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Featured image shows Bono performing with U2 in 2011. Photo by Peter Neill.
This is the TL;DR of Russia’s history as presented by ‘kronosO’, a Reddit user. TL;DR is, according to Urban Dictionary, “Said whenever a nerd makes a post that is too long to bother reading.” Too Long; Didn’t Read; an acronym that should certainly be used more in global development. A recent Reddit post asks users to give the TL;DR version of their country’s history. Highlights of this post include:
– Sheep slurs give way to hobbit jokes. (New Zealand).
– All is fine. No more questions. Eternal President will lead us to victory. (DPRK).
– Started 2 world wars, lost both. (Germany).
– Freedom.* (United States of America).
*terms and conditions may apply.
Reddit. To outsiders like myself, it is hard to pin down exactly what Reddit is. Some know it as the ‘Front page of the Internet’, others as the primordial ooze for memes. I’ve been a ‘Lurker’ for some time now, (Reddit-speak for those users who read, view posts but do not post content or comments) and have recently dipped my toes in the water. Rowan Esmlie recently argued that NGOs, and the development sector more broadly, should engage in Reddit. In the landscape of social media, it is the black sheep of the communications family. Everyone dotes on the first-born (Facebook), has given the middle-child a complex (Twitter), and lets the youngest get away with going viral (YouTube). Actually, Reddit is the lost sheep of the family.
Bill Gates just this week hosted an AMA – Ask Me Anything. A subreddit where any of the 4.3 million registered users can ask the host, well, anything. (Within reason). He joins the ranks of Jeffrey Sachs and Ted Chaiban, Director of Emergency Programmes at UNICEF. Chaiban’s AMA generated 650 comments. As Rowan asks, “When is the last time, for example, an article about humanitarian aid generated more than 600 comments?”
In Sachs’ AMA, this question from user ‘lanks1‘ would make Bill Easterly proud:
How do you expect aid to work and to be sustainable, when governments have political and personal motivations that are contradictory to sustainable development?”
Sachs didn’t get around to answering this one.
Since having dipped my toes in the water, I’ve belly-flopped and created the first subreddit devoted to aid and development – /r/globaldev. It is a fairly experimental space that I would like to grow organically. I’m not sure exactly what it is or what is could be. I don’t want to be prescriptive. It could be a new space for communicating development to a different public audience. It could be a new space for building a community of practice. It could be a new space for creating funny aid work memes. I’ve reached out to a few WhyDev friends, including Rowan of Development Intern and Francisco of Boring Development, to help kick start it with content. Reddit offers a very open, self-regulating and intelligent community. An untapped resource. I don’t know how we can engage and utilise Reddit most effectively, but am keen to experiment and hear your ideas.
The first experiment that I would like to trial is a TL;DR of global development concepts and practices. Pick a particularly complex, infuriating, annoying concept and write your best TL;DR statement on it. You can even pick a journal article, blog post or book. However, I ask you to dip your toes in and post it on /r/globaldev. I’ve created a post in which to do this. For example:
– Assumptions, too many. Risks, oh hell yeah. (LogFrames).
– Aid workers have sex, drink and can be kind of douchy. (Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures).
You will have to first register. (Reddit has one of the easiest and most email-less registration processes around). You can then subscribe to /r/globaldev, post content, ask questions and get involved. Remember: don’t post your TL;DR on WhyDev. Post it on Reddit..
I interned in a communications department for an international NGO for a year. I spent a lot of my time proofreading or frantically trying to get the website to work properly when my colleagues wanted to release a document or a report to the wider world.
In between these flurries of activity, I’d try to keep all the specialists working in their respective departments widely informed about what was going on in the news that could relate to our mission. It’s remarkable how much people can know about something completely obscure and have very little idea what’s going on in the news – the news that most people saw and talked about.
One day, my supervisor came over to me and presented me with a copy of the Financial Times. This conversation took place in 2012.
“Do you know about memes?”
“I just read this article about internet memes. Very interesting.”
“You should read it. It’s this new way that people are sharing information online. Perhaps you could come up with one for us?”
Luckily, she walked away after delivering this task and forgot all about it. At the time, the idea of creating an Advice Animal for a human rights advocacy charity struck me as being particularly ridiculous.
Let’s leave aside the bastardisation of the term ‘meme‘ for now (stand down, internet pedants) and follow how something becomes popular/viral on the internet.
1) Some kind of content, usually an image, gets created and shared around a small but very active group of heavy internet users. As mentioned before, 4chan is the typical starting point.
2) A larger aggregator/online community picks up on it and re-shares it. In the old days this was done by Digg, now it is usually done on Reddit.
3) All the heavy users normal people have in their Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr feeds re-share this new, hilarious or profound content to impress normal people.
4) A stuffy broadsheet newspaper does a half-hearted column on the phenomenon and it dies through overuse.
Why does this matter?
Around three weeks ago Ted Chaiban, Director of Emergency Programmes at UNICEF, did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit to respond to questions about UNICEF’s response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Reddit is divided into subreddits that deal with specific types of content or subjects – AMA is a particularly large one and has had a wide variety of contributors such as Bill Gates, Louis CK, and even Barack Obama. People like Mr Chaiban go online for a few hours and respond to as many questions from the Reddit community as they can. Very simple.
The community itself is, by any measure, massive. At the time of writing there are 4,300,272 users registered to the AMA subreddit. Chaiban’s session generated 650 comments (including his 17 answers).
Communications and advocacy people should be getting excited right about now. When is the last time, for example, an article about humanitarian aid generated more than 600 comments?
