In 2014 the Sudanese government released pregnant Meriam Ibrahim, previously sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith, in response to the campaign begun by Amnesty International. The increased visibility of the Sudanese government’s decision, and the ability to communicate this across the world, enabled the engagement of over 250,000 people in the UK alone, in addition to further international pressure and consequential media coverage.
The sheer number of people engaged in the campaign for Meriam’s release could not have been achieved without the digital communications which aid and impact upon our lives daily. The speed of technological growth from invention to day-to-day use can be remarkable. YouTube is 10 years old this year; in 2004 it did not exist, yet today more than 1 billion users broadcast videos for personal, informative, commercial or other use.
Rise of the machines
The digital age is indisputable and cannot be separated from issues in international development. In Meriam’s case, we see the speed and ease of online communication has enhanced ability to raise awareness in international campaigns, making state leadership and governments more accountable than ever to external authorities.
It is not just large organisations who can harness this campaigning power. Individuals and group campaigners can come together and form a collective voice via social media platforms and other online media. LGBT activists in Russia have used these to raise awareness of Russian laws against homosexuality and the open discrimination in society – despite the real possibility of facing violence and attacks. This has helped to put the issue on the world stage. The issue was at the forefront of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and recently featured in BBC3 documentary, Extreme Russia.
Mobile technology and digital communications have significantly impacted political events in recent years. Social media messages enabled the beginnings of the Arab Spring in 2011. A study by the University of Washington found that the vast amount of social media messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East “helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising”. Messaging services also contributed to the organisation of the UK London Riots in the same year.
Meanwhile digital communications are utilised as in the actual delivery of international aid. This is exactly the purpose of BBC’s international charity, BBC Media Action, which uses media to “inform, connect and empower”. The charity has produced radio and television programmes to raise awareness and influence negative attitudes in areas such as health, resilience and rights.
For instance, a weekly radio health programme (Pillars of the Family), aiming to improve nutrition, health and hygiene, ran for 75 weeks on BBC Somali. Messages in the storylines were targeted to address specific identified activities, such as breastfeeding, toilet activities and hand-washing. Following the project, 84% of listeners reported that they learned new things about health from the programmes and that they changed some of their daily habits as a result.
Undoubtedly, there are challenges in utilising new technology. Access and availability is a consideration. A huge share of the world’s population is not yet widely connected to the internet nor considered in the design of new information technologies. Workforce development is also essential. Even in the UK, where it is possible to resource and upskill an organisation, charities were announced this month, to be the least digitally mature UK sector by Technology Trust.
Tapping the fundraising potential
Today, 75% of UK donors use online resources to research charities. While of those who view charity YouTube videos, 57% of people go on to donate. Where charities invest in their digital capabilities, they are more than twice as likely to increase their fundraised income as a digitally immature charity.
However we can already see the impact of digital solutions in many places across the globe, and technology advances rapidly. The UK-based Open Hand Project is using 3D printing as a cheaper alternative in the manufacture of prosthetics, with the aim to make robotic prosthetic hands more accessible to amputees. In the recent past, developments such as this would have been unimaginable. We have to recognise the impact that has been made so far, embrace advances in technology and communications, and look to future possibilities.
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