Student Blogs

Blog entries made by students from International Development Studies will be posted during the course.

September 28, 2016: ‘Bias in Development on Big Data: the Missing Worst Case Scenario’

By: Louisa Boydston

We all know everyday through our use of phones, credit cards, banks, the Internet, GPS devices, and all kinds of digital apparatus we leave a byproduct of huge amounts of data relating to all sorts of information. We have some ideas about how governments use this in surveillance and corporations in marketing. And sometimes we catch snippets from the less mainstream but hugely positive dialogue in development about how big data is enabling development challenges to be tackled in whole new ways. It is not just more information, it is new types of information. But in every sector, the future seems very unclear and we need to address the role of development in understanding and safeguarding this big data.

Development success stories exemplify how increased public access to big data can be used for the betterment of society. Using GPS information from mobile users in Haiti, crisis response was able to contain the spread of cholera (Taylor, 2014). Mobile phones and internet use has surged exponentially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) (ITU, 2013) creating a wealth of information on health, violence, human mobility, and economic behavior (see Netmob, 2013). Development researchers and policy-makers hope this big data information can fill the existing gap in good, clear, updated, data from LMICs (Taylor, 2014). Because of the benefits from Big Data, the development field is full of powerful institutions advocating for making big data a public good. Making it a public good is not going to resolve the prospective buyers from using big data to manipulate and control the masses. Even if access is supposedly equal, there is unequal access to experts, funds, and technology for unraveling it. The development dialogue is powering ahead advocating transparency when it needs to address the bigger picture of regulating its uses.

In order to protect rights related to big data, the development dialogue must consider all those who benefit from transparent data. Along with state interests, data is a commercial power with influential capitalist stakeholders. Big data may become ‘the next oil’ dominated by private powers unregulated with enormous power disparity. Information capitalism converts citizens into consumers (Cohen, 2013). In India, Mastercard developed a card that works as a Biometric ID necessary for civil services like registering to vote and collecting welfare and integrates this with other attached to your card and registration (Taylor, 2015). Development could benefit from the largest data set about a country’s population, but what other uses will Mastercard sell this data for? Mastercard is not required to share this information and in the current framework the people at Mastercard cannot be held accountable for how they allow the Indian citizens’ information to be used.

These capitalist stakeholders often disguise their intentions of Market Expansion behind development. Look at how the Facebook Zero App was promoted as free Facebook access helping people who cannot afford Internet access more information and innovation discourse. However, it focused on emerging consumer markets like Colombia and Kenya and the conditions of use made everything a person clicked on the Internet data property of Facebook to sell on to any multinational looking for a new market. There are no regulations forcing Facebook to disclose to whom they sell that millions of data points. There is no transparency in how Facebook itself uses data about us to manipulate our newsfeeds, say in favor of a certain political candidate or agenda. Nor are they held accountable. Could Facebook manipulate an election? Absolutely. Would we know if they already have? Absolutely not. There is a serious deficit in transparency and accountability surrounding big data that needs to be addressed. We are increasingly a world where whoever controls the data controls public opinion.

The benefits of making data a public good cannot overshadow the serious need for regulations and institutions responsible for ensuring the data is used safely and for the betterment of people and not to increase the profits and power of multinationals and the rich. Data is a commercial power. Multinationals are pushing to make more big data more transparent. They are also major funders of the research. Governments have incredible access to private data and the future of our rights to privacy, participation, information, protest, and to prevent the commoditization of ourselves and our cultures is under threat. We need protection, regulation, and accountability for data-use and a framework ensuring safe and equal access to this data for the betterment of society. But these two are not separate issues and the development field needs to address both equally as it advocates transparent data.

