People’s Power: have we got an app for that?

Mike Gurstein has injected some welcome politics into the ICT4D debate in his most recent blog post. Power and politics are taboo subjects in mainstream development discourse, so I’m grateful to Mike for bringing them out of the closet.

Every development actor knows from personal experience that significant change cannot be effected without engaging with the powerful interest groups that defend the status quo, whether they are village elders, international donors, members of parliament or the WTO.

As the blog post shows the world of ICT4D is not immune from these political realities.

Mike uses the example of a clean water app developed for residents of the Kibera slum in Nairobi to argue that the culture of mobile apps is concerned with individualistic goals. He then contrasts this with the use of Facebook & Twitter during Egypt’s popular uprising to argue that the culture of social media is more concerned with collective activities and benefits.

M-Maji is used as an example of a mobile app designed to give individual users market information that enables them to improve their lot. If the app logic is successful then app users gain access to relatively cheap, clean water. However the app’s beggar-thy-neighbour approach leaves those without phones, or without the M-Maji app, with foul, expensive water.

The app does not increase the total amount of clean water available. It just confers advantage to a few. The app does not address any of the under-lying factors inhibiting the availability of clean water and sanitation. The root causes of the water-poverty problem go unaddressed.

Mike contrasts this with the use by protesters in Egypt of Facebook & Twitter to communicate their plans, successes, and setbacks to local supporters & to international media; and to better coordinate their networks of solidarity as they successfully exerted pressure for political change.

I absolutely understand what Mike is saying with the whole ‘individualistic app culture’ versus ‘collectivist social-media culture’ thing; there is more that a grain of truth there.

However the technological boundaries between mobile apps and social-media are increasingly blurred; millions of people daily update their social-media status from mobile apps. There is no clear divide between the technologies.

Nor are the boundaries between user sub-cultures distinct. It would probably be impossible to sustain that there is a definable ‘app culture’ that can be distinguished from a ‘social-media culture’.  It is also my sense that there is no single ‘app culture’ nor one single ‘social-media culture’. Rather there exists a plurality of cultures and sub-cultures with much over-lapping and blurring; no clear divide here either.

Therefore, in premising his argument on the idea of  an ‘individualistic apps culture’ and a ‘collectivist social-media culture’ Mike leaves the argument wide open to being deconstructed to death.

It would be a great shame if this overshadowed the core lessons that I take from his post, that:

  • providing market info to privileged individuals is not development
  • development requires solutions that serve the common good
  • resource distribution is currently grossly uneven
  • more equitable redistribution requires reversing power relationships
  • this will be resisted by powerful elites
  • reversing power-relationships will therefore require collective action
  • technology can not be a substitute for people’s collective action
  • people’s capacity and intent can be amplified with ICTs
  • equalising power & redistributing resources is a political project

So although we can see exactly what Mile Gurstein is getting at with the ‘individualistic apps culture’ argument when it comes to the great task of tackling power and poverty it is something of a red herring.

Mike’s real issue is that the root causes of the clean water problem in Kibera is political and that the solution does not start with a mobile app.

In Kiberia the real solution is simply to provide clean water and sanitation for all citizens. This is a basic human right to which they are entitled. The obstacles to providing clean water and sanitation are issues of power and politics and will be overcome by Kenyans taking individual initiative and collective action to bring about fundamental political change.

Who’s got an app for that?

Whenever people combine together intent on progressive change ICT can help; to paraphrase Kentaro Toyama ICT can amplify people’s capacity and intent and lead to amazing achievements. Under these circumstances technology can enhance people’s agency to address the root causes of unfreedoms, injustice and inequality and help them to realise the freedom to live the kind of lives that people have reason to value.

As Mike indicates social media does provide useful platforms for coordinating collective action, building networks of solidarity, and reaching both domestic and international audiences, without dependence on mainstream media.


In Egypt Facebook and Twitter did play a modest and significant supporting role, but in South Africa the mobile app MXit would probably have been the preferred tool, linking as it does 27 million users.

If the task of development is the empowerment of individuals and building the capabilities of peoples’ organisations – intent on bringing about sustainable change for the common good – then what is the role of ICT4D?

Maybe it is to refine and integrate those technologies that best enhance people’s collective capabilities, and amplify peoples’ power to realise their rights, freedoms and equality?

If so, then we will need young turks to turn their attentions to developing tools that amplifying collective action rather than tools that give individuals market advantage over their neighbours.


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