A remarkable sea change has taken place in the world of activism. What were once grassroots movements have blossomed into huge transnational institutions, concerned with professionalism, branding and most of all: money. As a result, the likes of Save the Children and Amnesty International now have more in common with corporations like Apple and Coca-Cola than they may care to admit.
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.
In this extended and exclusive interview with WhyDev’s Brendan Rigby, he and Albion discuss working for UNICEF Ghana, participation in education and the growth of the development blogosphere. In particular, Brendan reflects on his experience with UNICEF Ghana supporting a complementary basic education program targeting out of school children, explaining how it is successful and highlighting the challenges that lie ahead. Brendan also discusses AusAID’s Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) program and the growth of the aid and development blogosphere.
At 89 per cent urban and with four of its cities making TheEconomist’s top ten most liveable list (Melbourne at no. 1, Sydney at no. 4, Perth at no. 8, and Adelaide at no. 9), Australia seems to “do” urbanisation exceptionally well.
Infrastructure and transportation systems are generally good, there are plenty of hospitals, schools and libraries, and children can interact safely in parks and other community settings. The challenges faced by countless urban centres around the world — such as children living on the street, urban gangs and informal settlements — are not common in Australia, with its most disadvantaged communities living in the outback of the Northern Territory.
Australian cities are home to people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and while the disparities between Melbourne’s Toorak and Broadmeadows, Sydney’s Vaucluse and Fairfield, and Perth’s Peppermint Grove and Karawara are apparent to any observer, the stark divides that exist between the favelas and new developments of São Paulo or the slums and mansions of Mumbai are rarely, if ever, present. Australian cities also seem to do well in terms of their child-friendliness, with standards such as safe water and sanitation, safe streets, and plenty of opportunities to play and participate in cultural and social events easily accessible to most children and young people in urban areas.
So, while there is always room for improvement, and decision-makers at all levels of government and members of civil society need to ensure that the rights of every child are fulfilled, some of the biggest opportunities for Australia to improve the lives of poor and marginalized urban children lie in assisting her neighbour Asia. The 2012 edition of UNICEF’s flagship publication The State of the World’s Childrenexamines the lives of children growing up in urban settings and finds that denials of children’s rights to survival, health, nutrition, education and protection are widespread, particularly in middle-income and developing nations. The report has many interesting examples that describe the situation of children in the urban areas of Asia – currently home to 66 of the 100 fastest-growing urban areas (half of these in China) and to 50 per cent of the world’s urban population (3.5 billion). Projections indicate that by 2050 Asia will hold 54 per cent of the world’s urban population (6.3 billion).
Slums – in which children grow up often without secure tenure, registration, running water, adequate sanitation and surrounded by disease and poverty – are a notorious aspect of rapid urbanization. For example, in 2011 India’s slum population was projected to reach just over 93 million; that is over a quarter of its urban residents living in slums.
In Bangladesh, the under-five mortality rate for children in slums was found to be 79 per cent higher than the overall urban rate, and 44 per cent higher than the rural rate.
Similar disparities exist in children’s education. In 2004-2005, the primary school attendance rate of children living in the slums Delhi was a low 55 per cent, while the overall city average was 90 per cent. A more disparate pattern emerged in the rates of secondary school attendance for children living in the slums of Bangladesh, where in 2009 only 18 per cent attended secondary school, while the overall secondary school attendance in urban areas was 53 per cent.
Besides slums,The State of the World’s Childrenoutlines many other challenges faced by children who are growing up urban. Motivated by the search for a better life, many children partake in migration to urban areas. In 2008, almost a tenth of China’s children migrated with their parents. Setting up a new home poses many difficulties, but when migrating without the company of an adult, a child is at particular risk of ending up on the streets, impoverished, in exploitative work or abused. Trafficking is another grave child exploitation connected to cities. Studies indicate that in the major Indian cities, most trafficked girls are forced into sex work, and in Bangladeshi cities large numbers of girls and boys are exploited in street sex markets and brothels. The list of challenges identified in the report goes on.