Take a look at some of these questions:
“bumblebeesbummy: I’m thinking about donating through UNICEF but since this would be my first time donating internationally, I’m not very familiar with it. Could you tell me how much, say, $50 would translate to in terms of different kinds of aid that UNICEF will provide, for how many people and how long etc, so I can decide how much I would like to donate?”
“ckellingc: What percent of all money donated goes directly to relief efforts? Whats the usual breakdown of funds (x percent to food, y percent to medicine)?”
What more can be done to stomp out fraudulent aid relief funds or ‘organizations’ who seek to profit from horrific tragedy?
Where do you see the future of aid relief heading? For example, do you expect more international cooperation, foresee organizational mergers, etc.
Please tell all of your employees how much their work is appreciated”
These are engaged, smart questions from people with a sense of some of the major issues with humanitarian aid. These are the sorts of questions mainstream journalists ask, not just some geeky online community. More than that, isn’t it incredibly useful to know what people are concerned about and thinking about regarding your work? The great thing about an AMA is it allows campaigners to directly engage with the very people they’re looking to get on board.
As mentioned above, Reddit is probably the online community most responsible for shaping online trends and virality. Comms departments, I am hoping you know the difference between ‘lurkers’ and ‘active users’ is (you really should) but here’s a brief explanation: lurkers are users who take from social networks and/or online communities without giving anything; active users typically give more than they consume. Reddit is used by around 6% of American adults whereas Facebook (52.9%) or Twitter (15%) have much larger total audience, but Reddit users are much more active than other communities. It’s that high activity level that makes Reddit users the gatekeepers of internet popularity.
Reddit users are more likely to click through to your campaign, to your story, to whatever content you are pushing than other social media sites. They want to find and promote the most interesting content on the web so will do more to seek it out. In terms of funnelling traffic, this is a site that can easily beat out Facebook or Twitter. Which is a pretty big deal if you are trying to promote campaigns or ideas with a very limited budget, as most NGOs are. My own blog, Development Intern, has received over a third of its hits from Reddit. The next highest share is Facebook with ~5%.
As I’ve written before, the sharing function of the modern internet is becoming increasingly important in shaping public actions. People want and expect to be a part of the process, to be communicated with on a more immediate level, and to be able to get involved if they want to. There is no point in lamenting this fact; the third sector needs to engage with this new reality, just like the media are.
We cannot continue to either be ignorant of what people outside of the development bubble are engaging with or to allow that engagement to exist outside of development. So, the next time you want to spark attention of your work don’t bother with memes – ask them about Reddit.
I am concerned with the way NGOs are telling stories on behalf of the poor. I cringe when I hear development buzz words like “sustainability,” “community-focused” and “livelihoods.” I get frustrated when I see photos of smiling children hugging ducks and women posed next to their sewing machines.
When I see stories and pictures like these I worry that NGOs aren’t doing a good enough job of explaining the complexities of development and poverty. Aid does change lives but communications such as these make solutions seem simplistic and easy. So I ask myself is my work as a communications professional making a positive difference?
I believe my role as a communicator is to help the poor have a voice, to give communities a chance to portray themselves in a way they feel comfortable and allow them to tell their stories. Ultimately I’d love to help provide spaces and tools for people all around the world to connect with each other and share their own stories without me needing to be present at all. No one can tell your story better than you.
This dream is a long way off for obvious reasons – language barriers and cultural differences to name a few. Then there is the question should we even ask or expect everyone to communicate in the same way? And when I say “everyone” I mean the poor, whose voices aren’t equally represented in global communications, and when I say “the same way” I mean the internet and increasingly mobile phones. I am as torn by this as I am by the way NGOs currently share stories.
I struggle to see how I, or others like me, can understand or articulate the lives of the poor. I have no idea what it’s like to no longer hope or dream but to accept my life as it is and know I have no way to change my situation. I can’t imagine leaving my exhausted child on the side of the road to die because if I stop walking my other children will die too. And it makes no sense to me why a family would remain in their home despite cyclone warnings and access to a cyclone shelter, all because they won’t leave their cow behind. These are just some of the stories I’ve read and been told; the stories that have stayed with me.
When I re-tell these stories and others, I feel conflicted. I want the individuals within the stories to be respected and have dignity. I don’t want them to be viewed as helpless and weak. I try to make sense of their situation the best way I can. But I know the supporters and donors don’t like to read stories without happy endings or pieces that question the world’s inequality and their part in it. Readers like stories with smiling faces, children with clothes on, newly built schools and latrines and fields covered in crops and ducks. Let us not forget the thank you cards scribbled on paper with crayons and quotes with lines like, “because of you I am….” or “Thank you X NGO.” Of course some communities do this of their own free will and really do want to say thank you.
I feel that by the time I finish with the Facebook post or web article the story is watered down. What remains are bite-sized pieces that can be consumed in between looking at wedding photos and laughing at the latest meme. Then I think is this what the individual would have wanted? Is this the story I wanted to tell?
Then there is the pressure to turn stories into likes, page views and dollars. The story is no longer seen as a piece of someone’s life, something real and raw. It is the difference between meeting target or not. I have found myself asking what picture would get me the most likes? What time of day will get me the most page views? Do likes and views even signify that people care about a story or issue? I believe in most cases the answer is no.
Other times I have found myself fighting a losing battle to ensure everyone’s story has an equal chance to be heard. In my experience, stories of girls in school in Africa get a better response from the public than say, boys in asylum seeker playgroups in Australia. Is it because people simply care about girls in Africa more? Or, as a result of the government, NGOs and media pushing their own agendas, we now believe certain stories need our attention more than others? I believe some stories aren’t used to get people to think or act so much as they are designed to showcase the NGOs products and keep the dollars flowing in.
