Tag Archives: democracy

Twenty years after Cambodia’s first election, were the pessimists right?

Election frenzy is at full pitch in Cambodia. The election is in mere days, on July 28, and  it’s nearly impossible to walk through one of its cities without being held up by an enthusiastic political rally, waving flags from motorbikes, trucks, and tractors.

Yes, it is a campaign tractor and it is awesome. (Justin Lorenzon)
Yes, it is a campaign tractor and yes, it is awesome. (Justin Lorenzon)

While visiting Phnom Penh last week, I met with a friend for drinks on a rooftop bar. It was the day that Sam Rainsy, the exiled leader of the opposition party, had returned to Cambodia after being pardoned from some more than dubious political charges.

His supporters made their way up the street in a motorcade and our waiters looked at it, looked at us, and then apologized, they had to go down to the street. It’s their party and they needed to show their support.

We gave them our blessing and they went. I have never seen employees abandon their posts to demonstrate their political support during an election in Canada. It’s heartening to see here.

Yet for all the enthusiasm, the general consensus is that the election will change nothing, and the current prime minister will continue his 27-year autocratic reign. Hun Sen, now 60, has said he wants to remain in office until he is 90. Already, he is one of the 10 longest-serving leaders in the world.

A Cambodian friend explains that though he has his own political opinions, he has to vote for the ruling party. His uncle is a big supporter of Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), and each ballot is numbered, so if he votes for another party his uncle will know and it will cause trouble for his family. “What’s the point?” he asks. “They might as well fill out the ballot for me and save me the time.”

The election is a formality. Articles casually describe how Hun Sen will win the election on Sunday, no need to count the ballots. As Freedom House asserts, Cambodia is not free, and neither are its elections.

CPP supporters at a rally in Battambang. There are reports that the party has been paying university students to attend such rallies. (Allison Smith)
CPP supporters at a rally in Battambang. There are reports that the party has been paying university students to attend such rallies. (Allison Smith)

As it happens, I’ve recently moved to Cambodia and so am devouring everything I can read about the country, with a particular interest in what has been written about the first Cambodian elections, which were sponsored by the United Nations 20 years ago, in 1993.

The three books I’m reading offer distinct perspectives on the election, from the personal to the academic, and the idealistic to the cynical.

Journalist Tiziano Terzani’s A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East falls firmly on the cynical side of the spectrum. He largely views the election as an exercise in absolving the West’s guilt for failing to act during the genocide. Writing about the fallout from the Khmer Rouge and the international community’s determination to get the country back on its feet, he says:

“And so, for little Cambodia, the ‘Great Powers’ had found one those solutions that serve to justify any immorality: a compromise. […] the massacres were forgotten, executioners and victims were put on the same level, the combatants on both sides were asked to lay down their arms, and their chiefs to stand for election. May the best man win! As if Cambodia in 1993 were the Athens of Pericles.”

Offering a more idealistic view (though it cannot be described as an idealistic book) is Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, a memoir by three UN workers. Heidi Postlewait, one of the authors, describes working at a polling station in rural Cambodia:

“At daybreak on the first day, thousands of Cambodians are already calmly waiting outside my polling station. They squat on the ground, silent and patient. We didn’t expect this at all. We thought they would fail to understand how democracy works. We thought they would be afraid of the Khmer Rouge. We thought they would passively accept their fate. We were wrong.”

It paints a beautiful picture of a fledging democracy, where over 90% of Cambodians cast a ballot in that first election. This rosy view is challenged by professor and former journalist Joel Brinkley. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, Brinkley describes the election violence that Postlewait was fortunate enough to avoid:

“Khmer Rouge gunners shelled polling and police stations in Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, Siem Reap, and elsewhere. Election workers fled; several were killed.”

He further describes the various politicking in the aftermath of the election, describing how “Cambodia’s leaders, all of them, were plotting, scheming, bribing, and backstabbing to come out on top, as if the election had never taken place.”

Eventually, Hun Sen assumed full control of the government, despite the fact that he had lost the election (minor detail). Twenty years later, he’s still in power and Cambodia’s elections arguably have as little impact as they did then.

So twenty years later, it is easy to side with Terzani and Brinkley’s cynical assessment of the impact of Cambodia’s first elections. What has changed? Same prime minister, same endemic corruption, same political repression, everything same same.

Yet it’s possible to channel some of Postlewait’s optimism if you are take solace in small signs of progress. No, the opposition leader has not been allowed to run in this election, but he has been allowed back into the country. And countries like Myanmar demonstrate that decades of political repression can crack at any time.

Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism comes from the attitudes of Cambodians themselves. Just as there’s a consensus that nothing will change this election, there seems to be a growing belief that there could be real change in the next election, five years from now. “Change” is a word on their lips – people are changing their minds, things have changed since the last election, when there wasn’t such support for the opposition. Maybe things will change next election.

Supporters of the opposition party make their way through the streets of Battambang (Allison Smith)
Supporters of the opposition party make their way through the streets of Battambang (Allison Smith)

It’s a much slower pace of change than many would like, and certainly slower than many accustomed to healthy democracies would tolerate. But Postlewait was right to be inspired by the resolute determination of Cambodians voting in their first election twenty years ago, and her optimism is worth keeping alive. So a slower pace of change is what those of us who care about Cambodia will have to be content with.

Kenyans do it better: thoughts on the first (ever) Kenyan presidential debate

Eight politicians stood behind podiums in a crescent-moon formation as a journalist asked questions about factionalism, education, health, and the economy. Sounds like a pretty standard – and boring – debate, especially to those of us used to watching pols glide through them, all trite soundbites and poll-tested positions, bereft of substance or interest.

