The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Savita Bailur: You probably don't need an app for that: the technological determinism of donors in the development community and our findings from Ghana, Kenya and Uganda

Savita Bailur, LSE/Caribou Digital

Last month, an article circulated on Twitter about three apps released by the Asia Foundation on women's safety in Cambodia , with an estimated production cost of $30,000 each, but which were each downloaded less than 400 times. The article also referenced Transparency International's Bribespot initiative in the country where users can report bribe requests, but which has only registered 60 such cases since May 2014 in a country which TI states as perceived to be the most corrupt in Southeast Asia. Similarly, at the recent launch of the World Development Report 2016 on Digital Dividends, the Director General of DfID, the Department of International Development, Nick Dwyer, stated ""we do not have enough technical skills within our teams to understand how to reach beneficiaries and maximise development through technology"". Despite the emphasis on understanding failure in development, such as the World Bank's Fail Fares , and publicised cases such as Maji Matone , it seems that there continues to be an emphasis on creating new apps or platforms for development.

On the contrary, our research of 18-25-year-olds living on under $2.50 a day in peri-urban Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, who may be considered in effect ""development beneficiaries"", tend to overwhelmingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly use platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp for the majority of their communication. This paper argues that instead of dismissing these platforms as entertainment or ""non-instrumental use"", and creating other platforms afresh, wherever relevant, the development community should consider these more substantially as sites of development, for the reasons we will discuss below.

Research question

What are the instrumental/development contributions of platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp amongst lower income communities in sub-Saharan Africa? Methods Two methods were used here - first, we conducted 30 focus group discussions, 10 each in Ghana, Kenny and Uganda, in June and July 2015. Half of these were conducted with men, by a local male facilitator, and half conducted with women, by a local female facilitator. The demographics of the participants were 18 to 25-year-olds living on under $2.50 a day in peri-urban Accra, Nairobi, and Jinja, with an average of around 6 participants per focus group [the longer paper will enter into the demographics of each participant, which we recorded]. As a follow-on in-depth method, we conducted one-to-one semi-structured interviews with 15 selected participants (five in each country) on their digital day - what kinds of technology did they interact with, for what purpose, and what impact did it have on them (i.e. satisfaction, value etc). This was clearly not representative but more exploratory research. Both the focus groups and digital day interviews were transcribed (translated in the cases where they were not conducted in English) and coded in Dedoose, an open source qualitative software tool.


The first major finding is that we find extensive use Facebook and WhatsApp for job searching, income generation and skills development. This may seem self-explanatory but as yet there no do not appear to be comparative findings (for lower income demographics in developing countries) in academic literature. This includes self-promotion and advertising oneself and one's products, particularly through photography. Ali in Kenya says: ""most of the time in applications of what you find you are in groups where you find that because you know each other and networking and they know what you do, the moment they find an opportunity job-related to you they send you links"". In the same focus group, Steve states ‘in the WhatsApp group of engineers which I have joined, I have been able to get several jobs"". For Wantiba in Uganda ""on WhatsApp, we create groups so if you friends can get you the job, then tell to that friend that I need a job, I want to do this, if you can find me a job"". Another method of job searching was to search for companies in Facebook, and ""liking"" their ages. A construction worker asks a friend to take a photograph of him and upload it onto a WhatsApp group - as the photograph also captures the location, it verifies his work there. Jonathan, who helps organise functions says ""we can get a picture of a certain function and then send it to anyone who is ordering ‘do you like this one, should it be decorated for you in this form?’. Others upload their business cards onto Facebook or WhatsApp (as a profile picture or in a group). WhatsApp is also used for income generation. Kisame says ""I've got friends in central market in Jinja, they sell jeans, if you've got a good trouser, he takes a picture, sends it to you, you negotiate on the price and you find yourself doing business, sales"".

In terms of gender differences between men and women, we find that there is less confidence in the female focus groups in using social media for job searching, income generation and skills development. For example, the Kenya female facilitator asks: ""someone else, do you know other people use technology to find work? Linda?

Linda: No

Kenny female facilitator: you don't know people offering to use digital technology to find work?

Linda: I do, but I don't know how they do it’.

Another female respondent hazards: ""you can be creative about something that you posted, then people will like it and then you write your phone number and you get rich"". The causal process she outlines illustrates her lack of familiarity but vague understanding.

In addition to job searching, we find several uses of mobile Internet, particularly Facebook and WhatsApp platforms as well as calling on the mobile to do quick informal work, which the participants call ‘pakapaka’in Ghana or ‘byeyo’in Uganda. It is not as formal as micro tasking, which none of the respondents had heard of, but still aligns with the mobile device's affordances of being mobile and enabling small quick pieces of work - for example a quick translation or helping somebody get a subscription to YouTube for a fee.


This paper will argue that development organisations have not interrogated the ‘instrumental’ uses of existing social media platforms to certain extent as anthropology studies are beginning to investigate in the developed world . Of course, this is likely due to the limited penetration of mobile Internet to some extent, but given that the majority of future internet access will be mobile, particularly in Africa, this is something international development should take into greater consideration. ""Going with the grain"" and refraining from reinventing the wheel in terms of bespoke platforms (unless they serve a specific need not met by this social media) may result in being more efficient and cost-effective in development. However, this raises other issues of over dependency on particular private companies and anti-competitive concerns.

Savita Bailur