Currently the development field is advocating making data public, despite the lack of regulatory bodies. If data is a decentralized commodity collected, sorted, and sold by the private sector, then whoever owns the data can insert their capitalist and political agendas into public opinion, development, access to all sorts of information, etc. Therefore, making data a public good may be the best direction. But making it public does not ensure it will be put to good use. It is clear regulation and accountability is needed first or congruously. Since there is little agreement on what can and should be done in this regards, the development field needs to prioritize this discussion because whether or not the steps are taken to protect our data, it is out there, growing, and being bought and used to control how the entire world develops.


Cohen, J. (2013). What Privacy is For. 126 Harv. L. Rev. 1904 2012-2013

Hypponen, Mikko. (2013). “How the NSA betrayed the world’s trust—time to act”. TEDxBrussels.

ITU. (2013). “The world in 2013”. International telecommunications union.

Laville, Sandra. (2012). “Royal wedding protestors lose high court case”. The Guardian, UK.

NetMob. (2013). Mobile phone data for development: Analysis of mobile phone datasets for the development of Ivory Coast. NetMob conference, May 1–3 2013, MIT, Cambridge, USA.

Taylor, Linnet, and Ralph Schroeder (2015). “Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy.” GeoJournal 80.4: 503-518.

October 5, 2016: Discussing Good Governance: Does subjectivity help achieving continuous development?

By: Martijn Grupstra

On 25 September 2015, the United Nations adopted their new ideas for creating and maintaining a sustainable world. Following the earlier proposed ‘millennium development goals’, the newly found ‘sustainable development goals’ are to be the new set of solutions to world problems. Whereas the previous millennium development goals were regarded to be  established quite vaguely in their formulations and as a lack of transparency, the new SDG’s are supposed to overcome this problem: starting with the practice of multi levelled working groups where all countries can make their statements, as well as viewing development more as a process rather than a target. However, one can argue that the goals still have their shortcomings.

Based on this idea, this blog post seeks to reflect on a particular issue regarding development goals, being the measurement of development progress. While I agree with the concept of regarding development as a progress, I can see conflicts arising when it comes to the exact measurement of this progress. In this, I was inspired by an article by Hulme et al (2014), based on the 16th SDG. The goal states: ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’ (United Nations 2015). In the article of Hulme et al (2014), the main focus lies on how to achieve this goal, using the concept of ‘good governance’. Good governance is a difficultly defined term, but a general statement can be formed as follows: good governance is practice of transparent governance, in which the accountability of the multiple actors regarding governance is clearly visible.

According to Hulme et al (2014), there exists a general consensus that the concept of good governance leads to development. Being a term open to interpretation, measuring whether good governance is practiced can be a difficult cause. In the article, Hulme et al (2014) construct a framework providing several indicators able to potentially measure ‘good governance’. In doing so, emphasis is placed on governance that is practiced country-specific and governance that could theoretically be applied cross-country. Prior to 2015, cross-country measures were popular, going hand in hand with the more target based approach of the millennium development goals: in order to achieve governance goals, quick fixes that were applicable everywhere were perceived to be sufficient. However, with the SDG’s, the focus shifted to more country specific, long term approaches. In addition, measuring the quality of governance is mostly done by subjective indicators, rather than objective ones.

This fact particularly strikes my interest for two reasons. First, apparently ‘good governance’ is suddenly perceived as a mostly subjective concept. The usage of ‘raw data’ as an indicator has thus declined. Although many factors are obviously highly subjective, such as measuring whether an institution practices its activities in a transparent manner, this also creates accountability issues. Subjective indicators also need a form of authority on the matter, leading to the question who or what that would be. How can a subjective indicator be created, on which every actor agrees that it should be measured in that particular way? In this, I see the possibility for ‘wicked problems’ to emerge; discussions where there is no clear answer or consensus, thus creating more and more points of discussion.

Following this, I argue that this is enhanced by the new SDG’s, as there are 17 goals being measured by over 160 indicators. While it is noteworthy that accountability is highly desired in those goals, the inevitable side issue is the creation of a large amount of indicators to suffice the interests of every country (in terms of accountability). Thus leading to multiple subjective indicators potentially representing the views of different cultures. For this instance, objective indicators can be an outcome. This asks for a balanced out set of indicators, both using objective and subjective indicators.