There is the argument that you need to tell a story the reader wants to read and in the way they want to read it. The fear is if you don’t, your story will go unread. This is obviously a great concern for NGOs because if stories aren’t being read, then the public doesn’t know or care about issues. This in turn leads to reduced funding, closed programs and ultimately affects millions of lives. As the number of social media users is increasing and more people are communicating through their phones, it makes sense that NGOs need to simplify complex issues and find ways to get supporters to engage through these channels.
But there is also the risk of diluting the issues so much that they become throw away stories; lost of all meaning, relevance and impact. NGOs should take note of organizations outside of the development sector that are telling stories in interesting and effective ways, like Dumbo Feather.
I also accept that people don’t want to read complex and challenging stories every day. But that doesn’t mean these kinds of stories shouldn’t be written by NGOs and made available for when readers want to learn more about an issue. In fact I feel that NGOs should set an example and publish stories that portray the individuals and communities in a holistic way, that are educational and that begin to address the way poverty is understood.
I know supporters and donors may not initially like this. It is hard to empathise with communities you’ve never met, who are living lives you can’t fathom and it is disillusioning when you realise how big the poverty problem is. But this is the reality and it doesn’t mean NGOs should change the way they share stories. NGOs are trusted with the responsibility to speak on behalf of the poor, by the poor, and right now I think they could be doing a better job.
While I understand the significance of funding for aid programs, I don’t believe the sole purpose of telling stories should be to receive dollars. Stories are meant to enlighten, to be absorbed and to be questioned. They reach further and can have a longer lasting impact than money.
These are the types of stories that are told to me. And these are stories NGOs should tell.
Featured image is fruit farmers selling their produce on the hills near Kalaw, Burma. Photo by Rachel Kurzyp.
On a recent episode of The Daily Show, with stand-in John Oliver, a segment highlighted Hillary Clinton’s joining of Twitter. Jessica Williams, the ‘Senior Twitter Correspondent’, offered Hillary five rules for using Twitter. Here, I want to take those five rules, and adapt them to a global aid and development context.
If you are not already on Twitter, sign up. It is another way not only to receive information, updates and track key organisations and individuals, but also to network. In a recent Guardian Development Professionalslive chat on career advancement, of which I was a member of the panel, ‘networking’ was THE key message from all panel members. Personally, I found a consultancy job through Twitter, have been able to connect with the likes of Owen Barder, Charles Kenny and Beyoncé (well, not yet, but here’s hoping!) and translate social media relationships into face-to-face meet-ups.
Twitter is a good way to build your personal, public brand in aid/development. But, if you are not familiar with the conventions of Twitter, its vocabulary, etiquette and premise, don’t be afraid. If a 3-year old can use Twitter, so can you (see below).
These five rules will help guide you.
#1 Don’t tweet your junk
If you’d like, take this literally and as it was originally meant by Jessica Williams re: Anthony Weiner. It is a cautionary tale in creating your personae and brand. It means ‘don’t tweet your personal stuff‘; what you ate for breakfast, how slow the traffic is, your general complaints about waking up at a certain time. Don’t tweet this junk. If you profess to love the NBA and basketball, then go ahead and tweet basketball-related junk. That is fine. It’s your thing, and you will connect with other like-minded people. But, no one cares that you are going to bed at 10:14pm #sleepy. The same goes for aid/development. If you are passionate about and work in nutrition, make that your gig and tweet, discuss and chat about nutrition-related issues. Position yourself.
#2 Don’t be boring
This rule builds of rule #1 and is self-explanatory (for some). Don’t be boring. Be engaged, funny, interested, quizzical, coherent. I claim no objectivity here, but Weh Yeoh offers a great example of how to use Twitter effectively. I try to emulate him. Danica Patrick, NASCAR’s only female driver, may have 900,000 followers but her account is boring as hell. More followers =/= more interesting.
#3 Seriously, don’t tweet your junk
It is easy to forget that, unless you have your Twitter account locked, it is in the public space. Everything you write, send, reply to, is public. If you are particularly skeptical of aid and/or particular practices of certain organisations, you would do well to keep this in mind. You can still be critical of, for example, World Vision US’s gifts-in-kind (GIK) program AND hope to work for them in the future. Just be mindful of how you criticise. Tom Murphy, of A View From the Cave, is very good at presenting critical, but balanced, arguments and weighing-in on debates.
#4 Don’t be weird
Not everything that pops into your head can be a tweet. Easy to do, hard to remember. Make sure your auto-filter is on, and try not be weird. Save that stuff for Facebook, where friends and family will respond to updates such as, “Had the worst day today”, “Hello New York!”, “#PointlessHashTag”. It is easy to see a link to a particular global aid/development issue or an opinion about poverty, and immediately react with what you think is a punchy reply. It’s not. With only 140 characters, you probably will be misunderstood and hence, weird. You can also spilt your tweets into paragraphs, labelling them 1/3, 2/3 and 3/3. Just be thoughtful. Also, see rule #2.
#5 Highlight your superpowers (but set limitations)
There is nothing wrong with self-promotion, linking to your own work and generally hustling on Twitter. Highlight your work. Share it with others who you think would be interested. Put yourself out there. Just do it with a modicum of humility and self-awareness. Be prepared to accepted criticism, rejection and silence on Twitter from aid/development professionals, who can be short, sharp or non-responsive. Remember, in the words of Kanye West, “you may be talented, but you’re not kanye west”.
What rules do you have for being an aid/development professional on Twitter?
Nora Lester Murad (PhD) writes fiction and commentary from Jerusalem, Palestine. Her blog, “The View from My Window in Palestine” addresses issues of international development and life under military occupation. She is a life-long social justice activist and a founder of Dalia Association, Palestine’s first community foundation, with whom she now volunteers. She tweets from @NoraInPalestine.
