How Come the Poor Can’t Video Blog? Thoughts on the Digital Divide

This year I’ve been talking a lot about the “Digital Divide”. But what is that? And why does it matter?

The “Digital Divide” is basically a term to describe the technological gap which prevents the poorest of the world’s poor from participating in global online conversations that are occurring on the internet.

This is important because what we are doing on the internet is starting to have the power to shape our politics, our governments, our economies, and our own personal priorities, opinions, and tastes.

If the poorest of the poor are excluded from these global conversations, we can only use the internet to make a difference for the poor instead of using the internet to make a difference with the poor.

Aid bloggers sometimes deride photos like this one as "development and technology porn". From personal experience, villagers would rather you take their photos showing them fascinated at being connected than photos selected to show them crying, emaciated, and with flies on their faces. As I've written about before, what matters the most is making sure people are portrayed as they wish to be portrayed.

This is no more clear and apparent when it comes to international aid and development. Everyone from activists, aid professionals, and aid pundits are shaping how the poorest of the poor are served.

These aid discussions – ranging from polite and professional to snarky and snide – are shaping policies and practices on what is (and isn’t) “good aid”. But, due to the digital divide, the poor don’t have a say in this online discourse.

Although I’m no aid expert, I believe there are three things that are needed for the poorest of the poor to be brought into global conversations that directly affect them:

  1. Charity can’t solve this problem alone: The infrastructure needed to connect low income and remote communities must be laid by either governments or (more realistically) for-profit companies. Similarly, devices that can plug into this infrastructure (like cellphones and low cost PCs) need to be made more affordable. This isn’t about dumping stuff on the poor, but rather making it a viable consumer choice.
  2. There needs to be an incentive to get connected: Charities and NGOs will need to be a big part of this by giving developing communities a greater say and control in how they receive assistance. I believe using technology to connect donors and recipients together will go a long way to make this less about aid from an institution and more about people on opposite sides of the digital divide helping each other. Why does that even matter? As I’ve talked about before, the distinction between institutions and people can be important in many cultures and contexts.
  3. Giving an IP address isn’t enough: Just because someone can participate in a global online conversation, doesn’t mean they will. For example, I’ve already written about how conservative Muslims in developing countries will most likely avoid online aid blogger discussions. This is because the snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks occasionally thrown around in that space directly contradict some interpretations on Islamic Codes of Conduct. I believe digital intermediaries – or bridge-makers – can go a long way to foster conversations (and impacts) that are inclusive and free of unintentional ethnocentrism.

This is basically what talked about when I – thanks to you guys – got the opportunity to go to the World Economic Forum. It’s also something I continually talk about whenever I get the chance.

For example, with the United Nations running a contest to select a set of UN Citizen Ambassadors, I submitted this video talking about the need to bridge the digital divide:

And, while attending the United Nations Foundations’ Social Good Summit, I was asked by Ericsson to pose a question starting with “How Come?”. It was for this campaign they are running. I decided to ask “How Come the Poor Can’t Video Blog?”:

The bottom-line (and perhaps a plus): once the poor start speaking for themselves and we start using the internet to make a difference with them instead of for them, the sooner people like me will have to shut up 🙂

6 Responses to “How Come the Poor Can’t Video Blog? Thoughts on the Digital Divide”

  1. 1 Afifa Darabuddin

    I would suggest not calling them “poor” because they are not poor. They are enriched with God’s blessings of eyes to see, hands to do work with and build relationships, a mind to think and the ability to express themselves, feet and legs to transport themselves from place to place. They just simply do not have some of the luxuries that others may have. But they do have a lot of what we do not have. A humble, compassionate neighbourhood. They have each other as family, and the greatest of riches is contentment and gratitude what God has given you. It is the opportunities that we should grant them and a means to achieve goals! 

  2. 2 Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Afifa – I agree with you 100%! 

    I just use “poor” as an economic indicator. That is poor = below the poverty line. Which, although varies from country to country, is around $2 USD a day. Or even $1 USD a day.I personally do struggle to find the word or phrase that does indicate this without seeming condescending or ethnocentric or patriarchal.  

  3. 3 Brenda Morton

    I am an American, but I work in a nation that has whole cities with less to offer than the “poorest” neighborhoods in the US. Not having access to the internet at home doesn’t make one poor. Not having the latest shoes, clothing, or weekly visits to McDonald’s doesn’t make one poor. I suspect that there are plenty of folks outside the US who we call poor who have no idea that they are not “keeping up with the Joneses.” They have food, and shelter, and family, and they are fine.

    Yes, there ARE poor people in the world. The digital divide is not what makes one poor, nor is it an indicator of wealth. How many folks do YOU know that have sparse amounts of food on their dinner table, yet have iPhones, X-boxes, and laptops? The caption is accurate: how you depict the “villagers” matters, to us and to them. Calling them poor does them no favors.

  4. 4 Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Brendan – great comment, but I think you’re missed the point. Communication is a fundamental human right. That is, the ability for people to speak for themselves to others. Kind of like what we are doing now.

    I am not saying that a failure to have the latest shoes, visits to McDonald’s, or a home broadband connection means your poor. If that’s what you think I said, than you are putting words in my mouth.

    Rather, I refer to the poor by various methods. Bangladesh, for example, define poverty as those individuals who do not have the means to consume a minimum caloric intake. Many INGOs define poverty as below $1 a day.

    I personally define EXTREME poverty as those who are so poor their children die or get seriously ill due to lack of clean water, due to a lack of a 30 cent immunization, or a $5 mosquito net.

    And another mark of poverty is the lack of means to speak for oneself and having others speak on their behalf. Your comment is a great example of this. 

    I know many Bangladeshi villagers who self-define as “goreeb” (i.e. “poor”). If they were on our side of the digital divide, I think they would take umbrage with your claim that me “calling them poor does them no favors”.


    – Shawn

  5. 5 Afifa Darabuddin

    God’s Peace be on you.
    How about a people who are classified as below the poverty line.

  6. 6 wedemark

    Great blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so
    many options out there that I’m totally confused .. Any
    suggestions? Appreciate it!

  1. 1 Islam and Online Aid & Development Discourse | The Uncultured Project
  2. 2 5 Steps for NGOs to Move from Guilt to Empowerment | The Uncultured Project
  3. 3 We Speak For Ourselves | The Uncultured Project

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