The second reason of interest lies in the following thought: ‘If good governance is measured by an overly large amount of subjective indicators in comparison to objective ones, how can we view the progress in which good governance improves?’ The reason behind this thought is the idea that a found progress in subjective data can be interpreted in two ways. First, one can view the data as the actual progress it represents; the governance of the country in question has indeed improved. Second, one can argue that instead of the governance actually improving, the perception of the people changes on the opinion of that certain governance. For example, institutional change can lead to an acceptation of a certain governance type that was previously disliked by people. This thought raises possibility for further research as well as a possible different approach towards looking at subjective measurements of progress.


Hulme, D., Savoia, A. and Sen, K. (2015), Governance as a Global Development Goal? Setting, Measuring and Monitoring the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Glob Policy, 6: 85–96. doi:10.1111/1758-5899.12181

United Nations Website: (last available on: 5/10/2016)

October 12, 2016: The problematics of economic power leading to political power

By: Zoé Bander

According to Oxfam we have now reached a world economy in which the richest 1% has surpassed the wealth of the rest of the world combined. The concentration of wealth by a few has been reached by allowing individuals and companies to deport their money to tax havens and by policies being favorable only for the wealthiest. The widening inequality-gap will keep increasing meanwhile the wealthiest will gain political power that the money inherently brings with it.

How come wealth is not trickling down to the poor? The world is stuck in a cycle in which the wealthiest are also the policymakers, making sure money and power will only flow upwards. The political power can be exerted through lobbying, avoiding regulation and by influencing how the rest of the society is governed. The political influence of the economically wealthiest on society will lead to a decrease of social mobility and some groups will even get excluded from society. The social contract between the state and its citizens erodes. This, then, leads to a mistrust of the citizens in their government which will weaken the democracy by citizens not caring to vote because they do not feel like they are considered as a part of society anymore. This is a self-strengthening process that creates dynamic and mutually reinforcing cycles of advantage.

Wealth concentrations have an immense impact on equal political representation. Representation is important to make sure that everybody’s needs are being considered, therefore the members of authorities should be divided representatively according to the demographics of a nation or place. The IMF found that the bigger the economic inequality, the bigger the gender inequality within a country. Women and girls will be affected by gender inequality in terms of access to health, education, labour market participation and representation in institutions. Not only the female gender is experiencing these issues: ethnic, sexual, religious and age minorities are constantly being overlooked due to a lack of representation. One of the fundamentals of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) is to leave no one behind, according Farah Karimi of Oxfam Novib. The lack of representation is hindering the underlying thought of the SDG’s.

The introduction of market fundamentalism to developing countries has had a negative impact on the problematic development of these countries. When rich companies and individuals deport their money to tax havens it has instant consequences on the state from which the money is withheld. Therefore the government of the already poor country does not have the amount of money on which it has based its government budget. Public services then get privatized and deregulated and become less accessible to some groups of society. The capitalists owning these companies make a lot of profit on which they will probably try to pay as least taxes as possible, meaning they will put even more money in tax havens. The capitalists get more power and wealth meanwhile the ”normal citizen” of the developing country is getting even less education or access to health care than it already had.

Tax havens and offshore banking are the main reasons of polarization of wealth in todays world. The OECD is pressing for more transparency on tax havens, trying to clear the sometimes grey areas in which the wealthy operate and hide their money. It is almost unimaginable that tax havens and offshore banking are legal acts for individuals and companies considering the consequences it causes on entire societies. However when you think about it, it makes sense. Wealth generates political power and thereby the authority to implement favorable policies.