But in Kenya, the first presidential debateever – was anything but boring; the debaters were engaged, articulate, and actually answering the questions asked*.

To an American, the moderators’ tough questions and follow-ups – up to and including prodding the debaters with phrases such as “OK, but can you please answer my question?” – was a welcome reprieve from the tepid debates (which may be too strong a word) we’re used to. Kenya is well-known for being a heavily factionalized, tribalized society, so it was interesting to see the debate kicked off with a question that hit that issue head-on. While the answers given were pretty standard (Raila Odinga: “Kenya for all, not just for a few elite;” Uhuru Kenyatta: “Tribalism is a cancer…it has been a source of conflict, a source of death**”), it was impressive to see the question posed.

Kenya Sidebar

Throughout, the moderators refused to let the contestants get away from questions, and were very inclusive; even though Kenyatta and Odinga – sons of the first President and Vice President, respectively – command about 86% of the vote according to polls, the others were still given a chance to interact and respond. In my opinion – shared by those I was with – both Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua came across as leaders or future leaders of Kenya.

The debaters were generally straightforward in their answers; my favorite exception to this came when Mohammed Abduba Dida responded to the question, “How old is your party?” with the answer (I’m paraphrasing) “The ideas that my party was founded on are very old.” They were polished but not too polished, and unfailingly civil towards one another – though it would have been nice if they had directly responded to each other more often.  All in all, a debate worth watching, and one that most can learn from.

Compare this to the US and other democracies, where politicians manage to dodge a question, speak a lot without saying anything, and fling ad hominem attacks at each other. Where moderators are allowed very little control and exert even less of it. Where time is used to deliver a series of miniature stump speeches designed to appeal either only to the base, or cheap platitudes devoid of value (which brings to mind the classic The Simpsons clip where – disguised as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole – aliens assert the value of “abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!”).


Five years ago, Kenya was wracked by ongoing violence due to perceived “voting irregularities,” which in this case is a euphemism for “Kibaki and the Kikuyus may have stolen the election”. All eyes are on the country again this year, which votes on March 4th. Human Rights Watch is sounding the alarm and calling the risk of political violence “perilously high,” and it’s likely that a runoff on April 11th will be needed to decide the winner (coincidentally,  also when Kenyatta’s ICC trail begins).

One thing is for sure: over-optimistic or not, let’s hope that this first debate is a bellwether for how competing Kenyan political parties will govern, and act – not only for the country’s sake, but for Africa’s too.

More about Kenya’s history can be found at Mike Miesen’s own blog (here).


*It also helped that sitting in the room with me were Kenyans, Ugandans, Brits, and Americans, all with varying views and knowledge of Kenyan politics.

**Which Kenyatta is alleged to know a thing or two about; he’s a frontrunner in this election despite being accused of committing crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting violence after the previous election in 2007.


Teaching children journalism to strengthen democracy and development

“A boy named Rana lived in a slum with his mother. When he was two years old his father had passed away and his mother earned very little working in a wealthy man’s estate. It was just enough to keep them alive. When Rana saw that his other friends went to school he wondered if he could do the same. He asked his mother but he knew that she could not afford to send him.”

Online edition of Angikaar

These are the words of Bithi and Lelin, two Bangladeshi children from the same district – Rayer Bazar in Dhaka – as their friend Rana. This story was published in Angikaar, a school newspaper that finds its way into the hands of hundreds of Bangladeshis every two months.

Angikaar (read online here), which means ‘commitment’ in Bengali, is the product of hard work and small voices. Founded in September last year by a group of entrepreneurial young Bangladeshis, it features stories written by the children of the JAAGO Foundation’s school in Rayer Bazar.

In Bangladesh, where education is barely a right and more of a privilege, a school in the middle of a slum is a rare sight. But in Dhaka’s sprawling Rayer Bazar, where life leaks onto the muddy alleyways in techni-coloured patterns, the JAAGO school provides free education for nearly 200 students, helping children to break the cycle of poverty through learning.

Bithi, Lelin and Rana are three of the students who attend the JAAGO school. They are also budding journalists who are able to write their stories for Angikaar to share with a society that often ignores them.

On my first day helping out with Angikaar, I was greeted by the news that a fire had swept through a large portion of homes in Rayer Bazar. Surrounded by a bunch of over-excited children, I was struck by the significance of their story and the fact that this was the first I’d heard of it, despite living in a neighbouring suburb. The next day, a hundred words in Bangladesh’s English newspaper, The Daily Star, announced the fire with unsettling objectivity and little detail. For me, this moment captured the reason behind Angikaar and the potential behind sharing those children’s stories. It was an idea that resonated with the newspaper’s tagline that we would later go on to create: “Rising voices, building a better Bangladesh.”

Strengthening democracy and development

The fourth-estate role of the media is taken for granted in much of the world. Resting on the notions of free speech and democracy, it expects journalists to hold the government to account through their reporting. Although Bangladesh is a democracy, its media are hardly free or able to play a genuine watchdog role – the Bangladeshi media are ranked at 136th out of 178 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, with first being most free.

To add to the political limitations on media freedom, only slightly more than half (56%, according to UNICEF) of Bangladeshis are literate, and those who are non-literate are unlikely to have access to the electricity needed to watch a television or listen to a radio.

The result is local media that lack the resources, skills and platforms to report effectively on the many challenges faced by the nation and the people of Bangladesh – corruption, poverty, poor governance, and degrading or non-existent infrastructure, to name but a few. And when these issues do successfully make the headlines, they lack the voices and stories of everyday people.

