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How can social media help assert citizenship rights?

OlusegunOgunleye5 March 2015

The use of social media by people to assert their citizenship rights and make demands of their government has been enabled through the emergence of a variety of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, change.org and avaaz.org.

This can be traced back to incidents such as the Arab Spring, and the ‘Occupy’ movements seen in some western countries such as the United States of America (Occupy Wall Street being perhaps the best known). More recently political crises in Spain and Greece, and significant campaigns such as #bringbackourgirls and Je Suis Charlie have found a global audience online. Social media as a mobilising tool continues to gain in currency.

The successes of social media have varied from locality to locality based on different factors and contexts. What cannot be denied is that such practices have increased the ability of citizens to rally around solidarity not only locally but global issues.

Source: Punch Newspaper | Credit: Olatunji Obasa

Source: Punch Newspaper | Credit: Olatunji Obasa

#bringbackourgirls: Global visibility shrouds local action

One recent incident that is especially close to home for me, as a Nigerian, has been the #bringbackourgirls campaign. This originated in Nigeria due to the kidnap of 276 girls by the Boko Haram sect from a school in Chibok located in North-eastern Nigeria on April 14, 2014.

Reflecting on the #bringbackourgirls campaign: its gains were its ability to solicit global support and situate the blight of those impacted by the Boko Haram insurgency into the international consciousness. However, its key pitfall has been the inability to elicit concrete response and action from the Nigerian government.

My conclusion is that the reason for this can be attributed to several factors among which is the fact that the global support garnered was not matched by sustained local pressure. Additionally the politicisation of the issue by both the government and the opposition has meant that in the process the voice of the victims been muted somewhat.

Silencing the victim’s voice

Before delving further into reasons for the limited success of the #bringbackourgirls campaign, I would like to expand on this critical issue; the silencing of the victim’s voice, which came to the fore. This is not particular only to the #bringbackourgirls campaign but its reflective of various mass movements of activism in the developing world.

Vyncent Elvin Eebee highlighted this in an article titledFor Whom Does the Speaking Woman Speak?, where she concluded that rural women’s voices are submerged by the voice of urban female advocates, which result in rural women becoming invisible due to the articulation of their voices by the other.

She further stated that when the rural woman participates in action, it is upon trumpeted and highly advertised invitations, which are not conducive to effective participatory mass movements.

To me this was visible in the #bringbackourgirls campaign, because these trumpeted and highly advertised invitations were tools utilised by the campaigners, government, and the opposition to publicise themselves while the plea of the victims was not concretely tackled.  

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The ‘digital divide’

In my opinion key factors that contributed to the limited success of social media in Nigeria and developing countries as a whole relate to the digital divide.

This is not only in terms of penetration but also with regards to access and understanding of how to utilise these tools and platforms, especially when the literacy rates in many countries are taken into consideration.

This was reflected upon by Merridy Wilson who acknowledged that

“the problem of the growing technology and/or knowledge gaps between and within countries, places certain groups of people further in the shadow regions of global information flows. These gaps persist both at the level of access to ICT infrastructure, and in terms of the form of information conveyed and who is able to use, understand and produce the information and knowledge which ICTs potentially make accessible.”

We need conscious, strategic approaches to effectively use social media for change

My conclusion therefore is that social media can become an enabling and transformative tool for people to assert their citizenship rights and make demands in developing countries, such as Nigeria. But it calls for prudent adaptation of techniques and tactics for effective strategies towards mass mobilisation.

This can only be attained by being conscious of local realities in the African continent, as in other climes, and supported by concerted and sustained pressure on ground to match the global support a social media audience provides.

What this therefore requires, as put in the words of Andrew Burkett,

“are much more difficult, time-consuming and probably not as glitzy as ICT development efforts – that is, political will, recognition of personal and social responsibilities, and ultimately action on the part of governments and civil society.”


Olusegun Ogunleye is a development practitioner with several years working experience in the field of town planning in Nigeria. He has also taken part in urban-based research in Nigeria, London and, Dar es Salaam. His passion lies in the area of urban governance as he sees it as a veritable tool to ensure and enhance the wellbeing of citizens. He also believes in the potential inherent in community-led development as a means of ensuring sustainable development. Olusegun graduated from the MSc Urban Development Planning in 2014.