Renee Black is an IT project manager, policy analyst and founder of PeaceGeeks, a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to building the capacities of grassroots non-profits in conflict-affected areas working on peace, accountability and human rights. She tweets under @reneeontheroad and @peacegeeks.
In our previous post, “Is anything going right in NGO-INGO relations?” we acknowledged that relations between national and international NGOs are often strained by power dynamics. Given these tensions, it is useful to explore how things sometimes go right.
In this post, we reflect on the relationship between Dalia Association, a Palestinian community foundation, and PeaceGeeks, a Canadian NGO providing technical assistance, and the finished project – an online competition to identify and celebrate innovative examples of Palestinian philanthropy.
Nora Lester Murad on behalf of Dalia Association:
Dalia Association’s collaboration with PeaceGeeks was among the most worthwhile that I can remember. There are at least three reasons.
1. We both focused on the goal.
Too often, international partners focus on activities or outputs. There is such emphasis on implementing the plan, there isn’t enough room for adjustment when realities on the ground change. Dalia and PeaceGeeks, however, stayed focused on the ultimate goal of promoting philanthropy, and this enabled the project design, activities and outputs to develop as we learned together.
2. Internationals pushed forward but did not take over.
PeaceGeeks moved faster and more fluidly than Dalia, which, like many small and struggling NGOs, gets distracted by political, social and economic problems in the society and the organization. PeaceGeeks’ enthusiasm did push the Palestinian volunteers to get more involved, but PeaceGeeks never moved faster than the Palestinians would go, and when they turned down the internationals’ advice, no feathers were ruffled.
3. The result was better than it could have been with only one organisation.
Dalia Association could not have run a global online competition without help. We didn’t have the technological expertise or the breadth of knowledge about what was possible. PeaceGeeks could not have run the online competition without help either. They didn’t have the local knowledge to make it relevant.
Nonetheless, there were aspects of the project that could have gone better. First, language and cultural differences made interaction clunky and sometimes downright frustrating. Even after PeaceGeeks recruited an Arabic-speaking volunteer, misunderstandings continued, and the two organizations’ approaches to dealing with the misunderstandings differed.
Second, missed opportunities left an echo of regret for some. Specifically, the project was meant to improve Dalia Association’s capacity to use social media. PeaceGeeks provided a strategy and mentor, but Dalia Association was unable to recruit someone locally to absorb the full benefit.
Still, without question, the project was a success. Dalia, with a small grant from the Global Fund for Community Foundations, leveraged thousands of dollars worth of technical assistance from PeaceGeeks, and developed a long-term ally in its quest to mobilize local resources through philanthropy as an alternative to dependence on international aid.
Renee Black, PeaceGeeks:
As a new organization, PeaceGeeks is still coming into its own. We are sorting out what we do, how we do it and what makes us different. Our work with Dalia on its philanthropy competition helped us to identify a few principles that will help us be successful going forward.
1. Choose good partners and stay focused on their needs.
To date, we have operated with no money, just the commitment of our volunteers. While not sustainable, having this experience has been a blessing in many ways. We have been able to more carefully choose the partners we want to work with and remain focused on their priorities, without getting distracted by the mandates of donors.
But, in fact, we do have donors – our volunteers. Without their time, talents and commitment, we cannot do our work. For us to be successful, we need to choose the right partners and volunteers. We need to build relationships based on respect and trust and we need to set realistic expectations.
Overall, Dalia was a great partner to work with, and while some of our volunteer’s work did not get used, causing some frustration, the project was largely a success that we can celebrate.
2. Develop a clear purpose and plan.
We treat our partners like clients. That means that we work closely with them to understand the goals, define the scope of the project, develop a plan and recruit a qualified team. Our role isn’t just to deliver a solution or tell partners what to do; it is to help partners understand the options available to them so they can make informed decisions, now and in the future. When challenges arise, we recognize that these problems are a small part of a bigger picture and move past them constructively.
3. Develop meaningful relationships and ensure partners have skin in the game.
We are committed to choosing good partners and working with them as equals, avoiding the hierarchical relationships that characterize so many development projects. Yet, we know from experience that our model carries some inherent risks.
For example, because our work is often pro bono, our partners can walk away from a project with little to lose, despite a significant risk to our credibility if past donors and volunteers feel their time and money was not well used.
This means it is important for us to build meaningful relationships based on understanding, respect and trust, but this alone is not enough. We need to construct a way for our partners to have skin in the game so they are as committed to project success as we are, especially during challenging moments.
We don’t yet know how to do this. Dalia’s team remained committed to the project, and our mutual commitment helped us to navigate misunderstandings and challenges when they came up. But, they also had something to lose – the project was based on a grant. If that had not been the case, the project might have been at higher risk of failure.
4. Ensure a mutual focus on building capacities.
We focus on building capacities, which means helping our partners learn from our experience, ask better questions and make better decisions. It is not just about delivering solutions.
Neither is it just about our partners’ learning. We also have an opportunity to learn about the challenges facing groups like Dalia, how these groups work to address these challenges and how we can support them. While we have expertise on certain matters, our partners’ knowledge is essential to understanding context, and that helps minimize the risk of failure, which is a significant risk for all technology even without barriers like language, time difference, cultural differences and conflict.
A final thought. PeaceGeeks treats partners the same way that we treat clients in the private sector. This approach allowed us to develop a shared vision of project success and accountability to one another. It allowed us to remain focused on the partner’s definition of success. And it has allowed us to make better decisions around who we work with and how.
From our work with Dalia, we learned how we can be successful with our projects and how we should respond to failure when it occurs. It also helped us reaffirm some of our core values, and helped us to define some useful principles to apply going forward.
