Aid community speaks out on more Internet for developing nations

Facebook's iconic "thumbs up". The social network site's founder Mark Zuckerberg recently announced plans to boost Internet access in developing countries. Photo by: Thomas Angermann / CC BY-SA

A week ago, Facebook launched an ambitious campaign to boost Internet access in developing countries through cheaper and more efficient smartphones.

The initiative soon became the buzz among the aid community, and many Devex members voiced their opinions on our articles and social media profiles on LinkedIn, Twitter and of course Facebook itself. 

Development professionals seem so far divided on the issue: Some believe that better Internet connectivity and access to information can be one of many tools for development, while others point out that getting online won’t directly solve the problems that most poor nations face in areas such as food security, health or education.

Other concerns are whether social media will end up being too much of a distraction or if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is just trying to expand his business in other areas of the globe.

Connectivity is essential

Social media is growing fast, even in extremely poor countries like Afghanistan, where according to one reader Facebook could help many people find family members or friends that decided to escape decades of civil war and are now refugees or immigrants in North America, Europe or Australia.

Another netizen wrote that more Internet access via smartphones “could be a workable idea in sub-Saharan Africa, where people depend daily on commerce, if the cost of [the unit] is cheap and affordable enough for [the] local people,” and pointed out that keeping people and businesses connected is essential in any part of the world.

But how can it be done?

“The issue now is not why but how,” said one member, while another commended the campaign for trying to penetrate into the remote corners of the developing world.

Internet can’t fix problems of the poor

The organizers of the campaign claim that Internet and social media can change the life of people that have been cut off from a world of knowledge.

Yet many Devex subscribers think developing countries have more urgent concerns.

“There’s no doubt how life-changing the Internet [and] Facebook [are] … but it’s not going to minimize the great divide between the [elites in the cities and the] poor illiterate people in villages,” wrote a reader who mentioned that Facebook is targeting communities that spend half a day just trying to find water and lack even a basic education.

Another member agreed that social media can improve the lives of millions, but “getting Internet to the poorest isn’t suddenly going to radically change the current problems that already exist.” He added that improved Internet access will do little in terms of poverty alleviation, and wondered why the campaign is now targeting exclusively low- and middle-income countries where getting most of the population online could truly make a difference.

Tool or distraction?

Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms can be as good a tool for development as mobility, energy and inclusive institutions, one Devex member suggested.

However, the Internet’s potential for constructive and instructive use is as strong as its appeal for distraction.

“For obtaining development impacts, the instructive uses of Internet need to be strengthened, and genuine reduction of access hurdles to actionable knowledge must be given more attention urgently,” wrote the reader.

Another user agreed and said he hopes that efforts by the aid community to promote changes and uplift communities don’t end up in a mere scheme to attract more people to online chats.

More pressing priorities

Finally, the skeptics raised the issue that improving the wellbeing of the poor by giving them more access to Internet may just be an “assumption” by outsiders to the problems of developing countries.

If the campaign partners are to able to get as many people online as they say they will, a Devex member suggested the rest of world will also be able to find solutions to the growing rates of poverty and inequality as well: “This is a basic question of, ‘is globalization good for developing countries?’ Because [so] far it’s just made things worse.”

Another reader went further and commented that Facebook “is notorious for compromising user’s security and selling off private [data] for financial gain” and regretted the campaign does not include other actors like NGOs or CSOs in the targeted countries. “Zuckerberg says that connectivity is a human right. I see that the only partners are other social networking platforms and for-profit mobile phone corporations. Where is the input from international human rights organizations whose expertise and experience would be invaluable in such a venture? Why are they not partners?”

This member added: “While increased access to the internet could be useful in developing nations, I fear this move is more in tune with being yet another form of exploitation. There are more pressing priorities than getting Facebook to ‘bush’ communities right now.”

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About the author

  • Carlos Santamaria

    Carlos is a former associate editor for breaking news in Devex's Manila-based news team. He joined Devex after a decade working for international wire services Reuters, AP, Xinhua, EFE ,and Philippine social news network Rappler in Madrid, Beijing, Manila, New York, and Bangkok. During that time, he also covered natural disasters on the ground in Myanmar and Japan.