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Archive for August, 2010

Mural in the Arcatao community, Chalatenango, El Salvador, reflecting what happened at Rio Sumpul in 1980

When Glenn Beck mentioned Liberation Theology around minute 12.20 of this Fox News video (which I came across courtesy of @Jay_Rosenberg), I literally sat up straighter in my chair, downsized the other 6 tabs I had open, hit rewind, turned up the volume and listened.  And I felt really unsettled.

The amount of time I normally give to Beck and the Tea Baggers is the time it takes to hit delete on an email. You know the ones… they are usually full of misinformation and have a lot of all capital letters, bright red size 64 font, and tell me to fear Obama, Mexicans, Muslim takeovers and universal healthcare.

But Beck’s coloring of Liberation Theology in this video clip “Liberation Theology and the Political Perversion of Christianity” and his take on social justice make me really angry.

In the Liberation Theology clip, Beck paints this vision of people who follow liberation theology. “These are people who, besides blowing stuff up, were also having a sexual revolution, trying to smash monogamy. This isn’t about God to them in any shape or form.”

He talks with Anthony Bradley, a ‘Black Liberation Theology Expert’ from the Acton Institute. Bradley says “One of the odd interpretations of Marxist thought and theology happened in central and south America, right in the church. And it was really the fantastic work of the current pope, who actually rooted out liberation theology from that region.”

Yes, right. Fantastic rooting out. Just fantastic, Bradley.

I’m not a Christian or a Marxist, but I lived and worked in El Salvador in the 90s. That’s right. El Salvador, one of the Central American countries where Liberation Theology was at its strongest.

Here’s what ‘rooting out liberation theology’ meant in El Salvador.

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero's famous words

It meant assassinating Archbishop Romero in 1980.

“Romero was shot on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon where he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. According to an audio-recording of the Mass, he was shot while elevating the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic rite. When he was shot, his blood spilled over the altar along with the sacramental wine.” (Wikipedia)

And assassinating the 6 Jesuit Priests from the University of Central America, cutting open their heads and strewing their brains around the yard.

“Before the end of darkness on the morning of Nov. 16, with unspeakable and barbaric cruelty, armed men burst into the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America in San Salvador and shot six Jesuit priests to death. At the same time, the community’s cook and her daughter were murdered in their beds. According to reliable reports, several of the priests, my brothers, had their brains torn from their heads.” (Washington Post, Nov 19, 1989)

And beating, raping and murdering 4 Maryknoll sisters.

“In December 1980, Jean Donovan and three nuns joined the more than 75,000 people who were killed in the Salvadoran Civil War. In the afternoon of December 2, Donovan and Dorothy Kazel picked up two Maryknoll missionary sisters, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, from the airport after the pair arrived from attending a Maryknoll conference in Managua, Nicaragua. They were under surveillance by a National Guardsman at the time, who phoned his commander for orders. Acting on orders from their commander, five National Guard members changed into plainclothes and continued to stake out the airport. The five members of the National Guard of El Salvador, out of uniform, stopped the vehicle they were driving after they left the airport in San Salvador. Donovan and the three sisters were taken to a relatively isolated spot where they were beaten, raped, and murdered by the soldiers.

The [1993] U.N.-sponsored report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded that the abductions were planned in advance and the men responsible had carried out the murders on orders from above. It further stated that the head of the National Guard and two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed the facts to harm the judicial process. The murder of the women, along with attempts by the Salvadoran military and some American officials to cover it up, generated a grass-roots opposition in the U.S., as well as ignited intense debate over the Administration’s policy in El Salvador. In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in Salvadoran history that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. ” (Wikipedia)”

Rooting out liberation theology meant massacring almost 800 peasants in El Mozote in Morazan

