How the African diaspora is using social media to influence development

Something transformational has been happening online: African voices have begun populating social media, quickly becoming the undisputed champions of development punditry. No longer are we faced with what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie called “the danger of a single story”. Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media are bringing African voices and new, varied narratives to the forefront. And, what’s even more remarkable, is that these online platforms are not being used for simple pontification and acerbic commentary (although there’s a fair bit of that as well). These tools are also being used to replace staid development paradigms, by organising and developing African-driven institutions.

One form of social media in particular has had a noticeable effect. Twitter’s short messaging network has revolutionised political discourse and rewritten the rules of international development dialogue. Controversial development projects such as the #1millionshirts campaign (pdf – see page 11) and Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video came under heavy diaspora scrutiny online. Invisible Children’s video campaign to capture the notorious Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony became a victim of its own success and was dismissed as “over-simplified” and “misleading” by many prominent voices in the diaspora. Likewise, the negative feedback against the #1millionshirts campaign – a project to dump 1 million T-shirts into the African marketplace – was so powerful that founder Jason Sadler pulled the plug on it.

With social media bringing African voices to the fore, gone are days when do-gooders can launch misguided development projects with impunity. This, in turn, has encouraged more collaboration and shared learning. After killing his project, Sandler took the initiative of engaging with African diaspora, including myself, to understand better how he could put his talent to good use.

New institutions for economic development

Not only are we, the African diaspora, challenging the underpinnings of international development – it’s no longer the west helping the rest – but through Facebook and Twitter, informal gatherings and discussions have grown into permanent, transformational institutions. Let me illustrate: in 2009, I gave my first talk at Africa Gathering in London after hearing about this new initiative during a Twitter debate. Today, Africa Gathering events are held annually in Africa, Europe and America. The TED-style talks provide a platform for the diaspora and anyone with an interest in Africa to share their projects and solutions for the continent.

It was at one of these gatherings that I met Ida Horner, a Ugandan businesswoman in the UK. In 2010, we teamed up to launch Villages in Action, a development conference live-streamed from a Ugandan village. It was a collaborative response to celebrity-heavy events in New York and Washington DC, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the millennium development goals. With the poor taking the role of nameless statistics, charts and figures, we decided to give them a face by bringing the microphone to them. Social media injected their voice into the global goals discussion. To my knowledge, Villages in Action was the first diaspora-led development project fully crowd-funded and executed through online engagement.

The African diaspora is also using social media to raise funding for projects on the continent. Last year, Africans in Diaspora, an organisation on whose board I sit, raised $40,000 from 234 contributors to fund community development programs on the continent. This crowdfunding strategy for community development is a new and welcome second act, realising $60bn annually. Where we were previously sending money home to support one-to-one solutions, we are now crowd-sourcing assistance to strengthen service delivery mechanisms in our communities for all to benefit.

Where do we go from here?

The full impact of Africa’s diaspora engaging intellectually and materially in the continent’s development needs more time to mature fully. Although we contribute more in remittances than foreign direct investment and are fast becoming the voice of the continent, we don’t have a solid role in the continent’s governance – yet. Changing the political landscape is going to take much longer than organising a fundraiser from afar. To really have an effect on the political process, we will need to go beyond sideline commentary. We need to engage in the political process, both at the international and local levels. This, however, will take time to accomplish. As much as we bicker about corruption, intransigent dictatorships, and lack of civil services, our most effective role – for now – may be limited to economic development and advocacy. So long as our collective voice and our money continue to engage the continent, our political influence won’t be far behind. Thanks to social media, this is a task we are beginning to take on – and one we must take on collaboratively.

As the #1millionshirts story suggests, social media can also be a great tool for cross-border collaboration. As we begin to leverage the power of social media and uncensored, international discourse, we should be careful not to alienate those with experience and expertise. There’s a famous African proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” While it’s clear that “Africa, for Africa, by Africa” is the new mantra on social media, our collective intelligence and financial muscle are not nearly enough for the journey ahead. We will need all the help we can get.

TMS Ruge is the lead social media strategist at Connect4Climate, World Bank and co-founder of Hive Colab, an innovation hub in Kampala, Uganda. He tweets as @tmsruge.

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