Journalists and volunteers for the newspaper. Image credit: http://angikaar.com/home/inner-page/reporters.php

From this starting point, the benefits of giving more people the skills to tell their own stories seem obvious – more stories are told, people become better informed, voters make better decisions, accountable politicians do a better job. Of course, the reality is much messier, but this is the ideal driving a growing number of media development projects across the developing world, Angikaar included.

Empowering individuals

From my own observations over ten months of working with Angikaar, the greatest benefit was not simply that more people heard the children’s stories. Certainly, their words were read and appreciated. But, in a country of 150 million, a team of 15 student writers and 15 volunteer youth editors will need a lot more time to make their voices heard. Instead, the greatest achievement was what the children learnt about the complexity of news and the art of telling a story. In other words, it has increased their media literacy.

By increasing their exposure to different types of news sources and stories, the Angikaar team gradually became more confident in their ability to judge news and understand it. In a country where the quality of media is poor, being able to explain why and at least acknowledge that it could be better is invaluable.

In practice, this meant that the students could look at a news story and immediately ask how and why it was considered “newsworthy.” When Angikaar student journalist Siam read a story about underage marriage statistics, he decided to tell the story of a woman he knew who had been married at 15 and whose family had sold their land to pay for her dowry.

Importantly, Siam didn’t just tell her story, he finished by asking why it happened: “Why didn’t Amena receive any justice? Is it because she was poor, her family was poor, and there is no profit in helping other people?” To 12-year-old Siam, including this question for his readers was important, because he felt it was something rarely asked elsewhere – and there’s no doubt that the answer alludes to an even bigger story of injustice.

Consistency and stability

One of the key lessons I learnt was that consistency and stability are fundamental to the success of youth-centred media development projects. Whenever there was more than a week between our workshops, re-connecting with the students was difficult. Furthermore, the newspaper was bilingual – in Bangla and English – a feature which demanded that we work very frequently with students so that language issues wouldn’t become a barrier to their story.

Around the six-month mark, the Angikaar project started floundering a little. The team’s grand hope, that they would revolutionise views in Dhaka towards people from the Rayer Bazar slum, seemed impossible to attain. They’d dreamed that within a few busy months, the newspaper would create tangible change. Convincing them (and the school) that they could and should commit to a long-term vision for Angikaar was the biggest challenge faced, but ultimately it is what will make the difference between Angikaar being a short-term activity and a meaningful project.

I believe there is huge potential for the media and development fields to work hand-in-hand to strengthen civil society and communicate messages that bring about positive social change. For youth-centred media development projects to move from being introductions to media literacy, to projects with the genuine potential to produce young citizens with skills in producing media and accessing audiences, time is crucial.

It’s certainly not what anybody wants to hear as it would be much easier if a few capacity-building sessions could deliver the expertise and leave communities to create successful media projects immediately. The fruits of media development projects need patience as people acquire skills and audiences. Just like the traditional media brands needed time to forge a reputation, so do small-scale community media projects.

You can follow the Angikaar news team on Facebook here and read their online editions here.


How the media shapes democracy (and the case of Cambodia)

I’ve long been interested in the power of the media and the ability it has to shape political agendas and our everyday lives. From Australia to Vietnam and everywhere in between, the ability (or not) of the media to provide information that can facilitate civic discussion of issues that are (or should be) on the political agenda is a marker of a country’s ability to foster democracy.

A free, independent, diverse and well-managed media can be a strong force for change – helping to foster economic and social development by reducing poverty and promoting transparency and good governance. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said that never in history has there been a famine in a country with a free press. Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, said a free press is one of the few facilitating institutions that could help wrench countries out of poverty. Noam Chomsky is a strong voice against the media misusing its power.

The case for the freedom and development of the media, particularly in post-conflict and developing countries, is clear. But, countries around the globe continue to struggle to foster independent media that are effective in providing information and facilitating public discussion of issues central to participation in civic life.

While the leaders of some developing countries have harnessed the potential of the media to combat poverty, corruption and conflict, there are others who have sought to manipulate the media for partisan political and economic reasons. In the worst cases, leaders have clearly understood the power of the media and used it to perpetrate terror and gross human rights violations. Across the world many journalists do not earn a decent wage and media organisations struggle to be truly independent.

2011 publication by the World Bank Institute and Internews stated that despite 50 years of donor assistance, global efforts to create strong and sustainable media in developing countries has made little progress. They estimate that $645 million was spent by donors on international development media projects globally in 2010. However, they argue that efforts were random and haphazard, poorly coordinated with broader reforms and rarely led by the countries themselves that receive assistance.

Without going into a discussion of the effectiveness of development dollars, the motivations of media development donors, multi-stakeholder coordination and political ideological imperatives were the founding issues driving my recently completed Masters thesis entitled: Media development in transitional democratic Cambodia (which you can read in full here).

Case Study: Cambodia

My decision to focus on Cambodia was driven by several factors: I was living in the country, working directly with the media, am interested in the country’s political history and wanted to explore the impact it may have had on the development of its media.

Cambodia has a turbulent and bloody history, and before the 1991 Paris Peace Accords were signed, the country had experienced almost every form of political structure except democracy. The concept of a free, independent and plural media – as opposed to a media that acts as a propaganda machine – is just as new to Cambodia as the democratic political system it arrived with. Like the country’s democratic development, the media has seen remarkable growth, and it too has a long road to travel before it can fulfill its ‘watchdog’ role.