“In a small rectangular plot among the overgrown ruins of a village here, a team of forensic archeologists has opened a window on El Salvador’s nightmarish past. Nearly 11 years after American-trained soldiers were said to have torn through El Mozote and surrounding hamlets on a rampage in which at least 794 people were killed, the bones have emerged as stark evidence that the claims of peasant survivors and the reports of a couple of American journalists were true.” (New York Times, 1992)

and another 300 people at Rio Sumpul, on the border with Honduras

“On 14 May 1980, units of Military Detachment No. 1, the National Guard and the paramilitary Organización Nacional Democrática (ORDEN) deliberately killed at least 300 non-combatants, including women and children, who were trying to flee to Honduras across the Sumpul river beside the hamlet of Las Aradas, Department of Chalatenango. The massacre was made possible by the cooperation of the Honduran armed forces, who prevented the Salvadorian villagers from landing on the other side.” (UN Truth Commission Report, 1993)

It meant assassinating, disappearing and torturing thousands who belonged to Christian Base Communities. And that was just in El Salvador.

Rev. James Martin in his Huffington Post article explains why he follows liberation theology. I encourage you to read his full post:

“Liberation theology is easy to be against. For one thing, most people don’t have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about. It’s also easier to ignore the concerns of the poor, particularly overseas, than it is to actually get to know them as individuals who make a claim on us. There are also plenty of overheated websites that facilely link it to Marxism. My response to that last critique is to read the Gospels and count how many times Jesus tells us that we should help the poor and even be poor. In the Gospel of Matthew, he tells us that the ones who will enter the Kingdom of heaven are those who help “the least of my brothers and sisters,” i.e., the poor. After that, read the Acts of the Apostles, especially the part about the apostles “sharing everything in common.” Then let me know if helping the poor is communist or simply Christian….

It’s hard to ignore the fact that Jesus chose to be born poor; he worked as what many scholars now say was not simply a carpenter, but what could be called a day laborer; he spent his days and nights with the poor; he and his disciples lived with few if any possessions; he advocated tirelessly for the poor in a time when poverty was considered to be a curse; he consistently placed the poor in his parables over and above the rich; and he died an utterly poor man, with only a single seamless garment to his name. Jesus lived and died as a poor man. Why is this so hard for modern-day Christians to see? Liberation theology is not Marxism disguised as religion. It is Christianity presented in all its disturbing fullness.”

So, Glenn Beck. Really. Really?

Let me get this straight. The people above are or were about “blowing stuff up, sexual revolutions and trying to smash monogamy.”  And this is “not about God to them in any way shape or form” so they need to be “rooted out”?

Glenn Beck, you make me sick.

Update: posts I like on this topic:

Roger Ebert in Chicago Sun Times: Put Up or Shut Up.

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone: Tea Party Rocks Primaries

Timothy Egan in New York Times: Building a Nation of Know Nothings

Other El Salvador related posts on Wait… What?

Orgasmatron moments

On trust and disempowerment

18 years

It’s not a black and white photo

The real story involves anti-social entrepreneurs and anthropology

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Angelica Valeria Ospina recently wrote about the role of social memory and ICTs in building climate change resilience.  She refers to Carl Folke’s definition of social memory as “captured experience with change and successful adaptations embedded in a deeper level of values, and actualized through community debate and decision-making processes into appropriate strategies for dealing with ongoing change.

Ospina suggests that social memory is “key for linking past experience with present and future adaptation actions, and in turn allows for novelty and innovation.” She comments that “Although the role of memory tends to be overshadowed by that of innovation, the two are in fact important foundations for change, and are equally relevant within contexts that are struggling to adapt to uncertainty….”

I really like this idea of balancing memory and innovation, and it’s not only valid within the framework of resilience and climate change.  Social memory is also useful for those of us working in ICT4D and m4D because we find ourselves at the intersection of development and technology, where methodologies and mindsets can be in opposition at times and where change is happening at a rapid frequency.

A quick characterization of the mindsets

Development Organization Mindset: How can we work with our existing resources and work around our challenges to reach our goals? How can we build on experience?

