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Innovations in a Time of Cholera: bridging the gap between social media and social change

By: Maija Ehlinger

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an Op-Ed piece earlier this month evaluating the idealistic worldview of today’s youth. According to Brooks, student activism in the 21st Century misses the mark for creating systemic global change, claiming that this created “service religion” underestimates the problems of the world, and tries to evade the political system. His argument claims that our generation’s hippie-mentality wants to create idealistic, unattainable peace within and between countries. Believing there is “little social progress without political progress,” Brooks claims that activists of today have a grassroots approach that breeds inefficiency and disorder in the world of foreign aid.[1]

But let us look critically at the politics of international affairs. The debate over the foreign aid budget has polarized the political system in the United States. The United States has yet to create an effective way to allocate money, aid, and supplies to suffering populations around the world.  International agencies, like the United Nations, have been unable to fulfill their own idealistic and lofty visions for the future.[2]

True, the world of foreign aid is convoluted and blanketed with political aspirations, civil disputes, and financial insecurities. And we must see that political dialogue is a necessary component for positive international relations. But to rebuke the work of small, grassroots movements of idealistic students is to deny the power of global-minded citizen. We must allow innovation to thrive if change on an international scale is to occur.

Some have been critical of current college students, claiming the ‘Facebook Generation’ is apathetic and disengaged.[3] It may be difficult to see Facebook or Twitter as means of true and complete social change. But if used effectively, social media can ignite innovations and global learning.  Some governmental and non-governmental organizations have already made steps towards using pioneering social change in the world of international affairs. Obama’s administration has implemented ‘Google+ Hangout’ as a way to engage with the American public; a platform that has already created an open forum for dialogue about important issues in foreign affairs.  If foreign aid is to be allocated successfully, we need not separate grassroots innovation with political dialogue. These are clearly not two different entities.  If used efficiently, governmental policies and idealistic humanitarianism can work hand-in-hand.

Take the Invisible Children movement. While disputes linger over the management structure of the organization, Invisible Children has managed to spark discussion throughout the country and raise awareness about the LRA in northern Africa in a way no American politician has been able to do. Their innovative approach to social media proves that platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be educational tools for the 21st Century citizen. Most importantly, this grassroots movement has inspired, not hindered, political action.[4]

The tangible benefits of social media have already been seen, as international organizations, like Oxfam, raised $110,000 through Facebook in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.[5]

Let us not trivialize the influence of social media on our generation. If understanding and innovation is to happen in the foreign aid world, it should come from social platforms that can connect us to communities across the world. Even in times of great social strife, natural disasters, and political turmoil, social media has already transformed how we view aid. Let political action work with social media to bridge understandings of epidemics, civil wars, and international poverty.


[1] The New York Times.  Sam Spade at Starbucks.  Brooks, David. 12 April, 2012.   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/brooks-sam-spade-at-starbucks1.html.

[2]  UN Millennium Development Goals, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/.

[3] The New York Times. The Fakebook Generations. Mathias, Alice.  6 October, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/06/opinion/06mathias.html.

[4] CBS News. Congress pushes to raise reward for Joseph Kony. 18 April, 2012. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57416148/congress-pushes-to-raise-reward-for-joseph-kony/

[5] The Impact of Social Media on Medicine: Expanding the Scope of Treatment.  Parson, Megan.  1 February, 2012.  http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/hghr/2012/02/01/the-impact-of-social-media-on-medicine-expanding-the-scope-of-treatment/.

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