Three Tweets Across the (Old) Global Divide
One of the world’s biggest underlying challenges is the psychological and social disconnect between the billion people living in the rich countries and the billion people living on less than a dollar a day. The lack of connection is problematic not only for moral and humanitarian reasons, although the poorest communities are definitely home to the most extensive human suffering. It is also problematic for very strategic reasons, since the same communities are home to many of the planet’s most important environmental, demographic, and political stresses. When communities don’t communicate meaningfully with each other, they are much less likely to solve problems together.
Two powerful modern forces provide fresh hope that the world can soon bridge minds across this divide. One is the rapid expansion of wireless data networks to the furthest reaches of the planet. Last week I was in remote parts of central Mali and northern Nigeria. Thanks to new local cell towers, my Blackberry could now send and receive messages in both places. It could also connect with a second remarkable force, the explosive growth of social network technologies like Facebook and Twitter.
From a remote village in Nigeria’s Kaduna state, I “tweeted” moment-to-moment updates to friends around the world about a ceremony to expand local services for basic health, agriculture, education and infrastructure to 15,000 people. Most of these friends will not have the privilege to visit northern Nigeria any time soon. But I know that many of them now feel much more connected to what is happening in that community.
And from the same Nigerian village, I felt connected to the broader world too. While I was tweeting, I saw updates on the same screen from Newark’s dynamic young mayor Cory Booker, from my old friend and civic leader Naheed Nenshi in Calgary, and from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as he traveled through West Africa. It was striking to think how soon it could be village members rather than me who are sharing and tracking updates on Twitter and its online brethren.
From a policy perspective this connection is important because people raised in the advanced economies of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan tend to have trouble understanding what life is like for farmers who grow scant crops because they cannot afford a bag of fertilizer, for parents whose children die from a mosquito bite because they could not afford $8 for a modern bednet, or for mothers who deliver babies in clinics without running water.
This shortcoming of empathy and understanding, in my own view, is the deepest reason why the rich countries are letting their governments fall $35 billion behind on their very prominent 2005 commitments to support basic services in Africa by 2010. People very much want to be part of solutions, but the problems of tackling extreme poverty are too often framed as being too complicated, too expensive, too far from home, and, in the end, someone else’s business.
Online social networks have the power to change this. They have the capacity to help communities connect in a deep and meaningful way across previously unbridgeable divides – to understand each other’s concerns, to share information on what works and what does not, and even to track resources to ensure they are delivered where intended.
Across a billion people in the rich world, the $35 billion current gap in promises to Africa amounts to only $35 per person. It is hard to fathom that rich country electorates would accept this delinquency if their communities were more meaningfully connected with remote poor communities in Africa. Indeed it is not hard to see the need for a “facebook for development” strategy that leverages emerging network technologies to decentralize development assistance away from governments and brokers increased support objectively, transparently, and directly between communities. Governments are crucial to the overall development equation, but many things need not wait on them.
The expansion of communications technology has been cited often and rightly for its power in supporting economic opportunities for poor people. It should also be recognized for its power to support psychological connections between the world’s richest and poorest, which should in turn amplify the opportunities for those living under a dollar a day. When traveling I am endlessly amazed at how fast airplanes and cars connect diverse spots across the planet. Now I hope that Twitter and its contemporaries can connect minds across the same distances.
John W McArthur is the CEO of Millennium Promise. He can be followed on Twitter.com as “johnmca” and reached by email at email@example.com.