The media landscape in Cambodia has changed significantly since the first days of democracy in 1991. Only 10 journalists survived the Khmer Rouge and RADIO UNTAC was the first example of independent, quality reporting in the country. The media industry in Cambodia has undergone significant growth. However, my research shows that this development has not been conducted in a strategic or coordinated way and efforts seem to be undercut by an inability to fully let go of old communist media concepts and fully embrace democratic media values.

When comparing the media landscape in Cambodia to others in the region, it might not appear to be doing too badly. However, such comparisons are neither advisable (given the poor view of freedom of speech in other countries in the region such as China, Laos and Burma) nor fair (given that Cambodia had to develop its media ‘from scratch’ after the Khmer Rouge). Some of the media stakeholders I interviewed argued that the neoliberal agenda of Western development partners (particularly in the 90s) is at least partially to blame for a media landscape that in part values Western democratic ‘watchdog’ standards while maintaining some communist values such as control and censorship. This dichotomy can be seen not only in the media, but is reflected across the other areas of democratic development – such as efforts to ensure judicial independence and to encourage true civic political participation.

Theorists argue that the development of the media in post-conflict and transitional societies cannot be rushed and these efforts must coincide with efforts to develop other institutions essential to a functioning democracy. My research showed that while some strongly believe that democratic development is not happening quickly enough in Cambodia, the markers of change are clear. For example, the economy continues to grow, poverty rates have halved and democratic elections are held regularly.

For locally-led change to occur – including the improvement of the standard of the media – one critical finding of my research was that media literacy among the broader population must be improved. The media should play a key role in supporting democracy and citizens should know how to use the media to interpret and analyse information. If Cambodia is to progress as a democracy, citizens need to begin to demand quality media. And, an understanding of what constitutes quality media and the role that it can play in promoting good governance, civic participation and transparency is key. And this is true of all post-conflict and transitional democracy (hell, it’s true of all democracies!)

As Cambodia continues to define its ethico-political identity, development partners and the media play a crucial role. While Cambodia’s sovereignty must be respected, the country’s ethico-political identity must be determined by its people – not a group of political elites – and as such development partners and the media must be more effective in advocating for, and providing a more effective and informed public sphere, whereby Cambodian citizens are exposed to issues of public policy, are able to participate in debate, and are able to make informed decisions.

The media – independent, plural and sustainable – remain a critical part of Cambodia’s development and its power should be harnessed and supported by government and development partners alike.

Collaborating in Virtual Silence

By Donnie Maclurcan and Janet Newbury

True collaboration – where we actually influence each other’s thinking and develop collective plans and work – is a thing of beauty. The online space has opened up numerous platforms for such collaboration.

Yet the excitement of new partnerships also brings the prospect of new distractions. When we agree to assemble, virtually, for a higher working purpose, how do we actually ensure our work proves as meaningful as we had hoped?

As members of the Post Growth Institute, we would like to share one incredibly productive, flexible and democratic means of virtual collaboration upon which we stumbled in 2010. We say ‘stumbled’ because it became the default method for our Skype conference calls ten seconds into our first attempt for nine of us to connect via video across different time zones. It has since proven the foundation for developing our Free Money Day and (En)RichList campaigns.

The method: our meetings happen in silence. People log into Skype (as one would for voice and/or video conferencing) but then the whole meeting is conducted with participants typing out their exchanges. Two years into holding silent meetings, at least once each month, the benefits just keep appearing!

A productive use of time

Having typed meetings makes our lives easier when it comes to transmitting information amongst the group. With an agenda already established via email, each of us bring pre-typed, dot-point updates and discussion items to meetings. This saves a great deal of time as pre-written text can be inserted quickly by copying and pasting.

snapshot of Post Growth Skype meeting transcript

In contrast to video conferencing, silent Skype allows us to continually leverage the cognitive surplus of our group. Participants have the ability to reflect on what’s being shared without the distraction of someone speaking and the constant need to actively listen. In typed meetings, there is also no need to toggle between video and chat when someone sends a file or link.

Silent Skype eases the processes of decision-making and establishing next steps. Throughout the Skype chat we have a practice of typing ‘ACTION ITEM’ and ‘KEY RESOLUTION’ in capital letters as a way of noting these important moments.

snapshot of Post Growth Skype meeting transcript

Extracting important follow-up information, particularly delegated tasks, becomes as simple as searching for those phrases within the transcript. In the days following each meeting, the transcript – selected, copied and pasted into a text document from the Skype record – is shared and archived for both present and future team members. A missed meeting is not missed information. And the minutes? Already done. How easy was that?!

Accessible and flexible

Dramatically less bandwidth is needed for typed chat than for audio and video-conferencing. This makes silent Skype a more viable method for people living and working in areas with slow Internet connections, and means people are less likely to unexpectedly ‘drop out’ during meetings. Typed meetings are also more accessible given not every version of Skype allows group audio and video-conferencing.

The flexibility of silent Skype has been a pleasant surprise for our international group. Without voice, holding a meeting across time zones becomes possible; we can participate without fear of waking others who might be sleeping nearby. A similar dynamic occurs internally. People can easily step out of the chat without disturbing the group’s flow (a simple ‘brb’ suffices!). Upon return, catching up is as easy as scrolling back through what has been missed.

headshots of Post Growth Skype meeting participants

Silent Skype allows for the fact that we all have multiple demands on our time. If one of us is going to miss a meeting, we simply email through our update to be included, and review the transcript afterwards to keep up to speed. Typed meetings also enable us to share documents and links easily, in real time. We can even work on a shared Google document while meeting.

