Nation Branding: Modernization vs. Dependency Theory

“Torn” by Artist Abel Tilahun

Turning a critical eye on the practice of nation branding, the modernization theory versus dependency theory debate takes on contemporary relevance. Proponents and practitioners of nation branding, i.e. Simon Anholt, argue that low-income countries can benefit from the application of branding techniques designed to streamline policy and image in order to attract investors, tourists, and the sale of country-of-origin exports (2004). This argument parallels modernization theory, as it proposes that the use of global systems of communication, as well as an embrace of the logic of capitalist marketing and neoliberal trade policies, is the best path towards development. Similarly, the “cui bono” critique of modernization theory can also be applied to nation branding. As Thussu (2006) states, modernization theory “was predicated on a definition of development that followed the model of Western industrialization and ‘modernization’, measured primarily by the rate of economic growth of output or Gross National Product (GNP). It failed to recognize that the creation of wealth on its own was insufficient:  the improvement of life for the majority of the populations depended on the equitable distribution of that wealth and its use for the public good” (p. 44).

In fact, as Thussu points out, growth in GNP among low income countries since the rise of modernization theory has in many cases been accompanied by growing income disparities (p. 44).

Nation branding proponents, in their embrace of neoliberal economic models, have largely evaded the question of how this model of economic development will benefit a wide spectrum of the public in low income countries as opposed to perpetuating these trends. Anholt took this critique head on, however, in his editorial “Is place branding a capitalist tool?” He states, “I would argue that considerations like these should form an essential part of the criteria by which any national branding strategy is judged, but they are not a reason why nation branding itself should not be practised…the alternative is allowing others to do the branding for you” (2006, p. 2). Ultimately, however, he evades the question of intra-national wealth disparities created by the promised fruits of nation branding, i.e. increased Federal Direct Investment, tourism, etc., by focusing for the rest of the piece on nation branding’s potential to break down international wealth disparities.

Structural imperialism is another valuable tool with which to analyze the constellations of benefactors of nation branding. Topping the list are nation branding consultants, primarily based in London (Aronczyk, 2013), and government and business elites in the nations being branded. To use Galtung’s terms, the primary benefactors are located within the “center of the center nation” and the “center of the periphery nation” (1971). Furthermore, by advising nations to brand themselves in ways that are “appealing” to wealthy Northern audiences, nation branding can be critiqued using dependency theory as yet another development method that positions the global South as permanently subservient to the North.

While all of this may be true, low income countries and many of their citizens are eager to build wealth as individuals and prominence for their nation on the world stage. In a world where structural inequality is the norm, both inter and intra-nationally, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine a development paradigm impervious to critique by one or more of these theories. As such, I do believe that nation branding offers valuable principles for low income nations to consider when navigating a global communication system tilted to their disadvantage, as they are often branded primarily in a negative light through “feudal” news flows (Galtung, 1971) and humanitarian organizations’ fundraising strategies.


Anholt, S. (2004). Brand New Justice: How Branding Places and Products Can Help the Developing World (Revised Edition.). Routledge.

Anholt, S. (2006). Is place branding a capitalist tool? Place Branding, 2(1), 1–4.

Aronczyk, M. (2013). Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity. Oxford University Press.

Galtung, J. (1971). A structural theory of imperialism. Journal of peace research, 81-117.

Thussu, D. K. (2006). Approaches to theorizing international communication. In International Communication: Continuity and Change (A Hodder Arnold Publication (2nd Edition., pp. 40–65). Bloomsbury Academic.


Understanding Multistakeholder Governance

“Free Hand 2” by Artist Abel Tilahun

The term “governance” is an increasingly referenced concept that captures the fact that in many arenas governments are no longer the sole or even primary “governors” (Castells 2008). Instead we are moving towards “multi-stakeholder governance” in many sectors, with different actors playing different roles. For example, the neoliberal paradigm in the U.S. has seen the private sector take the reins of institutions such as schools, prisons, and hospitals to an extent which in previous eras would have been thought unimaginable. In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, since the structural adjustment period of the early 1990s, NGOs have taken over much of the work of “development,” an arena previously monopolized  by the state, providing healthcare, education, water, loans, and other basic necessities to people. By implication, these NGOs and their donors have a role in determining which region, which ethnic group, and even which gender will develop faster and according to what definition of “development,” an inherently political and value-laden agenda (Piot 2010).

Denardis’ 2014 book The Global War for Internet Governance, offers a window into the way that values and politics shape the Internet’s governance vis-à-vis its architecture and the many actors that play a governance role. Denardis explains that the Internet by its nature is a distributed network, and therefore it inherently entails a “distributed and networked multistakeholder governance, involving traditional public authorities and international agreements, new institutions, and information governance functions enacted via private ordering and arrangements of technical architecture” (p. 23).

