It's Blog Action Day, and this year the topic is "Inequality", hence these thoughts on inequality and invisibility on the Internet:
Hype about the Internet suggests that we live in a connected world. Hype about mobile phones suggests that, even where direct Internet connectivity is still problematic, smart phones are plugging any remaining gaps. Hype suggests that even in rural areas across the globe people can all be equally on line and equally visible to each other. Imagine if that was true.
What if there was true equality of access to the Internet ? How would it be if grass-roots projects in rural Nigeria, Kenya and so on had the kind of access to 24/7 high-bandwidth affordable Internet connection, that people take for granted in the "connected world".
What difference would it make to grass-roots, locally initiated, development projects if they were as visible on the Internet as ones initiated from afar (from the UK, USA and so on)?
What difference would it make to the projects that are intiated from afar if they had the opportunity to access information from projects that genuinely reflected local needs, challenges and opportunities in rural Africa?
What would happen if we got rid of Internet inequality?
I like to think that the increased visibility of grass-roots projects online would be welcomed by the projects from afar. In my imaginings something like this would happen:
- Projects from afar go online and discover grass-roots projects that have some kind of overlap with their own, and vice versa.
- At first there is a bit of a culture shock on both sides.
- Prejudices and assumptions are challenged by the facts (and where the mismatch between facts and assumptions are extreme, it's not comfortable).
- The projects from afar and the grass-roots projects start to link up with each other through social media.
- They compare approaches, and ideas.
- Where there is good overlap between their objectives they start to "rub minds".
- They start to learn from each other.
- They start to develop relationships of equal respect.
- They explore collaborations.
- They agree on objectives they would like to achieve.
- They work out how to achieve them effectively by combining resources.
- Both sides bring their own expert knowledge and skills.
- The grass-roots projects add "more than their share" of social capital.
- The projects from afar add "more than their share" of financial capital.
- Development projects become effective in ways not previously dreamed of because they are appropriate, locally embedded and adequately financed.
- Information about what works, and why (and what doesn't work, and why) is plentiful.
- Good approaches get copied, and adapted, and replication happens in a "viral way" rather than "scaling up".
Of course, there are several untested assumptions in my imaginings. I've assumed a desire to share information and collaborate. I haven't addressed human issues about access to the Internet. I've only mentioned "access to the Internet", and that may seem to "only" be a matter of infrastructure and cost. There is more to equal access and visibility than that.
Local projects work in local, minority languages. The Internet has a strong bias towards English and other majority languages. Having to use a language that is not your preferred language is an inequality.
Time is another enormous challenge. People who are busy doing projects are often too busy doing them to tell people about the projects and their impact.
Access to the Internet won't automatically make such projects visible. Someone has to collect and present the information on the Internet, and that needs human resources, which may be in short supply.
This is particularly true if the projects are under-resourced. Projects which lack visibility are unlikely to attract external resources, so don't have the spare capacity to make themselves visible. Projects that have a good online presence are more likely to attract resources, even if they are not well rooted in reality. It's a vicious circle of inequality.
If grass-roots projects are to become as visible as projects from afar, then they need help in getting onto the Internet. That help needs to do more than overcome the physical challenges of equipment, infrastructure and affordability. It also needs to address many hidden human challenges that also affect equal opportunities for visibility online.