A democratic way to work together

The gentle, participatory nature of silent Skype fits perfectly with our group’s desired approach to social change. The typed method accommodates people who are more comfortable reflecting before speaking, whilst those who prefer speaking off the cuff still have an equal chance to share.

The soft nature of silent Skype also makes it easier for new team members to step in as valuable participants in meetings. For example, a new person can take on the Chair’s role almost immediately. Leading our text-based meetings is far less intimidating than doing so in person, since there is very little need to mediate the conversation. Inexperienced Chairs can see how others have done it by simply looking through past transcripts.

Skype has a brilliant feature that allows participants to see when someone is typing (by showing either a moving pencil alongside that person’s name in the conversation panel or text saying ‘so and so is writing’). Our tacit rule is that, as long as the meeting’s Chair sees that someone is still typing, the conversation remains open. This format of meeting also allows multiple team members to type simultaneously – it’s literally impossible to interrupt someone! In a somewhat nuanced way, these aspects flatten power relations. The absence of a physical presence (including voice) accompanying proposals put to the group reduces a sense of pressure when it comes to making collective decisions. We all have ample time (and silence) in which to vote and/or respond.

A final, but significant, aspect of the democratizing dimension of this approach is its transparency. What better record for groups, companies or, where appropriate, the public, than an entirely accurate meeting transcript?

Building great relations

Team building could be seen as a challenge for our disparate group, situated around the globe, even when the profile pictures of all team members are at the top of the screen to remind us exactly with whom we’re engaging! Surprisingly, however, silent Skype has proven a useful tool for relational engagement. Humour and wit commonly find their way into our conversations via emoticons, puns and bad jokes. Rather than detract from the direction of our work, such interludes are a welcome break that make silent meetings fun!

Typed meetings also allow us, as participants, to be very intentional with our language, contributing to civil and productive discussions. Since our comments aren’t visible to the whole group until we press ‘Enter’, we have an extra moment to reflect and revise our thoughts before making a statement. This can mean more formulated, less reactive responses to things that, had the meeting been in spoken form, might have sparked a fiery exchange.

This method also helps cultivate interpersonal relationships within the group. For instance, if something arises during a meeting that may require follow-up with only one team member, silent Skype makes it easy to have one-on-one ‘backchannel’ chats, even while the meeting proceeds. This means urgent matters can be addressed immediately, reducing misunderstandings or oversights, without disrupting the broader group meeting.

Limitations and Applicability of the Approach

Admittedly, some things are lost when engaging solely through text, and working without access to facial and tonal communication can feel a little ‘removed’. To overcome this, we all make efforts to have regular contact with each other using different means. We have one-to-one Skype video conversations; daily email exchanges; and – although rare – several opportunities have arisen for team members to meet and work together in-person. So as long as silent Skype is not our only mode for relating, our experience is that, overall, it enhances, not detracts from, our relationships.

While the silent approach certainly increases our group productivity, stress levels can often be elevated during the meetings by the relentless speed our efficiency is enabling. Since none of us hold the ‘talking stick’, it can be tricky to know whether we should respond immediately to questions our team members might be raising as part of a broader point or hold off (whereas with voice this can be communicated simply through intonation or volume). As a team, we are slowly developing ways of negotiating these complexities. For instance, beginning a longer idea with a quick statement that we’d like feedback at the very end, or posting a longer idea one sentence at a time, can let team members know their patience is appreciated. Also, as our relationships with each other strengthen over time, we are more able to be frank and direct about our needs when it comes to ‘floorspace’.

Overall, these brisk, content-heavy meetings can be intense and exhausting! Processes that might normally take place over a matter of days are compressed into an hour or two, and multiple time zones always mean a late night or early morning for some of our team. In order to deal with these challenges, we have had to be deliberate about setting time limits for meetings and enforcing breaks from our work following the launch of big projects.

Given the rise in remote collaboration, silent Skype may be of use for a wide range of organisations, movements, and companies. The method favours groups whose members can type quickly and is therefore less suited to people’s participation via web-enabled phones. Having silent, typed meetings could also suit those who want to collaborate virtually but need to multi-task throughout meetings (for example, parents). From the experience of our team, the method works best for groups that have made efforts to get to know each other first, via alternate means. It is not suitable for groups requiring anonymous meetings, given the transcript remains within the group’s Skype history (now owned by Microsoft). The size of meetings seems to matter little. We’ve successfully trialled silent, typed meetings with participant numbers as small as three and as large as eleven. Whilst Skype is blocked in some parts of the world, this method should also work for any chat-based platform that has a conferencing option, such as Windows Live, AIM, QQ, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, ICQ, MySpace, Sametime and GaduGadu.

The irony of this all? We’ve been finding collaboration is not be just about being heard; it’s also about providing the platform for silence to do its work. In a world of overwhelming noise, could silence be more powerful than we ever realized?


This is a cross-post with Post Growth and previously appeared in an edited and abridged form at: 


Don’t tell them you’re a healer! – Spirituality in the development discourse

“Don’t tell them you’re a healer!”. This is exactly what a very good friend of mine said after I told him that I was taking a step back from working inside the development sector, to working with the people who work inside the development sector… as a healer!

“Don’t tell them you’re a healer! They won’t respect you!” he said.


I thought about this for a while. At first I bought into it. Yes, I better not tell ANYONE I am a healer and that I help people to balance their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, that I work with energy, and that I can actually help people to figure out who they truly are so they don’t have to run around being who they aren’t in an attempt to get respect and social recognition.

