Social Development

A seemingly banal tool could transform the developing world

I am on Facebook while I am writing this article.

We college students all use our Facebooks in a mostly banal way: to send dumb links to friends, to keep tabs on exes, to look at pictures of others (and, let’s be honest, ourselves). We use Facebook to interact with people in ways that we couldn’t otherwise—though I’m not convinced that my life would be incomplete without most of those modes of socializing.

This statement may seem like an indictment of social networking; I certainly thought so, before I interned at Facebook this past summer. My job was with the global policy team based out of Washington, D.C., focusing on policy challenges that Facebook confronts around the world, with a particular focus on Asia. I learned a tremendous amount about many issues and opportunities that confront social networks around the world, from telecom regulation to the way that people from different cultures conceptualize identity online.

But the single thing that changed my understanding of social networking the most came from an unlikely quarter: Studying and thinking about how these sites could be used in developing countries. People with less social and economic opportunity than those of us who attend Harvard can certainly use Facebook in all the everyday ways that we do. However, they can also take advantage of the things that social networking sites do best—connect people, spread information, facilitate openness—to transform their lives.

In the developing world, many problems are exacerbated by the inability of crucial segments of the population to connect with their larger demographics. From working women who are the first generation in their countries to take on senior management positions to doctors working to combat the spread of tuberculosis in rural regions, social information is a crucial resource. Social networking sites, as they gain penetration outside of developed countries, are just beginning to be used in this way. We have barely begun to see how bold thinking about how to use social technology can help to overcome economic and social barriers in the developing world.

One example of these uses is a Facebook Page—“Cambodian Women in Business”—with nearly 2,000 fans. “Women in Business in Cambodia have created this page to share experience in doing business and working in the Kingdom,” the page description reads. “We also hope this page will be a good platform to network, support each other's activity but [as well] to celebrate our success.” Women are able to discuss issues they face, strategies for dealing with common problems like misogynistic bosses and sexual harassment, and to make connections that have real professional value.

Pages like “Cambodian Women in Business” serve as a useful model (and, indeed, could easily be replicated in many other countries where professional women are increasing in number but facing difficult workplace dynamics). But even more creative uses of social technology are possible.

This next wave of uses of social media could take projects that international development organizations such as the World Bank and USAID fund, and amplify their impact through leveraging sites like Facebook, Google+, and Orkut, which have rising penetration around the world. Let’s say the World Bank is working to bring doctors in East Africa who are combating the spread of tuberculosis into contact with each other, to monitor the spread of the disease from village to village, and provide early warning, as well as to facilitate the sharing of best practices. Rather than creating a separate website, the World Bank should go to where the doctors already are—Facebook—and create a page that serves as a location for this information sharing and networking.

This kind of use could be replicated for other diseases, from AIDS to the West Nile Virus, anywhere in the world, for essentially no cost. And there are many other uses, far more than space permits in this article: for a village of basket-weavers in Thailand to access a global consumer base, for dissemination of information about infant care or water potability standards, and so on. Even more importantly, as mobile uses of social technologies are on the rise, computer access is not even necessary to access these incredible potential resources and to participate in the development projects that these platforms can support.

College students were the initial Facebook users, who showed that a service that initially resembled a dating site could be used to drive political change, economic opportunity, and connection across great distance. We can also help to push this next wave of uses for social networks.

Many people on campus are involved in advocacy for the developing world; these programs and projects should count social networking tools as key strategic assets. Students who spend time abroad during the school year or over the summer should encourage their friends to think about using the Internet creatively and ambitiously. International students should not only connect online with their friends back home but also publicize at Harvard the causes that those friends are rallying around. All of these efforts will help spur people in developing countries to take advantage of the full panoply of twenty-first century resources that are available to them.

They are on Facebook while you are reading this article—and thank goodness.

Julian Baird Gewirtz ’13 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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