When researching this report, what stood out to me the most were not only the stark disparities between the lives of children from wealthy and poor homes, but also the many opportunities to address them. Because of the size and proximity of urban populations, children and young people in urban areas often have better access to education, health services, technology, social activities, quality food and water and so on. The problem is that too many children live next to these services and amenities, but cannot access them and do not benefit from them. The onus is on governments at all levels to place children’s rights at the centre of urban decision-making and ensure that those who are currently left out have equitable access to such services.
Australia would do well to begin by asking our urban planners and policymakers to pay much greater attention to the rights and interests of children. This means bringing children’s voices into community and local government policy in the implementation and planning of cities.
All this needs to be within a child-focused policy framework. The unified call by Australian child rights organisations for a National Children’s Commissioner would go part of the way to address the shortfalls in oversight of policy, accountability, monitoring and participation.
Australia can also assist children in neighbouring countries through advocating for their rights, providing aid and through knowledge transfer on how to make urban life an equitable one. Because cities that are fit for children benefit everyone.
Last week I spent time with the organisation I work with, Football United, at a project we run in Granville, one of the mostunderprivileged communities in one of the world’s most affluent cities, Sydney. It is Football United’s fourth year in Granville, running programs that engage Indigenous, refugee and migrant youth through football, whilst promoting leadership and development opportunities and facilitating relationships with community organisations, partners and mentors.
At this particular project, we were joined by Monique Coleman, star of High School Musical and numerous other American TV Series that are aimed at a youthful audience. Thanks Wikipedia. The reasons for her attendance were two-fold (or possibly one-fold parts i and ii): promoting “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding”, topic of discussion in the United Nations International Year of Youth 2011 and promoting her own website “dedicated to empowering today’s youth”. She was a great communicator, friendly and, for the most part, aware of a set of appropriate issues that concern youth today: bullying, homelessness, multicultural society and so on.
It’s easy to bemoan the presence of an ambassador by implying that they undermine the efforts of those on the ground – whether local or not – spending each day doing what they do: medicine, teach, advocate, build. Billy Celebrity jets in for a day with his camera troupe, hugs a kid, conducts interview and photoshoot, probably wearing a pair of jeans that cost him more than any of his co-stars will see in a lifetime and probably made around the corner by a factory that exploits the community with sub-standard pay and no bathroom breaks. Everyone’s in on it. I remember seeing a list of sports stars employed as ambassadors. If you’d ever ran, kicked a ball or danced on ice, you were good to go. It was all too easy, the market was saturated. Hollywood too, spearheaded recently by George Clooney and friends, who are monitoring troops along the North/South Sudanese border to much criticism from “the international humanitarian blogosphere’s snark brigade“. “Bono-basher-in-chief William Easterly” is concerned about celebrity wonks getting too cosy with the policy-makers when they could use their powers to challenge the leaders, like John Lennon and Mark Twain did in the good old days.
So what? If UNICEF want attention and if Billy Celebrity can direct attention then that’s cool. What they drawing attention to, I suppose is relevant. To advocate for children and support UNICEF’s mission to “ensure every child’s right to health, education, equality and protection”. Maybe. Or maybe it’s to promote a new haircut. I’m inclined to be cynical like the afore mentioned snark brigade, in a world where video and sound-bites rule, these ambassadorial visits could be nothing but effective celebrity brand management.
I’d like to think, however, that I’ve developed my perceptions and opinion from, among other things, experience. I don’t have much, but what experience I do have of UN ambassadors, it’s hugely positive. I have nothing but gratitude for the minor celebrity that graced our project in Western Sydney. Her message was relevant, albeit a tad standardised. The big gains though, were for our project, and consequently – hopefully – the youth in the Granville community. Students who were previously unaware became aware of leadership and education opportunities, networks were expanded, ideas exchanged and influential policy makers turned up. Some even listened. All in all, last Monday was a positive experience for community-based, community-driven development.
This article was co-researched and co-written with Weh Yeoh.
Less than 2 months out from the devastating floods in Pakistan and the international response can only be described as woeful and inadequate. Consider these mind-blowing facts: the number of people displaced by the flood in Pakistan is almost the same as the entire population of Australia. The area that is currently underwater is about 600 000 square kilometres – an area larger than England. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the floods as the worst natural disaster he has ever seen.