While all relationships require work, the relationship between Dalia Association and PeaceGeeks shows that yes, NGOs and INGOs can work together well. We would not have been able to accomplish as much independently as we did together.
What are your experiences cultivating NGO-INGO relationships that work well?
You’re either going to love this post or hate it. You’re either going to see it as nothing more than an extended rant, or you’ll think it makes a valid point or two. Either way, I hope it makes you think. Although I do mention Gen Y a few times, let’s kick things off on the right foot by stating that I do not in any way think I speak for an entire generation.
As someone who just sneaks into Gen Y, I’ve come to realise that we’ve had things better than pretty much every other generation before. Most of us haven’t experienced major wars. Life expectancy is getting longer, our general health is improving, and we have information literally at our fingertips. The very fact that we have ever-evolving “First World Problems” memes, Twitter hashtags and websites tells us that although we’ve got the good humour to laugh at it, our lives just ain’t that bad.
We are also one of the first generations where our parents repetitively said to us: “You can be amazing. You can be a world-beater. If you put your mind to it, you can be anything you want.” I can’t help but think that while it’s nice to be told that, with a bit of dedication and hard work, I can legitimately cycle faster than the peloton at Tour de France, it also has some downsides.
Think about it. If I grow up with someone telling me that I’m unique and interesting, chances are when I’m get older, I’m actually going to think that I am unique and interesting. But what if, as my former high school friends enjoy repetitively telling me, I’m not? Just as importantly, what if it is helpful to actively deny this?
As Gen Y increasingly fills the workforce of aid and development, there’s a growing trend amongst us about how we talk about the work we do. One could easily get the impression that, looking from the outside in, doing work in this space revolves around us. A quick scan of the internet seems to reinforce this.
You have the aid worker who, on a field trip, was put up in an expensive hotel. She posted selfies, clad in a bathrobe, standing in front of an enormous spa bath in her ensuite. Underneath was a caption, commenting on the ostentatiousness of her surroundings that she had just been posted to. On a work trip. Paid for by donors.
You have the development worker who blogs like she is a travel writer. Today I visited people in poor villages. The most amazing thing happened. A girl who could have been no older than 7 years old came up to me, and told me that she wanted to be my best friend. She placed a band around my wrist signifying our friendship, and told me that I had beautiful hair. You get the idea.
You have those unoriginally ironic “my life is tough” photos, posted from the poolside, with a cocktail and a laptop placed side-by-side on a table. Bonus points if there’s a sunset in the background. Usually, such a photo will be accompanied by a caption saying something along the lines of “my office for the afternoon” or “all in a day’s work.”
Think about it for a second. Do we really want to portray aid and development as revolving around the glamorous life of the aid worker?
Sure, these examples are extreme and they don’t prove anything in themselves. After all, working in aid and development can be exciting. You get to go to exotic places, and mix with people from different backgrounds. You will stand out (or, if you’re like me, constantly asked why your Khmer, Chinese or Malay is so terrible). Surely there’s nothing wrong with sharing this excitement with the world?
I believe working in aid and development should involve forgetting about your sense of self as much as is humanly possible. Those people who have real and complex problems, that’s what should be keeping you awake at night, not manicuring every picture on your Facebook profile to present the most attractive you.
In fact, the more you deny the very existence of your own self, surely the better job you will do.
There’s another, more extreme, possibility if we don’t constantly remind ourselves that doing this job is not about us. Stuff like this happens.
The above photo comes from an organisation* that provides “ethical tourism” opportunities for people to change the lives of those living in poor counties. In the picture, you will you see an unfortunate byproduct of the self-centredness I described earlier. The volunteer is digging a well, while entranced “locals” stand around and watch. The message here is clear. The white volunteer is noble. She is doing something special (clearly, no one else in the picture is capable of wielding a shovel with such aplomb). She is making a difference.
The crucial word in that last sentence should be highlighted. She.
This is not an attack on voluntourism per se, but rather how it is portrayed. Who is this all about? The volunteer, or the other people in the photo?
It is true that these forms of narcissism have been around for centuries, and it’s nothing new to think that you’re the centre of the universe. Facebook, social media, and the internet more broadly have perhaps not changed this one bit. But they have changed the avenues through which we express this narcissism. It has made it easier to share, to brag (even if it is humblebragging), to broadcast. And most importantly, all of this is done so easily, with just the flick of a finger.
It is also true that those responsible are just displaying enthusiasm for their own lives. True, it is up to us to ignore them if we find them irritating or offensive. The behaviour itself is harmless. But the mindset that accompanies it is one that takes the focus away from those whose lives we are trying to improve, and onto the person doing the work. Even if momentary, I find it difficult to accept.
As importantly, the message that it sends to the public is poor. At a time when people are increasingly sceptical of aid’s efficacy and concerned about wastage, is this really how we want to portray ourselves to those outside the sector?
Gandhi once said that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” If you read anything about Gandhi’s life, as imperfect as he was, he always pushed himself towards removing his sense of self completely.
But what if he hadn’t? What if every time Gandhi completed something ground-breaking, he leaned over, picked up a device, and broadcasted to the world? What if others did the same?
I cannot imagine that Gandhi or Suu Kyi ever thought it necessary to broadcast their achievements. Nor would they, even for a second, want to take the spotlight away from what they were trying to achieve or those they were achieving it for, onto themselves. Sure, they never had smartphones (perhaps why they managed to get so much work done), but if they had, would they have taken advantage of them in this way?
I’m blessed to have worked alongside some extraordinarily humble Chinese and Cambodian colleagues, who are achieving some amazing things daily. The vast majority are happy to chip away at their work, but don’t broadcast in the ways I mentioned above. These are people we could take cues from, where the focus really is all about the work, and not about themselves.
