Social Networks (not Facebook) and Development

World-wandering BoingBoing editor Xeni Jardin writes about a video from the "What Would the Poor Say: Debates in Aid Evaluation," NYU conference, where Leonard Wantchekoz presents on the importance of trust in development:

Video: "If You Don't Trust People You Know, It's Over."Leonard Wantchekon on the Lack of Intra-Community Trust in Benin from DRI on Vimeo.

Communities in Benin where he has seen this phenomenon manifest most, he says, are the same communities where the highest amount of slave exportation took place from the 1600s to the 1900s [...] [A]s I watched, I kept thinking about what this means in my own personal community back here in the US (and around the internet). How I and my friends and colleagues are, in many ways, really "banking" on that trust with each other to come up with creative ways to survive the economic crisis.

Social networks are important. As Wantchekoz underlines, you can't do business without some basic level of trust (having institutions that enforce that trust help too - but are secondary). Trust -- more commonly called social capital in this situation -- is the strength and number of interpersonal connections. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and the like are convenient ways to map out these connections (within a connected group of people), but hardly replace them.

This is by no means new in development theory, and is often portrayed as either the keystone to successful development or a red herring (and to be fair, it's probably both).

Social Networks also provide a second important role. Beyond increasing trust to enable all sorts of transactions, and providing back-channels to smooth those along, they also improve (if not outright cause) technology diffusion. Spread throughout a network will be innovators, experimenters and early adopters who create, tweak and test new ideas, and then begin to spread them by word of mouth as well as through successful implementations.

Social networks are easy to blame for failed development or lack of uptake in a new concept or technology, and as such draw fire for being the answer to all development problems ("X didn't work because there wasn't enough social cohesion"). The problem is that having and enabling these small, local networks of people is, at the end of the day, the key to long-term sustainable change, democracy, and growth -- it's just very hard to do and doesn't guarantee that, once empowered, the community will think your solution is the right one.

This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but in the end it will be communities who create decisions governing their own path towards growth and prosperity which achieve that, not those which follow an external model of what the steps to growth "should be."