The current world is build for the richest 1%. We need to find a way to end tax hypocrisy. I believe that we can come a long way with social movements as long as everybody affected negatively by the concentration of wealth participates. Standing up for your right to education, health care or a transparent democratic government is a rightful thing to do. The individuals of the remaining 99% might not have the same amount of money as the wealthiest 1%, but they do have a strong voice when the entirety comes together and takes a stand. No amount of power can resist a demand of roughly 7,4 billion people. This may be an idealistic thought but since the wealthiest 1% have managed to isolate themselves, their rights and their power it is very hard to reach them any other way. The concentration of wealth needs to be eliminated and the correlation between wealth and political power needs to be eradicated. It is about time we build a world for the entire 100% of the world’s population.

October 19, 2016: Representation in open data

 By: Job Velseboer

Open data is being used on a daily basis, by everyone, all around the world. Weather data, transportation data and satellite data are all examples of open data. This kind of data is available for the public. Open data is data that can be used for different reasons, including development aid. In times of disaster, open data can help aid initiatives to find a structure in the chaos. Satellite data can be used to map the sites with the need of aid, or to make an estimate about the damages. In broader terms, open data can be used to distribute knowledge to the public. Aid organizations are also able to collect data, to compare different aid initiatives for example. This way, open data has the ability to create transparency. Transparency does have one condition: the data should be used in the correct way, by the right people.

The fact that data is open, doesn’t mean that the data is easy accessible. Data can be scattered across the internet, in different formats and styles. To create a common database for open data, the International Aid Transparency Initiative  was created. IATI is “a voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve the transparency of aid, development, and humanitarian resources in order to increase their effectiveness in tackling poverty” (IAITI, 2016). NGO’s, governments, foundations and the private sector all contribute to creating one framework for open data on development. It is one catalogue with all contributions on development data gathered in one format. This means easy accessible, structured data all on one platform. IATI is an example of how a multi-stakeholder initiative could contribute to development aid with the use of open data.

In their annual report, IATI (2015) stated that 353 stakeholders contribute to the data framework, all around the world. This data can be used by parties such as partner country governments, tax payers, civil society and the media. The fact that open data can be spread and used by everyone, must make us think twice about not only the bright sides of open data, but maybe also about the dangers. Open data initiatives reflect transparency, but we should keep in mind that not everyone has the same voice and ability to be represented in the data. Open data is based on contributions by organizations and states. These stakeholders can’t represent all people in need, they also have to make policy choices about who they’re representing and reporting. If open data is the future, it is important to not solely base policy around this data, as it might exclude groups of people who also need attention. There is also the problem of different technical abilities around the world. People in more isolated regions might not have the ability to contribute to open data gathering. This way, open data becomes a top-down­ system. Governments and organizations gather the data, but since the people they report about could lack a significant role in this data-gathering, there is no guarantee that the data can’t be manipulated for the sake of the government or organization. This contributes to the gaps in transparency and accountability open data still has. Another downside of open data that should not be neglected is the fact that the data can also be used for different reasons than development. The private market and economic institutions also have access to open data about development. This isn’t specifically a negative side of open data, but we should keep in mind that data in some cases might be adapted to this audience. This could hurt transparency. Data, including open data, should always be critically reviewed to avoid any biases about the data.

To conclude, I think that open data initiatives, like IATI, have the ability to be a move forward in improving transparency. If development data is available to the public, development organizations and governments can be held accountable in improving the lives of the ones in need. Collaboration between development organizations also becomes much easier, as open data creates a structured outline of the existing development programs. However, in my opinion open data still has its flaws. The fact that anyone can contribute to the data framework, has its dangers. I have tried to lay out the possible downsides of open data. We should be careful not to fall into a single top-down structure, in which the people in developing countries don’t have the ability to contribute to the data about themselves. This could hurt the transparency of open data. The most important thing to do in order to develop open data even further, is to always critically review the data. Not only in terms of source or audience, but the focus should be the most on the question if all people in the data are well represented. Only then is open data relevant for development initiatives.