When I reflect on the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr, one thing that strikes me is obvious: he didn’t start out to be who he ended up being. He didn’t set out to be a visionary leader, intent on making an impact on the country and culture of his day. He allowed himself to be created. Slowly, layer by layer, choice by choice, he became himself. He didn’t choose “leader of a mass civil rights movement” from a list of vocational options. His identity emerged gradually from within as he yielded to the guidance of the community and listened and prayed and read and participated and took the risks of creativity that were uniquely his to take.
I can’t help but think that his approach is completely at odds with the broadcasting I’ve described above. For him, it was never about portraying an image of himself, let alone even being a world-beater. He simply wanted to become the best person he could, without thinking about where that could lead him. When the time came for him to lead a resistance movement, MLK was simply the right person for the job.
I propose that before the next time we hit “post” on that picture of our laptop, the mojito and the sunset in the background, overlooking an African beach, we pause and take a deep breath. Does the internet really need this? Or would we be better off sharing something more valuable? Cat videos, perhaps?
Is broadcasting unnecessary, harmless, just good fun or potentially damaging? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
* For the interests of transparency, this is a company that I have had professional dealings with, though they do not in any way relate to this photo, or what is happening in it.
Oxfam GB began a new ad campaign for Africa this month that has immediately come underscrutiny. At the same, time Oxfam America is launching a new campaign that is also centred largely on Africa, but not entirely. Only a few days younger than its British counterpart, the American campaign has yet to draw the ire of anyone, while the British has required justification from Oxfam GB’s CEO, Dame Stocking.
Sharpening the same old rusty tools
Times have changed, and the audience along with it. They are a more savvy consumer of advertising, but also more globally aware. To compare an ad from today, and the message it’s attempting to purport, is to deny not only the use and effects of previous campaigns, but also the changes that have occurred within society at large.
The situation in Africa or Central America, Asia and elsewhere for that matter, is different from that of 20, 30, 40 years ago. The means of communication have changed, but then so have the organisations (especially the communications staff). Advertising and advocacy campaigns have grown rusty amid the changing global environment. Advertising is a tool that needs to be sharpened constantly – particularly as it’s a tool that’s been inherited. If your grandfather gave you an old spade you’d simply hone the edge or maybe replace the handle rather than tossing it aside.
Newly honed: there’s a definite edge
Both the British and American Oxfam campaigns for Africa are a fresh take on an old issue. Vibrant colours, stunning photographs and a funky font make for eye-catching yet clean material. The differences though are immediately apparent. The British have gone in for landscapes, showcasing the verdant and varied biosphere, while the Americans have gone for the individuals, encapsulating the personal side to Africa.
Each is a distinctly different approach. Yet through both of them you can see the unifying essence that is Oxfam and their mission. How each campaign is being wielded does more than simply identify the nascent development of the campaigns’ consumers, who want more than the blatant messages of conflict and famines of the 80s and 90s. It shows a great understanding on the part of all stakeholders that advertising is a tool that all should have a share in.
A committee need not be convened to approve every message from every stakeholders’ standpoint – the gods know there are already too many committees involved in aid and development. The mere fact that organisations like Oxfam are taking into account the wider cultural effects shows they’ve graduated from swinging a machete to pulling out the pruning shears. It doesn’t mean they’re as deft as they could be, but you cannot grow and nurture a bonsai overnight even with tiny tools.
Calling a spade… something with a handle
Oxfam GB and Oxfam America target different audiences with their respective campaigns. There are similarities between the target audiences, but there are enough differences that varied campaigns are a prerequisite. Each campaign is also focused on different issues; for GB it’s about reimagining Africa, for the US it’s about not cutting foreign aid for the sake of the national budget. Both campaigns want to see aid to continue to flow to Africa (particularly through Oxfam GB; Oxfam America doesn’t take USAID funding), though the issues each organisation faces differ drastically.
Oxfam GB is focused on an issue that they personally have been a part of and responsible for. There’s no denial. And, there’s no apology – this isn’t a debate on poverty porn, but recognition that it has been used in the past – good or bad, Oxfam and others must move on. Consumers are equally complicit in the previous ad campaigns, as they needed such crass images to get involved. Oxfam GB calls the consumer on this fact with one word ‘Let’s’. It is a social contract.
The acknowledgement of all parties’ share in a stereotyped perception of Africa as a continent of starvation is a step towards dialogue and the change of that image. However, the changing of an image or even a person’s view is not done through one medium alone, which is why Oxfam GB’s campaign needs to be seen in the wider context, not just next to that of Oxfam America’s.
The message from Oxfam America’s campaign is one that is intrinsically tied to the political culture of the US. Oxfam America is discussing American politics and how they shape the world, but it’s doing so through a prism that many Americans would understand. Foreign aid, slightly more than 1% of the US budget, is being shown not as a hand-out but a means to support self-starters – those very same people which the US prides itself upon for making it what it is today – and not something that should be cut.
Oxfam America is asking the American taxpayer and their elected representatives to allow Oxfam and its partners to do its job. In highlighting the similarities between individuals in Africa and the US, Oxfam America is attempting to engage people on a level they can understand, on the same issues they’re feeling at home. Because the issue of foreign aid is a personal one for Oxfam America, the organisation appear to have made its campaign personal for everyone.
The immediacy of Oxfam America’s goal can’t be underscored enough. Given that the US government only managed to put off issues relating to the ‘fiscal cliff’ by a further two months, and that the Congress and Senate will be meeting once again to decide the future of the American national budget, the timing of the new campaign is apt. But, it isn’t so much a campaign for Africa or even Oxfam as it is an attempt at lobbying. Just look at where some of the ads are placed: within Reagan National Airport and the metro system in Washington DC.