Those hardcore development professionals and aid workers, they are not going to like it!

I was actually shocked that I had bought into this… shocked at my narrow view of the development sector. That I believe it to be a hardcore, rational sector with no space for the ‘softer’ issues such as personal development, healing and spirituality.

And perhaps I am right to a certain degree… but I had forgotten that the development sector is made up of human beings. And as long as there are human beings there will be diversity… and there definitely will be a need for and interest in healing and spirituality.

Healing for social change…

In my view, spirituality – stories about our experiences as more than just flesh-and-bone human beings, is at the crux of our human experience. It has been a key aspect in the way in which we ‘organise’ and explain our world, despite the fact that spirituality has not been given serious attention in the secular world of modernity and Enlightenment, which is what has created the foundation of most of development theory today.

However, Enlightenment thinking’s rationality as well as need for logic and reason has not been able to capture the essence and importance of spirituality, as well as the complexities of how people interact with and use spirituality and healing in their everyday lives.

Several academic scholars are, nevertheless, beginning to open up to the thought that spirituality and healing are in fact essential building blocks for social change (e.g. Jim Ife 2009 and Fran Gale, Natalie Bolzan & Dorothy McRae-McMahon 2007).

But is there space for healing and spirituality in today’s development discourse?

Jim Ife in his book Human Rights from Below (2009) suggests that we need an alternative to the traditional academic prose that is often the main form of communication in development talk, because healing and spirituality extends beyond the normal understanding of ‘rational’, ‘analytical’ or ‘logical’.

I guess what Ife is trying to say is that an LFA (Logical Framework: a widely used linear and ‘rational’ tool used to plan projects and programmes) is not always enough to capture the important aspects of healing and spiritual development necessary for social change.

‘Heal ourselves to heal the world': Spirituality in practice…

A few days after my friend had told me not to tell anyone in the development sector that I work with healing and spirituality I actually met a woman who uses different methods of healing and spirituality to work with children who are orphaned by HIV/AIDS. This was a system of healing that she had learnt in Rwanda through an organisation called Capacitar (http://www.capacitar.org), whose vision is to ‘heal ourselves to heal the world’! They teach people to use different kinds of healing therapies from chakra healing to EFT (emotional freedom techniques) to acupuncture and other kinds of energy work, and they include methods and techniques from different indigenous healing practices too. I also met a woman who uses yoga and breathing techniques to help young people in Kibera to reduce stress.

Additionally, I came into contact with an organisation who works with ‘deep democracy’ (http://www.ddi-eastafrica.co.ke/), who focus on the importance of not only openness to other individuals, groups, and diverse views, but also an openness to internal experiences including feelings, dreams, body symptoms, and altered states of consciousness, and how awareness of oneself affects our reality, and therefore how we interact with and affect other people.

All of the above are, in my view, healers!

Are these people and organisations not to tell anyone that they are in fact healers? Have they already lost the respect of the development sector? They have nothing but gained mine for daring to look at the deep human aspects of social change!

Development and spirituality…

I do, however, understand the aversion towards incorporating spirituality into the development agenda. There is a danger, and unfortunately this is what has given it a bad name, when spirituality turns into exclusive fundamentalism in an attempt to explain the world from a standard set of rules, as opposed to promoting inclusivity and respect for diversity.

But does the fact that this danger exists mean that we cannot work with healing and spirituality within international development? It gives us reason to be careful, indeed… but if we neglect spirituality and people’s search to become whole beings, then, in my view, development becomes rather empty.

Arnold Mindell has described the inter-relationship between development, democracy and spirituality very beautifully in his description of his coined term ‘Deep Democracy': “[It is] our sense that the world is here to help us become our entire selves, and we are here to help the world become whole.”

To me, this is the essence of development.

During my time as a programme coordinator working for a large global organisation – amongst all the LFAs, reports, keeping indicators measurable and simple, and ensuring ambitious income targets, I had lost track of the diversity of the development sector. I had forgotten that the development sector is as much about ‘healing the world’ as it is about building roads. I had forgotten that the development sector was as much about creating a space for people to experience themselves as whole spiritual beings as it is about measuring whether the money is spent ‘efficiently’.

And I guess my friend had too, when he told me: “Don’t tell them you’re a healer!”.

If you were President of Ghana…

“Ghana has finally discovered oil. Discuss ways that you will use the oil revenue to develop the country if you were President of Ghana”

CitiFM, a radio station in Ghana, is asking children to address this hypothetical in its annual ‘Write Away’ contest. Extraction of Ghana’s oil reserves, estimated to reach 5 billion barrels in five years, began in December 2010 by Tullow Oil PLC. This company single-handedly propelled Ghana’s Stock Exchange to the 3rd-largest on the continent when it went public on 27th July this year. This is an incredible opportunity for the future of Ghana’s environmental, economic and human development.

Do children hold the key?