When we compare this disaster response to that following the devastating earthquake in Haiti at the start of the year, a response that we heavily criticised in this post, we can see a huge disparity. Within 10 days of the Haiti disaster, $742 million was committed and $920 million pledged internationally. This worked out to $495 allocated per person. Within 3 weeks of the Pakistan disaster, only $230 million was committed to help a much larger population. Per person, this works out to only $15.
Why has there only been a trickle of money into the country from outside donors?
Is it because of “donor fatigue”, where preceding disasters such as Haiti’s have distracted us from Pakistan’s needs?
Do we feel that our donation is not in safe hands, because we are constantly reminded of the Taliban’s ever growing threat to commit an act of terrorism towards aid workers?
Or is it because, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, we still harbour fears that Pakistan is susceptible to being overrun by terrorists, so that perhaps money towards aid in Pakistan is likely to promote terrorism?
In short, why doesn’t the world care about Pakistan?
The post-disaster vacuum and the perceived terrorist threat
Many commentators and media outlets have expressed concern over Islamic organisations involved in humanitarian aid, linking them to groups identified as militant or terrorist. How justified is this concern?
The fear is that in the wake of such a disaster, and the government’s torrid and wanting response, a vacuum will be created into which such groups will move and convert. And they have – at least moved, that is. According to Reuters and other outlets, relief camps are being served by Falah-e-Insaniyat, a charity with suspected ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its humanitarian wing Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). Both the LeT and JuD are blacklisted by the United Nations. But the UN blacklist, which is drawn up in total secrecy by a committee in New York at the call of the Security Council, is hardly part of a transparent process. In fact, according to a report of the Council of Europe,
“Persons placed on the list are not informed of the fact and have no possibility of being heard, nor do they have any remedy…these methods illustrate the dangerous erosion of rights and fundamental freedoms which is going on even in assemblies mandated to safeguard and further them, and discredits the international fight against terrorism”.
The inept Pakistan government has moved to shut down and ban some relief camps run by such organisations. The fear is that militant groups are attempting to win over the support of the local people. But discrediting these organisations hastily is problematic. Previously, international NGOs have co-opted with workers from the JuD in the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. The organisation had valuable knowledge of the local terrain and were able to effectively deliver supplies. In response to the floods, the JuD, according to reports, were the first to arrive, bringing with them vital medical and food supplies.
Undeniably, winning the support of the people is also an important objective of US foreign aid and assistance. In a recent announcement of a new Global Health Initiative, Senator Hiliary Clinton remarked that, “For millions of people worldwide, the prevention, treatment or care that the United States makes possible is their main experience of us as a country and a people…Giving people a chance at a long and healthy life or helping protect their children from disease conveys as much about our values as any state visit or strategic dialogue ever could.” The perceived attitudes of both the above Islamic organisations and the US government are strikingly similar, and remarkable. Do they really believe that their respective contributions will dispose long-term positive attitudes in the recipients? In particular, will their contributions convert the recipients to the cause of either the LeT or the US government? Surely we must give those affected by such natural disasters more credit than they are currently being given. It is pathetic and condescending to think that those who are surviving a disaster on such a scale are weak and pliable. According to Imtiaz Gul, an expert on militancy, “It’s not just for a packet of food that you will convert to another sect”.
Media has been spurned on by key international political figures who are trying to direct the discourse. US Senator John Kerry and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari suggest that if the international community does not act swiftly, extremists will exploit the country’s devastating floods. In contrast, Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for international cooperation, has attempted to downplay the concerns. She stated that although these religious organisations are involved in relief efforts, “I haven’t got anything from our partners that this growing problem with the disaster is being used for the purposes of breeding extremism.” Is raising concern over the influence of Islamic organisations a case of bias, prejudice or at worst, Islamophobia?
If it isn’t Islamophobia, why haven’t we asked the same questions in previous relief efforts conducted by other faith-based NGOs?