However, from a design perspective, the font is a sore point. The font, as bright and cheerful with that African edge as it tries to be, comes across a little callous. Oxfam should keep in mind the thoughts of Jonathan Barnbrook, “A good typeface creates an emotional response in relation to the message it is conveying. You’re trying to get that tone of voice right – you can shout or whisper. And you want to sum up the spirit of the age, because they do date quite quickly”. The playfulness of it undermines the impassioned and serious plea that both organisations are broadcasting and could in the end be detrimental to their overall message.
It is about generating discussions, rather than impressions
Each of these campaigns has been crafted by professionals who are well aware of the limits of the mediums they are working in and what they hope to achieve. They are also keenly aware of how messages, images and memes are itinerant between mediums. Social media, whether explicitly expressed or not, is a large part of spreading the messages of both organisations and is being utilised to do so very effectively.
Both Oxfam GB and Oxfam America have, in effect, not merely provided the campaigns’ consumers with the very tools they use – they’ve invited the audience into the tool shed. Showing how these tools are shaped to the task spurs the discussion of each campaign. Both organisations are involving you in the discussion by getting you to hold the discussion.
They’re not asking you to have it, or even demanding that such discussions take place. The enticement comes from the ideas they present so that the audience stops and looks at what each organisation is doing and how. Dame Stocking’s comment of, “We want to make sure people have a really better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa. Of course we have to show what the reality is in the situations in those countries. But we also need to show the other places where things are actually changing, where things are different”, and concise feedback from Tolu Ogunlesi is nothing more than presenting a different perspective of Africa and aid, but with a caveat – the audience is forced to determine what that picture is.
Oxfam GB is not purporting to be the final or even an authoritarian voice on aid and Africa. The offer to make a cultural change within the UK with the audience by saying ‘Let’s’ allows for the differing views and constructive suggestions of others. It opens the tool shed to everyone to discuss not just the work to be done but how. Much of what is done today in terms of advertising, particular on complex issues, is about generating discussions rather than impressions.
Oxfam America’s discussion includes the tool shed and those in it, but never to the same degree. Their concern is being able to keep the shed and the tools in it. It seeks a far more tangible effect, but one that can only be determined in the future – not by impressions, Likes or click-throughs. The success of Oxfam America’s campaign rests in the hands of the American taxpayer and their elected representative.
Whatever you’re feeling about these ads isn’t wrong or right. They probably elicited a response, which they’re supposed to. They’re generating a discussion, but for them to be really successful it needs to be elsewhere. Take your comments and your feelings to your personal blogs, to Facebook, Twitter and any other medium that connects to those who aren’t in the aid and development community.
Talk to those who are not inside the ‘Aid Beltway’. Share with them and see what they have to say.
Over the past year or so the UK, socialist hellhole that it is, has seen several high-profile freedom of expression cases attached to Twitter and Facebook. There have been jokes on trial, ‘grossly offensive comments’ and racist statements generating miles of column inches. All have led to convictions.
A lot of these high publicity cases have been pretty controversial, rights-wise, but they should be enough for most NGOs to really start thinking about how they as an organisation and the staff as individuals are using social media. Now, like the good teacher I am, I’ll give you some definitions:
Defamation– the big one, ‘the expression of an untrue insinuation against a person’s reputation’, regarded as one of the few legitimate restrictions on freedom of expression. There are two main sub-types of defamation:
Libel – ‘defamation of a person through a permanent form of communication, mostly the written word’
Slander – ‘defamation of a person through a transient form of communication, generally speech’
Social media is increasingly being treated as though it were a traditional publishing platform. Anyone creating publishable content for, say, a newspaper goes through significant training in libel and defamation and all the other frightening things they might be sued for. Most Twitter users do not.
Editors and publishers scrutinise the content put out under their supervision, reprimanding, correcting or blocking the publication of anything that might cause legal difficulties (or, at least, preparing some sort of a defence). Bloggers are often on their own. Even in most NGO offices, the person tasked with writing press releases will probably have someone else signing off on what they release, at the very least. A lot of NGOs will have a laborious and rigorous vetting process for all traditional publishing outputs. Not so when it comes to their personal blogs for the folks back home or their publicly available Facebook walls or Twitter feeds.
There has been some discussion in the development blogosphere regarding the perils of blogging in a semi professional manner (i.e where your blog directly correlates to your profession) but such conversations tend to get caught in the proverbial headlights of employment prospects – will my personal blog/twitter profile help or hinder my job search? This is a topic that is both easily diverted and, from the off, sidesteps a whole slew of very real risks online do-gooders should be aware of.
You might argue that such things aren’t an enormous issue and make it clear that your tweets in no way represent the views of your employer; make use of all thosetotally infallible Facebook privacy settings. Or you stop blogging and do some actual work. Bringing up potential issues regarding social media in a work setting can often provokes such responses.
But, this cuts do-gooders off from the incredible opportunities of new media publishing. You can establish contacts and links with other professionals, experts, and you can utilise it to try to improve your actual work. The African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) recently utilised Pinterest for something so much more than it tends to get used for – giving the opportunity for a direct recipient to interact with donors and the general public without the filters of a press team or bored volunteer a thousand miles away (It really is a terrific project, take a look: Sihiba Yusufa’s story and the background info for the scheme).
Obviously, a lot of the cases I mentioned earlier are UK specific. As some of you may know, Blighty’s libel and defamation laws are by no means a benchmark for solid freedom of expression but such decisions in a relatively open and liberal country indicate a wide-ish fearful perception of social media. This is pretty worrying, particularly for do-gooders operating in countries with fair less amenable governments.