Mexico: Where does hope reside? (Part III)

Étiennevon Bertrab18 February 2015

La tierra no se vende, se ama y se defiende. La Parota, Guerrero. Image: Javier Verdin (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos)

La tierra no se vende, se ama y se defiende. La Parota, Guerrero. Image: Javier Verdin (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos)

This post focuses upon the disconnection between the urban population in Mexico (a large majority) and what happens in the non-urban territory, and reflects on the crucial role and state of journalism. However, events that have come to light in the last 7 days demand a short digression:

Just Another Week On

An on going investigation has revealed that the ‘disappearance rate’ in Mexico is currently a shocking 13 people per day. That is one every 2 hours. These people are usually considered as ‘disappeared by force,’ as reinforced last week by the UN Committee of Forced Disappearances. They are mostly marginalised women and men who predominantly belong to poor rural and indigenous communities.

To add to the tragedy 40% are aged 15 to 29, simply too young to go through such experience without life-long consequences – if they survive. The injustice doesn’t end here: confronting a reign of impunity their own relatives face high risks when choosing to do something about it.

This was the case of Norma Angélica Bruno, aged 26, who had recently joined a group of determined to find ‘the other disappeared’ in Guerrero. So far the group has discovered 48 bodies in clandestine graves across the state. In a sickly ironic turn of fate, Norma was assassinated before the eyes of her three children while walking to the funeral of a murdered colleague.

As if living in a parallel world, the Interior Minister Osorio Chong declared that Mexico has the highest levels of security in ten years and that “very important steps have been taken to give back peace and security to all Mexicans”.

National Autonomous University (UNAM), Mexico City. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

National Autonomous University (UNAM), Mexico City. Image: Étienne von Bertrab

The missing link between society and nature

Despite growing awareness of the crises in Mexico, politicians, analysts, mainstream media and even organised citizens who try to reform or rebuild the State, tend to ignore an underlying issue. The country is highly urbanised and most citizens are, willingly or not, alienated from nature, or more concretely, completely dislocated from what happens ‘elsewhere’.

It turns out, however, that Mexico’s land, water and natural resources are being degraded and extracted at an alarming pace. Mexican institutional framework, created in order to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s, has been largely irrelevant in the rhetorical pursuit of sustainable development.

Take water resources, for instance: after conducting hearings between 2006 and 2012, the Latin American Water Tribunal warned of “possible hydric collapse” and condemned the Mexican State for violation of international treaties and its own legal framework to guarantee the right to water as a fundamental human right.

Indigenous Resistance

Indigenous communities have resisted for centuries. However, as a result of a combination of constitutional reforms and trade deals, resource grabbing has increased significantly over the last two decades; and it often unfolds violently.

For instance, in the mountains of Guerrero communities have been resisting the imposition of the La Parota Dam, which would displace 25,000 and severely affect livelihoods of another 75,000. Their decade-long resistance has been relatively effective, yet at a tragic cost: repression, illegal incarceration and assassination of communal leaders.

But this region is by no means an exception. Another ethical tribunal, the Tribunal Permanente de los Pueblos (TPP), documented over the last few years 220 active socio-environmental conflicts across the country, and observed the normalisation of institutional violence towards those who resist.

TPP’s condemnation of the Mexican State, entitled “The dispossession and degradation of Mexico: Free trade and deviation of power as causes of structural violence, impunity and dirty war against Mexico’s peoples”, can be downloaded here.

For years, active community members have regular meetings where they discuss structural problems and actions. With huge efforts they form regional assemblies and have an annual national assembly. This is the case of the Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales (ANAA).

In my view, these forms of organisation are poorly supported and understood, and are essential not only in slowing down environmental degradation, but also in addressing a key factor in Mexico’s humanitarian crisis.

Mazahua people confront the dispossession of their water - pumped to Mexico City. Image: Agua, Ríos y Pueblos

Mazahua people confront the dispossession of their water – pumped to Mexico City. Image: Agua, Ríos y Pueblos

The brave world of journalism

Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries to practice journalism, particularly critical, independent journalism. According to the map Periodistas en Riesgo, a recent initiative by Freedom House and International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), 13 journalists have been killed over the last two years (the most deadly period has been May-October 2014) and four journalists are currently thought abducted.

Without brave journalists we would be incapable of understanding what happens in a country whose State machinery has dominated the art of manipulating our mainstream media. On a positive note, as noted by several political analysts, those in power have been completely unable to understand the world of the Internet – despite attempts to monitor and control. Civil society is way ahead in understanding the power and potential of social media, a space where anyone can join in solidarity.

To explore the role of street art in social movements in Mexico DPU and UCL Americas are hosting a unique conversation with artist-activists part of Oaxaca’s Colectivo Lapiztola, on Monday 23 February. Read more and register to attend.

Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista