP) per Capita $38,000), I imagine it is much harder for an Ethiopian (GDP (PPP) per capita $900). All sorts of challenges get in the way of a citizen of the global South to access development information. University is expensive, accessing academic journals is expensive, books are expensive or impossible to get, and a lot experts don’t come to our town to chat or give lectures. Now, many of my Ethiopian colleagues are well versed, thanks to coordinated training programs and good leadership in my organization. But often, they don’t know where to go to find information on development projects. Google is powerful, but its results vary and when your internet is slow, to lumber through potentially useless PDFs is tiring, and you have to know what you are looking for to make it effectual. Social media can be used as tool that would let citizens of Ethiopia or Suriname learn about real-time events in development, just as it is doing for me. Ethan Zuckerman calls it the serendipity aspect of social media.
Social media has already provided a powerful tool for advocacy on development related topics. It has been adopted by almost everyone in the field, and being used amazingly well. Many students of development are likely reading the blogs I mentioned and other blogs I don’t know about but should. I propose that going forward individuals interested in the serious study of development should adopt these tools to supplement their formal education. Spread the word! Tweet the word! Learning will be deeper, and the skills, tips, and hints you receive from hundreds of experienced practitioners are invaluable. It is like having twenty of your favourite professors letting you in on his or her thoughts. And the beauty of Twitter and Google Reader? It won’t be long before those blogs I should be reading are coming through my RSS feed or ReTweeted by some of the smartest people in the world.
We live in interesting times.