September 3, 2009

Do We Matter Online: Empowering Marginalized People on the Internet

During the decade I recently spent in East Africa, I spent the majority of my time experimenting with disadvantaged communities to explore ways that participating in the Internet could influence their lives in positive ways. What I learned is that empowering the poor through the Internet is much more complex than teaching people where to click to find information. There are fundamental perception issues at play that serve to keep Africa’s engagement in the online world lower than it should be.

One widespread misperception is that enabling Africa to access information from the rest of the world is going to empower African people - as if Africa’s problems would be solved if the average semi-literate African woman could simply find, read and digest what the rest of the world has to teach her.

Fundamentally, however, empowering people means helping them believe that they matter, and that what they have to offer has value. Unfortunately, foreign information and culture pushed at Africa often reinforces local feelings of inadequacy – for empowerment to happen, it’s got to be a two way street.

Online communities can offer that kind of empowerment, but there are hurdles to global relationship building that the average African faces. Literacy and language issues top the list.

In the online world, people who write with faulty grammar and bad spelling are all too often dismissed as unworthy of our serious attention. So even with the will to engage and access to a connected computer, the average semi-literate African woman who wants to connect has challenges to overcome that the online world at large is not geared to appreciate, to accept, or to help her with.

And indeed, help – in very concrete and practical terms - is what she has been conditioned to want and expect from the world. Global charity-based development systems in Africa have taught her that the way to get ahead, especially with foreigners, is to present herself as a deserving case for charity. The most obvious reason to engage online that her conditioned mindset thus allows her to see, is to find help for immediate daily survival issues. But in truth there is very little tolerance for people we perceive to be begging online. They are routinely rebuffed, and not to be trusted.

As such, the Internet demands that the average semi-literate African woman, whom our systems have taught to present herself to the outside world as a charity case, now needs to learn to think about herself and present herself in a whole different light when she engages online. She needs to do that in a foreign language, without making too many grammar mistakes. Technology infrastructure issues aside, is it any wonder we don’t see more Africans engaged in substantive online discussions?

Founder of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners Lee, recently spoke about the web in developing countries and said

“we must enable them to create a web that they need and that they want, and they will. If they're enabled, if they're given an open Internet platform, a neutral Internet platform, they will do that. So we must not think that we will be feeding them our culture, we must realize that their culture is going to be coming back very strongly and that is going to be very exciting for the world."

When I allow myself to imagine the world’s poor majority online and actively engaged in co-creating the world we all live in, I see hope that our most challenging global issues can be solved. But for that day to come, there is work needed to adjust perceptions on both sides of the street.

We need tools and spaces that encourage people in under-connected parts of the world to start recognizing their own value and sharing the knowledge they have. We need to stop judging according to Western literacy standards and strive to seek the meaning in what people are trying to say.

The most empowering gift we can give to the world’s most marginalized people when we meet them online is to let them know that they matter – not just for what they don’t have, but for who they are – “developed” or not.

Christina Jordan is an Ashoka Fellow and the retired founder of Life in Africa – a Ugandan based initiative to help people in Africa find opportunities for self development through the Internet. Originally American, she currently lives in Belgium, where she is developing a new initiative to foster increased collaboration in the global social change sector online. You can follow her on Twitter or at her personal blog Please leave your comments or email with your questions.

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