Those who work with grassroots community development are schooled to look at assets, to help communities and local organizations look at what exists already, what is within their reach, and how to identify their existing resources before looking outside for support or help. This helps a program to be more locally owned and sustainable.  Those in this field are trained to look for potential obstacles and limitations and see how to go around them or to work within them. There is a sense that lives and livelihoods are on the line, this is nothing to play around with and failure carries a high price both for community members and for organizations. This mindset can be really frustrating for for-profit or marketing consultants who come in to get people to do ‘blue sky thinking’ and to forget about limitations.

This is the group that people would describe using that Henry Ford quote:  ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.’ But this kind of thinking does have its place – local context, perceived limitations, and local experience, eg. social memory, are important in design and sustainability and impact. In addition, innovations don’t only happen in terms of ‘products’, there are process, position and paradigm innovations also which happen all the time in non-profit organizations and communities.

(Note: Certainly some will say that in aid work, no one does evaluations, and no one learns and it’s all a waste of time and resources, but that’s not been my personal experience at this point, and the work I’ve been involved in has been community development focused, not top down delivery of services and goods.)

Design Student/Technology Innovator Mindset: What can we make? What can we build that’s like nothing that’s come before? What solutions can we offer?

Innovation thinking pushes for a different kind of visioning. For throwing aside conventions and ignoring limitations so that the chains are completely off. It urges people to move quickly, to try and fail fast and often. A lot of innovation and tech thinking is product focused – What can we make? What can we build? What solution do we have that people might need? What tech can we invent and then let people figure out uses for? Those in this group are trained to move forward without thinking so much about the challenges and limitations, to move at a quick pace, and without engaging a thousand people in the process. This enables new ideas to flourish unfettered by endless rounds of consultations and participation by too many people bringing you to the fabled and unfortunate “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” result.  It allows totally new ideas and processes as well as products to spring up. Lots of trying might equal lots of failing, but it also brings about those few amazing and game changing innovations that allow huge leaps forward. Many within this field are amazingly bright and creative. At this point few have long-term experience living in poor communities in developing countries, and there are few opportunities for gaining enough of that experience.

The middle ground

Both of these mindsets have advantages and limitations and seem to have a very hard time coming to a middle ground to work together effectively, though some initiatives are overcoming this challenge. Potential collaboration can be compromised when people address each other in snarky or accusatory ways, without sufficient knowledge of the other’s work and experience. For example, this series of blog posts around crowdsourcing and humanitarian aid between Patrick Meier (here, here and here) and Paul Currion (here and here). Unfortunately I don’t have a audio recording to post of the conversation where someone told me that Paul is quite well-known for innovations in the field of humanitarian aid and technology, and would be an excellent person to collaborate with on innovations in humanitarian aid — I really hope people like Patrick and Paul will work together, as the results could be fantastic.

Ken Banks has also raised this issue of m(obile) vs d(evelopment); most recently in his post Dissecting m4d: back to basics, where he asks: Do the majority of people working in “mobiles for development” work in mobile, or development? It may seem like an odd question, but how people approach “m4d” may have more of an impact on success or failure than we think.

An example of collaboration

There are some good examples of collaboration however. One I saw most recently is MIT’s Department of Play’s Summer Institute in early August, where a team of incredible innovators and students from MIT working on community youth engagement tools spent 2 days in discussions with folks with years of experience working on child participation and youth engagement, including UNICEFCUNY Children’s Environments Research GroupProject Vision Design and Research Collective at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology Bangalore; and the Program in Education, Afterschool & Resiliency (and me :-D)

I think eventually these gaps will smooth out as the younger generation moves in and up the chain at development organizations and some of the newer technology becomes ubiquitous within organizations. It’s quite possible also that the current and new generations of design and tech students will spend more time ‘in the field’. And I am not only talking about ‘Western’ folks here, I’m also talking about young people and design students from the so-called ‘underdeveloped countries’, many of whom use technology at a dizzying pace and who are already re-shaping how development is viewed and carried out in their countries.

By lowering the fences that we are all working behind, and finding ways to combine our different skills, ICT4D and m4d can come up with even better solutions and achieve better impact in areas like accountability, health, education, livelihood, governance, emergency response and disaster preparedness.  We can build teams that capitalize on the different kinds of knowledge, skills and mindsets. We can harness social memory and strive for a balance between experience and innovation.

