The U.S. Department of State sponsors something called the International Visitor Leadership Program, a program in which young leaders from various parts of the world meet with leaders in the U.S. on a particular topic. I was among one of the people selected to meet with the young foreign leaders to discuss social media and civil society. I have some video interviews which I’m going to post in the upcoming days which are quite interesting, but for now I wanted to talk about something else.
The young leaders I spoke with were from Brazil, Peru, Haiti, Bolivia, and Guatemala, many of whom run their own non-profit organizations. It was the kind of event where I wish folks such as Beth Kanter, Geoff Livingston, and JD Lasica could have been at. I started talking about social media and how it has been changing the way in which the world communicates and shares information. A few minutes into the presentation, Violeta from Bolivia raised her hand and said, “many people in my country don’t have a smart phone and don’t have enough money to stay connected to the internet, so what do we do?”
It struck me as a deep statement because here I am, someone that has grown up with a computer, technology, and a smart phone trying to discuss the issue of “we can’t connect to the net.” It really made me realize how lucky we are to have what we have and to be connected in the way we are. I’m surrounded by technology and social media so it’s hard for me to think about what I would do if I lived in a country where I had no internet access (or very sparse). As someone who travels quite extensively, I have definitely been to places such a remote villages in China where people have no phones or internet. However, there is a big difference between spending a few days in a non-technology driven society and actually living there. In the U.S. we talk about how social media can be used for customer service, marketing, PR, social good, and connecting with people. In places such as Haiti and Guatemala, they talk how they can bring internet access, connectivity, and social media to the masses; it’s a very different conversation and one that really made me think.
I know that there have been many U.S. driven efforts to support countries in need. Haiti is a great example. However, it was very interesting to hear from young leaders that actually live in these countries. Many of them believe that technology can help them overcome many of the challenges and obstacles that they are currently faced with. My role during the two hour long discussion (I was only supposed to be there for an hour) with the foreign leaders turned from my leading a discussing to my getting some real world lessons on social media and technology from other parts of the world.
It was definitely an interesting experience and I’m very thankful that the U.S. Department of State chose me to speak to these individuals. I believe I contributed a good deal of information to the discussion and I definitely learned a lot. I think we should all remember and not lose sight of the fact that although we may have smart phones and the net at our fingertips, there are many parts of the world that do not have this luxury. It really helps put things into perspective. Can you imagine living without constant access to the web and to the phone? Perhaps not, but these leaders that I spoke to our trying to imagine what it would be like in their countries to have constant access to the web and to their phones.
I wonder what would happen if we switched places for a year.