“On those occasions when faith is accepted as a legitimate issue for investigation, it is often in the context of the existence and spread of religious fundamentalism. While not seeking to deny the significance of this issue for the practice of development and emergency relief, the problem with this approach is that it suggests that faith is relevant only in the margins, where it can be clearly identified as the explicit and dominant organising force within communities. Such an approach continues to ignore the relevance of the faith of development practitioners, which, even when it is exposed, is necessarily inscribed as ‘reasonable’ when compared to the belief systems of fundamentalism” (Kennedy & Nolan, 2004, p.93).
World Vision, the world’s largest Christian NGO, recently won a decision on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to discriminate on a faith basis in its employment procedures. Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain stated that, “World Vision is a nonprofit organization whose humanitarian relief efforts flow from a profound sense of religious mission.” So, should we question World Vision’s intentions in emergency response situations such as Pakistan? Do we fear that they will take advantage of disaster situations to “win the support of the people” to Christianity? World Vision ascribes to the International Code of Conduct for emergency relief and states that it practices Christian engagement by example – not be conversion. World Vision also “seeks to make known God’s offer of renewal and reconciliation through Jesus Christ, and to encourage people to respond”.
The fact is that World Vision’s intentions are rarely questioned in the Western world, but there seems to be a huge double standard when Islamic organisations are involved. This doesn’t help those affected by the Pakistan floods of course, who only require basic human needs such as food, water and shelter. The longer we maintain this double standard and accept suspicions of terrorism in this region, the longer these people will suffer.
If you would like to donate to relief efforts in Pakistan, you can do so via many organisations, such as Oxfam, Australian Red Cross, UNICEF, and World Vision. The authors of this post strongly encourage you to do so.
Follow whydev on Twitter here. Follow Weh Yeoh on Twitter here.
Kennedy, R. & Nowlan, K. (2004) ‘Gender, faith and development: Rethinking the boundaries of intersectionality’. Development Bulletin, 64: pp. 92-94.
In higher education around the world, there is a reform movement quickly gaining traction: standards-based assessment. It is a process by which students are assessed, their achievement measured, against agreed upon and concrete national standards. This reform agenda currently being negotiated within higher education in Australia, Europe, UK and the US, is driven by a concern for quality assurance and accreditation in an increasingly fluid and competitive global economy and student body. It also has implications for student learning and achievement and will shape the teaching and learning process of many higher education systems. The standards will, and should be, high.
Next month, world leaders will attend a summit in New York to review the progress on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Are the same high standards being set in education systems in developing countries? Although this may seem an unfair and unsuitable question to ask, it is extremely pertinent in the context of education, student learning and the MDGs.
Goal 2, Target 1: Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling
The MDGs, in particular Goal 2, are inspiring in terms of their aspirational nature and the global consensus reached to support them. However, the overall picture of education is distorted. The vantage point of any view often determines what you see. So, what do we see when we look at global education from the vantage point of the MDGs? Enrolment ratios and rates tend to dominate – from the Human Development Index to the MDGs to the EFA Global Monitoring Reports. And, despite significant achievements, it is estimated that 101 million children were still out of school in 2007.
From this vantage point, there are two aspects of education that are being overlooked. First, what is often overlooked in the advocacy of the MDGs is what happens once children are enrolled – what happens both inside and outside the classroom? Why is there an average 10% difference between the net enrolment rate and net attendance rate for primary school across the world? How are we addressing the issues of attendance, attainment, attrition and quality?
Second, these same issues for secondary schooling are overshadowed and underperforming. In the African continent, while 79% of boys and 74% of girls are enrolled in primary school, only 34% and 30% respectively are enrolled in secondary schooling. In Least Developed Countries (LDCs) worldwide the difference in enrolment is 81/76% to 31/27% (figures from Unicef). This is not to mention the attendance and attrition rates nor even the quality of students’ learning.
We need to set the standards high for education in developing countries. We need to look beyond enrolment rates and primary education. By 2015, many of the children currently enrolled and attending will be completing their primary schooling. They will not have the opportunity to complete their secondary education nor even the hope of higher education. Not only does every child have the right to access school, but they also have the right to a long and quality education, which caters to their needs, desires, hopes and dreams. This should not only be aspirational, but a minimum standard.