Related posts on Wait… What?

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Amateurs, professionals, innovations and smartaid

On trust and disempowerment

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Praia Vermelha, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

I’m on vacation for a week. In Rio de Janeiro. On a supposed social media break. But I’m on-line right now instead of on-thebeach; in stealth mode, secretly reading Tweets and Google Reader over morning coffee while my fellow vacationers sleep on and sun pours in the huge open window in the apartment we’re sharing in Copacabana.

I was supposed to quit social media and email for the week, but I’m at that point where I question whether I really wanted to go offline at all, and why…. being addicted to Twitter isn’t really a bad thing, is it? If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking or go on a diet and failed, you’ve been here.

I’m sneaking peaks, but not conversing and sharing. Pretending I’m not online, because supposedly I need a social media break (and because being addicted is somewhat embarrassing). But the truth is that my vacation is awesome and I enjoy being online, probably similar to how some people enjoy reading the Sunday paper.

Some highlights I discovered and didn’t share during last week’s feigned Twitter hiatus…

Aid and development

Loved @lrakoto’s great piece on some of the current big dilemmas/discussions in aid…. Aid is about the people, right?

Read @morealtitude’s intense and harrowing World Humanitarian Day series part 1part 2, and part 3. Wow. Watched OCHA’s beautifully done world humanitarian day video (and couldn’t help but wonder how much it cost to make it). Felt sad that humanitarian aid needs so much marketing lately to be seen as good. Went back and forth as usual, reading this week’s pros and cons of how humanitarian/international aid work needs a total overhaul and how it’s vital work in many places.

Saw Pakistan continue to get less attention than Haiti even as the situation gets worse and worse. Read an interesting piece from a colleague on how women and girls and culture are being impacted by the floods. Saw another colleague, @warisara, (experienced communicator who worked on the ground during the Asian tsunami and who’s now arrived to Pakistan) questioning why aid organizations have to keep showing graphic, horrifying visual images in order to draw any attention to a crisis, and wondering if each disaster has to be worse than the last in order to get the public to care. What an unfortunate dilemma — how to avoid undignified, disrespectful images and still manage to raise any funds.

Saw a sad exchange after my employer posted an appeal for Pakistan… Someone argued that we should not help Pakistanis because ‘they wish to see us dead’. They based their reasoning on ‘Christian principles’. What was heartening at least were all the other comments arguing against that view, arguing for helping Pakistan after the devastating floods, and seeing past religions and hatred and fundamentalist behavior.

Was flattered to get listed in the Activist Writer’s top 10 blogs along with aid bloggers I really admire. Discovered @aaronausland’s blog Staying for Tea.

ICT4D and m4D

Enjoyed the debate started by @Kiwanja on the need for an active mobile community for addressing fundamental, deep questions and thinking, and bridging the gap between development folks and technology folks. (Something I encounter and write about often, such as here and here). Liked this Venn Diagram on the intersection of m4D, apps4D and ICT4D.

Noticed that @mambenanje got himself a copy of an article about him in Brussels Airlines in-flight mag (also incuded Erik Hersman, Ethan Zuckerman). Remembered how cool it was being on that flight to Kenya, opening up the in-flight magazine, and seeing names of people I know.

Saw that @wayan_vota has a beautiful new baby girl.  And that miraculously he’s been able to re-follow me on Twitter after months of his account auto-unfollowing me time and time again (though he’s explained it also happens when he tries to follow @billeasterly…. weird – and really not sure what I have in common with the esteemed Professor that makes Wayan’s account consistently unfollow us both….).