There are a number of aspects of this competition that are appealing. The prizes should encourage participation, if nothing else – a one week educational trip to one of three destinations, including South Africa, Namibia or London. It is also a great opportunity to foster children’s creativity, writing and critical thinking skills. Early childhood development is a challenge for many Low- and Middle-Income Countries. A healthy, caring and educative first 6 years are pivotal in shaping a child’s long-term well being. A 2011 World Bank report from China found that:

“Prenatal care and the quality of life experienced in the early years from birth to the first six years affect physical and brain development of children, and lay the foundation for cognitive and socio-emotional development in subsequent stages of their lives. Investing in early childhood development and education yields high economic returns, is the most cost-effective strategy to break the inter-generational transmission of poverty, and improves productivity and social cohesion in the long run”

The findings from China reinforce those found in studies from the U.S, Kenya, Jamaica, India & Peru. There are long-term economic and well being payoffs for children, communities and countries. This competition also highlights another key aspect of current thinking of development: democracy. It fosters a sense of inclusive democracy. Sure, their answers will not affect high-level policy decisions. Some children will let their imaginations run wild (as they should) and probably include a fund for attracting top quality footballers currently playing in Europe. However, getting children to think about their future, and the future of their country, is powerful a starting point for fostering long-term democratic participation, citizenship and critical thinking. Children need to, and can, be challenged with such questions.

And I’m sure their answers will surprise us in their clarity and sensibleness.


Postscript 16th August 2011

Researchers at the Center for Global Development (CGD) argue that the Ugandan government should distribute expected oil revenue to citizens through direct cash transfers and tax the stipend. See the full story here.

And, wouldn’t you know it, Todd Moss and Lauren Young of the CGD have also argued for direct cash distribution of oil revenue in Ghana. See the report here.

Words I Never Said

“I think all this silence is worse than all the violence”

A song all about self-censorship and speaking up that is worth watching and listening to – even if you do not agree with what Lupe says or believes.

[Skylar Grey]
It’s so loud Inside my head
With words that I should have said!
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back the words I never said
I can’t take back the words I never said

[Lupe Fiasco]
I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit
Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets
How much money does it take to really make a full clip
9/11 building 7 did they really pull it
Uhh, And a bunch of other cover ups
Your childs future was the first to go with budget cuts
If you think that hurts then, wait here comes the uppercut
The school was garbage in the first place, thats on the up and up
Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust
You get it then they move you so you never keeping up enough
If you turn on TV all you see’s a bunch of “what the f-cks”
Dude is dating so and so blabbering bout such and such
And that aint Jersey Shore, homie thats the news
And these the same people that supposed to be telling us the truth
Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist
Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit
Thats why I aint vote for him, next one either
I’ma part of the problem, my problem is I’m peaceful
And I believe in the people.

[Skylar Grey – Chorus]
It’s so loud inside my head
With words that I should have said!
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back the words I never said
I can’t take back the words I never said

[Lupe Fiasco – Verse 2]
Now you can say it aint our fault if we never heard it
But if we know better than we probably deserve it
Jihad is not a holy war, wheres that in the worship?
Murdering is not Islam!
And you are not observant
And you are not a muslim
Israel don’t take my side cause look how far you’ve pushed them
Walk with me into the ghetto, this where all the Kush went
Complain about the liquor store but what you drinking liquor for?
Complain about the gloom but when’d you pick a broom up?
Just listening to Pac aint gone make it stop
A rebel in your thoughts, aint gon make it halt
If you don’t become an actor you’ll never be a factor
Pills with million side effects
Take em when the pains felt
Wash them down with Diet soda!
Killin off your brain cells
Crooked banks around the World
Would gladly give a loan today
So if you ever miss payment
They can take your home away!

[Skylar Grey – Chorus]
It’s so loud inside my head
With words that I should have said!
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back the words I never said, never said
I can’t take back the words I never said

[Lupe Fiasco – Verse 3]
I think that all the silence is worse than all the violence
Fear is such a weak emotion thats why I despise it
We scared of almost everything, afraid to even tell the truth
So scared of what you think of me, I’m scared of even telling you
Sometimes I’m like the only person I feel safe to tell it to
I’m locked inside a cell in me, I know that there’s a jail in you
Consider this your bailing out, so take a breath, inhale a few
My screams is finally getting free, my thoughts is finally yelling through

[Skylar Grey – Chorus]
It’s so loud Inside my head
With words that I should have said!
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back the words I never said

War and Peace (prizes)

It is now well-known that a total of 18 14 countries have declined invitations to attend the ceremony of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. According to the Guardian, “Beijing has urged diplomats in Oslo to stay away from the event, warning of ‘consequences’ if they go”. Chinese officials have also suggested that this statement signals the international community’s opposition to the award. Who is this international community? (see the list below).

It is certainly a very colourful group of countries, but what they share in common is perhaps a little hard to determine. Commentators have reported that several of those countries that clicked ‘not attending’ are long-term trading partners and have strong commercial interests with China. However, when looked at from other perspectives, this is more than an act of economic kowtowing to China. It is a message.

So, what are these countries trying to say? Is it a response, a counter-message, by a rag-tag alignment of countries to the increasing harmonisation of universal values and human rights? In particular, those of freedom of speech, democracy and citizen activism. A message intended for their own citizens? For the larger international community? In recent years, democratic governance has increasingly taken a central role in development policy and aid allocation to governance sectors. The declining of invitations could be interpreted as the ‘international community’s’ response to such via the Nobel Peace Prize. The table I put together below certainly suggests that these 18 14 countries + China have more than economic interests in common.

(See also the legend below below for a guide to what these numbers mean).

Country HDI (2010) rankings CPI (2010) score Democracy Index (2007) Rankings
China 89 3.5 138
Pakistan 125 2.3 113
Iran 70 2.2 139
Sudan 154 1.6 141
Russia 65 2.1 102
Kazakhstan 66 2.9 120
Colombia 79 3.5
Tunisia 81 4.3 135
Saudi Arabia 55 5.0 159
Serbia 60 3.5 55
Iraq 1.5 112
Vietnam 113 2.7 145
Afghanistan 155 1.4 135
Venezuela 75 2.0 93
the Philippines 97 2.4 63
Egypt 101 3.1 115
Ukraine 69 2.4 52
Cuba 3.7 124
Morocco 114 3.4 115
Human Development Index

      (HDI) rankings – HDI is an alternative to conventional measures of a country’s development, along metrics (measures) other than purely economic ones; health, education, life expectancy, inequality, poverty and human security. 1 is the highest ranking a country can attain. Australia is currently ranked #2.

Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) – The CPI measures perceived levels of public sector corruption in 178 countries on a 10-point scale: 10 being very clean and 1 being highly corrupt.

The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index – This index examines the state of democracy in 167 countries across five general categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture.

It is clear that these 19 countries share a number of things in common:

  • 12 of the 19 15 countries in the table above are ranked as ‘authoritarian regimes’
  • No country scored higher than 5.0 on the CPI, with an average of 2.8 out of 10.
  • The highest ranked country on the HDI is Saudi Arabia at 55.

Yet, despite their vast differences, geographically, historical and culturally, they have come together this once, corralled by China, to send a strong message to the international community: history has far from ended.


Far more insightful and interesting analysis has been produced on this same topic. In particular, I recomend reading Foreign Policy’s Dan Drezner and The Monkey Cage’s Eric Voeten. Interestingly, five countries that originally signalled their intention to not attend, reversed: Colombia, Serbia, Urkaine, Argentina & the Philippines. What may be of interest is that those four countries (minus Argentina) that did send representatives are ranked quite well within this group in terms of human development and democracy. As Drezner observes, “In the end, however, the only countries that complied with China’s request were the countries that already shared China’s domestic policy preferences on this issue”. Eric Voeten produced some interesting correlation (and graph) of a positive between those that did not attend and press freedom. So, I still think there is a strong correlation between those that did not attend and democratic governance, accountability and transparency across the public sector and to a lesser extent, human development.

Also, footage from the ceremony below:

National Endowment for Democracy – democracy for many, defined by a few

Do a search on Google for National Endowment for Democracy and you’ll find a whole lot of stuff written about the topic, most of it negative. This wonderful website: The International Endowment for Democracy, which comes with the great tagline “Supporting democracy in the country that needs it most – the USA,” has some brilliant pieces exposing this organisation, describing it as a Trojan Horse and Philanthropic Imperialism. The bottom line is that if you need to find out about the truth regarding this institution, the information is out there.

But for those who couldn’t be bothered clicking through the links, what is it all about?

Like any other product which seems too good to be true, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has a swanky name, a name designed to sound almost infallible in its purity. It removes itself from the possibility of criticism because it is promoting democracy (which we all know and love) and it’s being endowed out of generosity.

NED was founded in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan to “foster the infrastructure of democracy – the system of free press, unions, political parties, universities”. The historical context of the time was that the CIA was reeling from a number of disturbing allegations of subversive and even criminal activity. Latin America was controlled by a few dictatorships that the CIA had played a major role in instituting, but this system was unsustainable as it was becoming increasingly hard to keep under wraps. Reagan needed a way to control the countries within Latin American, and as a result, NED was born.

Allen Weinstein, one of the founders of NED who helped draft the legislation for its formation, made no bones about this fact in a 1991 interview with the Washington Post:

“A lot of what we do today was covertly done 25 years ago by the CIA.”

The NED is a non-profit organisation which administers grants to other NGOs in the pursuit of democracy. This concept of “democracy”, which is entirely US-defined, is promoted all over the world. Half of the funds allocated go to four major NGOs, whose very names give away the true intent of this endowment:

1) The American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), which has been accused of advancing the USA’s foreign policy objectives and agitating in Venezuala and Haiti,

2) The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), whose stated aim is the promotion of private enterprise and free-market reform, something which is clearly in the best interests of North American corporations,

3) The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), which aims to promote democracy throughout the world and has been accused of being the global wing of the Democratic Party,

4) The International Republican Institute (IRI), which has been criticised for helping to overthrow democratically elected leaders in Haiti, and for training right wing political parties in Poland – hardly bipartisan activity. It has also been seen as the global wing of the Republican Party and is chaired by Senator John McCain.

The NED is a non-government organisation, which means that it can be truly bipartisan, according to its website. However, the $135.5 million that it receives yearly is almost entirely funded from the US Congress via the Department of State, which makes impartiality rather difficult. The remainder of its funding comes from private corporations such as major oil companies and defence contractors, corporations which ultimately benefit from NED’s grants. Furthermore, one has to ask this: even if it is a bipartisan organisation (in that it serves the interests of both the Republican and Democratic parties), does it serve the interests of the people in the countries where democracy is being promoted? Or is it just US foreign policy dressed up as a form of US foreign aid?

As development workers, we should be well aware of the dangers of hegemony. In my previous post, I described the ability of world leaders to attribute meanings to words such as “terrorist”, which are entirely individually defined. However, the use of these words have become so commonplace in politics that the connotations associated with them have become almost universal, and hence, the hegemonic views of a few are spread throughout society. In the same way, democracy has many meanings to different groups of people, and there are some inherent dangers in one country attempting to spread democracy throughout other nations.

Just as importantly, NED shows us that not all foreign aid is good aid. We saw that recently with the well-publicised project to send a million T-shirts to Africa. Being an effective development worker means putting the community you are trying to help at the centre of the project, and not imposing your own views on them, no matter how well intentioned they are. Unfortunately, National Endowment for Democracy does just the opposite – it promotes democracy for many, but it is democracy that is defined by a few.