Think of blogging and tweeting as being a part time columnist, even if your columns are limited to 140 characters. If you took on a monthly writing job for a local paper near your work, you would probably restrict some of what you wanted to write and be restricted; you certainly wouldn’t use it to publicise your ‘stress busting’ drinking habit or, say, make filthy jokes about a prominent news item.
Away from altering individuals’ behaviour, there are wider lessons for the industry as a whole to be learned from this. Here are some of the big ones off the top of my head.
Organisations and employers tend to offer training as part of their modus operandi; knowledge management, project management, learning languages, licensing people to drive heavy vehicles. But, I’ve not heard of an NGO teaching its employees about libel. Obviously, there’s a fair amount to learn and I don’t think do-gooders need to be completely lawyered up but having a good awareness of the overall risks, particularly in a country specific context, can only be a good thing. People like INSI run much more sophisticated training, how hard could it be to start including this stuff as a segment of other trainings (communications team trainings seem like an ideal fit). Seriously, put in a request for this training or speak to your communications team (or legal team, if brevity isn’t your thing) for some pointers.
Heck, you could at least make sure each of your office has a copy of McNae’s lying about for people to cross reference.
Social media is incredible, popular and, basically, terrifies the hell out of lawyers. At this point in time the legal landscape of what is and is not illegal online is about as ill-defined as it will ever be; it’s really quite new, remember. Get yourself some advice and, above all, try and be sensible with your very public online profiles.
Part 2 of this post will address the issues surrounding social media in hostile regimes and be published in 2013.
Action. Transparency. User feedback. Equality. These words kept popping up as I talked with Maz Kessler, founder and creative director of Catapult, about her new crowd-funding platform. Catapult, which went live in beta form on October 11, is dedicated to promoting equality for women and girls by giving women and girl-focused organizations a place to campaign online.
Right now, all organizations – big and small – whose programs benefit women and girls at least 80% of the time, can apply to have their projects listed on Catapult’s crowdsourcing platform. One of their large partner organizations, Global Fund for Women, assists with vetting of organizations and projects.
The application process is rigorous, requiring financial transparency materials, references, and annual reports, and although it may keep some of the smallest grassroots organizations from applying, it does not seem as complicated as some international NGO grant applications.
Catapult is filling what Maz and her team see as a “lack of clear and achievable asks” in the realm of international development. Translated into everyday language this means addressing the failure of something like Kony 2012 to make any real change.
Activism is really good at stirring people to care about an international problem; then they click a Like button and slacktivism sets in.
In campaigning for women and girls, there are often “brilliant pieces of communication” on a particular issue and the response on a human level, Maz told me, is “Oh my God. Yes. Child marriage is terrible. You’re right”. Yet, people don’t know what to do then to make a change. To address this, Catapult has positioned itself between the “awareness-raiser and the NGO implementers”, between the campaign and the people acting to address the problem, to help connect passionate donors with trusted organizations.
Catapult achieves transparency by prominently displaying each project’s budget, including administrative expenses on their page, giving perspective donors an idea of how the money will be spent. “I don’t want to force our partners to forgo their costs”, Maz said. Rather, “we all need to talk about what it costs to really do this work”. This is a stance very much aligned with WhyDev’s belief in the necessity of overhead costs as well as Good Intentions Are Not Enough’sviews set out in ‘Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices‘.
Moreover, including budgets should help more than the donor, Maz said. “Because this is all about solving problems for girls and women. We hope people will be really interested in how these problems are actually being solved and what they cost”. Indeed, project budgets could give development workers more information about partner budgeting and the types of programs that organizations are implementing to address issues faced by women and girls.
But Catapult’s approach is not without its limitations. The budget line items can be pretty vague, with entries like $28,000 for “income generation training”. This may be in the interest of not overwhelming donors with too much information, or restricting recipient’s flexibility in implementation. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to track whether or not highly detailed budgets are more attractive to certain donors.
Eager to see Catapult in action, I donated $20 to Gardening for Health. Based in Palawan, Philippines, Gardening for Health has a modest $2,000 budget to help women start vertical gardens. A Google map on the right of the page showed me exactly where the project is located. A link on the left led me to more information about the partner organization, Roots for Health.
If Gardening for Health manages to raise the remaining 95% of their budget in the next five months, they will receive the full amount to implement their project and I’ll get regular updates for the first year. However, unlike Kickstarter or other similar platforms, if they don’t raise all the money my contribution will be returned to me as a Catapult gift card and I’ll be able to choose another project to fund.
Thanks to some large foundation funding, Catapult does not charge either donors or partner organizations for transaction costs of listings. And donations are tax deductible in the United States.
Until Catapult launches a full media campaign around Giving Tuesday, as the Tuesday after Thanksgiving in the U.S has been dubbed, they will be checking and tweaking the platform and structure. Inviting us to a place of “shared learning” and more transparency, they are seeking feedback on the design and opening the conversation through the various social media spaces to see what works and what doesn’t work for donors and partners.
All the projects listed on Catapult’s platform are working in some way towards equality for women. And they cover an impressive range of topics, from maternal health and child brides, to LGBT issues and education. Many small grassroots organizations are already out there working for gender equality and women’s rights and many of them are in danger of closing and most are underfunded.
“All the expertise resides in the NGOs, right? Because these are fabulous NGOs and they are working in context, in country, in region, and in community to solve problems in their own way and so we hope that people will want to support them”, said Maz.
Rather than start her own organization to directly help women and girls, Maz saw the huge potential for change that was possible by opening up campaigning opportunities for these local, knowledgeable, NGOs. Even in beta form, Catapult is a valuable mechanism for organizations to share their programs and then their success.