What's New For Aid In The Age Of Twitter?

Published on 12 January 2011

Owen Barder, a well-known blogger and economist based in Addis Ababa, talks about the impact of social media on the aid industry and what’s liable to change with the spread of internet in developing countries.

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Owen Barder is an economist living in and working in Addis Ababa. Both a blogger and podcaster, he's also the director of aidinfo -- an NGO working to make information about aid more easily accessible -- and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development.

The internet, and social media in particular, have impacted almost every facet of society and aid and development are no exception.

Few people are as well qualified to discuss that as Owen Barder, an economist based in Addis Ababa whose blog, Owen Abroad, and Development Drums podcast have a huge following both in and outside the aid community.

According to Barder, social media has played an important role in setting the development agenda over the past few years, largely by exposing experts and activists to information they might otherwise not have come across.

The means to an end

“What I’ve found about blogging and social media is that it helps me to filter what information I’m interested in,” he said. “Because I’m using my network of friends and contacts online, they’re pointing me to the things that I should know about.”

But Barder cautioned against seeing technology as an end instead of the means.

“We should think of the tools—the blogging, the social media, the podcasting—as supporting a need rather than letting the technology determine what that need is,” he said. “Technology sometimes makes things possible that weren’t possible before. But that doesn’t mean that change should be technology driven.”

As one example, Barder cited the need for aid agencies to be gathering more and better feedback from their beneficiaries—a task made easier by advances in communication technology, but one they ought to be pursuing anyway.

Spread of technology

He added that mobile phones in particular were spreading around the developing world at a faster pace than most people probably realized.

“Mobile phones and, increasingly mobile internet, are becoming more and more available even in very remote places, and I think that changes what’s possible there.”

While it may seem paradoxical that people who struggle to feed themselves often have access to a mobile device, Barder said that a basic phone in Africa cost a fraction of it would in Europe or the United States.

“That still may amount to a few days wages, but the truth is that people living in very poor communities face very large costs of poor infrastructure some of which are reduced by access to communications technology,” he said. “A cell phone could save them one or two days travel to perform a simple task that they could do by phone or by text.”