Denardis argues, and I would agree, that the politics of Internet governance matter to a great degree because governance can either be a mechanism for corruption, oppression, and exploitation, or instead a mechanism to ensure freedom of expression, relative security, fair competition, innovation, and interoperability. A key takeaway of her work is the understanding that the same technologies that enable the free flow of information can also be used to block access to information and/or surveil individuals (p. 24). Therefore social context is required to evaluate the implications of a particular technological formation. For example, the same software that can protect a child from online pornography, thereby opening up the Internet as a source of academic knowledge, can also be used by authoritarian regimes to censor content that challenges their legitimacy. Denardis’ book is a must-read for anyone who cares about governance at the intersection of technology and politics.

Castells, Manuel. 2008. “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks and Global Governance.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (1): 78–93.

DeNardis, Laura. 2014. The Global War for Internet Governance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Piot, Charles. 2010. Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Convergence Culture: Platforms Matter

“Complicated” by Artist Abel Tilahun

Many theorists have argued that the “participatory turn” in media has opened new spaces for civic and political engagement (Benkler, Shirky, etc.). While these arguments have been criticized as “technological determinism,” they represent important perspectives within the ongoing scholarly efforts to grasp the true impacts of new technologies on social and political engagement, as technology continues to rapidly advance, often outpacing research. “Platforms” are an important part of this conversation. As Gillespie (2010) states, the term platform has been deployed by “content providers… in both their populist appeals and their marketing pitches – sometimes as technical platforms, sometimes as platforms from which to speak, sometimes as platforms of opportunity. Whatever tensions exist in serving all of these constituencies are carefully elided” (p. 1).

The term “platform” also serves to distance content intermediaries from responsibility for the content that users post there, be it content that is invasive of someone’s privacy, libelous, or an intellectual property infringement (Gillespie 2010; Solove 2011). The SOPA/PIPA laws were designed to hold platforms accountable for at least some of these items, online piracy and IP infringement, priorities of behemoth content producers such as Hollywood, but an outpouring of dissent turned the tide on the legislation. Opponents based their arguments on the argument that the legislation would have a “chilling effect” on free speech (McKinnon 2011), would have problematic technical ramifications, and the fact that many platforms would go out of business due to the threat of lawsuit. However, the fact that content intermediaries continue to be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act means that while they enable participation in all its noble aspects, they can also be slow to act when user-generated content infringes on the civil liberties of others (Solove 2011).

Dr. Deen Freelon, a professor in American University’s School of Communication adds a valuable piece to the conversation on the way in which platforms afford particular types of social and political engagement. He argues that the literature on online democratic communication has privileged the concept of “deliberation” to the exclusion of other important forms of democratic engagement, thus remaining oblivious to their presence and impacts. Freelon instead proposes three models of democratic communication: liberal individualist, communitarian, and deliberative. Most pertinent to this discussion is the fact that he argues that these models map onto the affordances of online platforms in ways that allow many platforms to be characterized as falling predominantly into one of these three categories (2010). For example, he argues that online newspaper comment sections are the site of predominantly liberal individualist communication, as individuals value expression over reciprocal communication (2011). Twitter, on the other hand, is the site of primarily communitarian communication, he argues, since its affordances promote communities of like-minded individuals to converge and converse (2011). Last, Freelon uses the example of “Living Voters Guides” as an example of a deliberative communication space, as citizens are asked to support opinions, ask questions, and remain open to the possibility of agreement between adversaries (2011).

As Freelon aptly demonstrates, when it comes to the democratic potential of “convergence culture” (Deuze 2009), platforms do very much matter. I tend to agree with Winner in his argument that politics are embedded in technology. While the concept of technological determinism is a useful check on the extremes of this argument, like Freelon, I think it is worth excavating technologies like platforms in order to identify the social and political values upon which they are based. Ultimately, any conversation about the extent to which platforms matter should consider the particular affordances they offer, the extent to which they are held accountable by law and publics, as well as their sources of funding, which is implicated in the momentous quantities of salable data we share with platforms everyday…an important topic for another day.

Benkler, Yochai (2007). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press.

Deuze, Mark (2009). “Convergence Culture in the Creative Industries” in International Communication: A Reader, Daya Kishan Thussu, ed. 1 edition. London ; New York: Routledge.

Freelon, Deen G. (2010). Analyzing online political discussion using three models of democratic communication. New Media Society 2010 12: 1172.

Freelon, Deen G. (2011). Dissertation Proposal. University of Washington.

MacKinnon, Rebecca (2011). “Stop the Great Firewall of America”. New York Times. November 15, 2011. Retrieved November 18, 2011.

Shirky, Clay (2009). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.

Solove, Daniel J. 2013. Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press.

Gillespie, Tarleton (2010). “The Politics of Platforms,” New Media & Society, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2010.

Winner, Langdon (1986). “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” in The Whale and the Reactor: a Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, University of Chicago Press.