Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel for Social Media Week about the latest social media trends in international development. It was the first event of its kind here at USAID and I was happy to moderate. With panelists from UN Foundation, USAID, Huge Inc., iStrategy Labs, and Internews, it was a vibrant discussion to say the least.
The social space has become saturated with creative content from diverse thinkers and implementers of social good, and this could not be a better time for partners in development to use this space for improving programs and reaching even more people. Each panelist introduced a unique, and important, perspective to the conversation about the role of social media in the development world.
The UN Foundation alongside the UN General Assembly hosted an amazing Social Good Summit last September. Caleb Tiller, executive director of Communications and Public Affairs, introduced it as a powerful example of how social media can drive conversations around the globe about important issues that directly affect the daily lives of those engaged in the discussions online. He also pointed out that the inherent reach of social media is a benefit for initiatives such as the Summit because it is a quick way of engaging the individuals who are important to the conversation. The Social Good Summit reached more than 300 cities worldwide and local simultaneous summits were held. This has significant impact in the development space because it means we can connect with more people, educating them about important issues that affect their lives – from global health, to gender equality, to ending extreme poverty (the list goes on!). It also means that any work we do has the potential to reach a thousand-fold the audience we would have reached through more traditional communications means.
Social media also allows room for more innovative ways of assisting people with few resources. And our partners and colleagues have been doing great work using social media as a tool to help promote advancements in the field of development. Through Facebook, Kate Watts, Managing Director at HUGE, helped facilitate the highly successful Pepsi Refresh campaign that gave more than 300 grants and $20 million to users for beneficial projects around the community. Participants submitted thousands of ideas through Facebook that people voted on. Nearly 132 schools and organizations benefited as a result of the campaign, more than 40 communities received affordable housing and parks, and 21 neighborhood parks were refreshed.
Kathleen Reen, Vice President for Asia, Environment and New Media Programs at Internews, brought up the important factor of protecting information that resides in digital spaces. To address the challenge, they’ve implemented programs and training to ensure digital security in vulnerable societies that face challenges with access to Internet. As Kathleen said, “In vulnerable/censored societies, changemakers need knowledge digital tools to stay safe.”
It’s clear that the broad boundaries of social media bring to the forefront various issues we need to keep in mind, and continue to fine-tune, so we use platforms in smart ways. At USAID in particular, it is critical for our virtual efforts to translate to “real-life.” One way to do this was to use videogames as a channel to reach youth in Jordan. It increases their real-life knowledge about civic responsibility and engagement by getting them engaged in building and running virtual cities. Maryanne Yerkes, senior civil society and ICT advisor at USAID, explained how USAID’s Innovations in Youth Capacity and Engagement (IYCE ) program says that games directly strengthen youth engagement when integrated offline components.
We know that social media has isn’t perfect and has some of its own downsides. But, only through trying new approaches to our work and embracing new technologies can we discover powerful ways to drive more quickly our development goals.
What is your experience with social media and development? Join the conversation.
Maura O’Neill is on Twitter.