Pakistan and the ‘Ground Zero mosque’

Due to my self-imposed Twitter ban and bet with @ernstsuur that I could really stay off Twitter for a week, I reverted to posting on Facebook and managed to upset the good folks back home in the heartland (Indiana) when I posted a link about the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’. Normally I don’t post political stuff on FB because of the variety of people that I’m connected to there — it’s hard to not offend at least someone. Facebook has become everything and nothing, pretty much.  I also re-posted an article on the ‘mosque’ and elitism (and thought it would be pretty fun to see Palin and @talesfromthhood debating elitism) and a link to the Daily Show giving it to Fox News. This provoked pretty emotional and strong comments (see below) from someone I was very good friends with in high school, but who’s gone down quite a different path than I have… eg, the military:

“So lets encourage all of our moderate Muslim friends to fulfill their religious duty. If they beleive (sic) that the extremist versions of Jihad and Sharia are incongruent with the teachings of Mohammed, then it is their responsibility to wage Jihad (lets let them pick the definition) against the extremists. When have created a predominantly tolerant Islam, I will finance a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia and will bless the establishment of a mosque anywhere in the U.S.

Until then, me and others like me will continue to spread AND DEFEND the basic rights that everyone in America, including the Muslim Americans who want to build this Mosque, enjoy. I invite all do-gooders everywhere to stand shoulder to should with me and my Soldiers in those countries where Muslims are not tolerant under Sharia……Saudi Arabi, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria (Muslim areas), Egypt, Buhrain, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Algeria, Mauritania, Somalia, etc., etc. “

Rather than get into a debate, I went with that whole “let’s agree to disagree” thing.  But seriously.  I can’t wait to get back to Twitter.

Pao de Azucar, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Rio de Janeiro

Luckily I’m not actually spending all my time in front of my computer. I’m mixing in a lot of other good stuff, like deep philosophical conversations with my 18 year old son, capoeira with him at Grupo Capoeira Senzala Cultural Center in Bairro Botafogo, naps, beach, pictures from the top of Pao de Azucar, and late night samba and caipirinhas at Rio Scenarium and other great places with good friends, old and new….

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What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9

In my last post (Orgasmatron Moments) I compared re-hashed development and aid work ideas to re-makes of songs, lamenting that often people don’t realize that their favorite new innovation is more like a cover of an old idea.

Dave Algoso at Find What Works commented:

So my question is: Linda, what’s next?! … What principles of good development are already being implemented by smart groups, but are still unnoticed by the academics and other commentators? To continue the music analogy, if you’re the fan who liked the hip new band before they were big — what are you listening to now?

Hmm. A tricky question if you ask me. There are a lot of people who write and blog about development trends and who know a lot more about this than I do, (Owen Barder, for example) but I’ll take a stab at some things that I’m hearing about, working on, discussing and/or seeing nowadays.

The fact that I can link to most of these ideas means that they are not going unnoticed. Or maybe the development blogosphere is akin to the underground music scene.  In any case, none of these are totally new. There is nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don’t know. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911).

Some mash-ups/re-mixes that together create a new, interesting and good sound to my ears:

Cynefin, aid, development. I first heard about Cynefin when reading @morealtitude’s post ‘Embracing the chaotic: Cynefin and humanitarian response‘. Cynefin draws the world’s systems into four paradigms:  Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic. Each paradigm has its own characteristics, and systems can shift from one paradigm to another. Not new, as the concept is at least 10 years old… but I love the connection between these paradigms, development/humanitarian aid work, and the way that organizations market themselves. A good resource on complexity theories in aid and development is Aid on the Edge.

Social media and ICTs to broaden participation. I’m digging the use of social media and ICT tools to bring marginalized voices into discussions about development, aid, governance, accountability, corporate abuses and other related areas, and to get broader input from ‘beneficiaries’ on approaches, ideas and initiatives. I’m liking how they are being used to simplify information and expand the number of people with access to information that was hidden or inaccessible before. (Update: This cool effort to geo-code aid data could make a lot of foreign aid project funding data more available.)

Not a new concept, as people have been ‘popularizing’ and sharing information for ages (think town criers, jesters, printing press, cartoons or ‘child friendly’ versions of legal documents) but social media and ICTs continue along this path. Issues of accessibility, language, gender, literacy, electricity, and disability need to be overcome, but things are moving forward, and organizations are more and more thinking about how to use ICTs for these purposes. This makes aid transparency, budget transparency come alive, and it becomes easier to see who is doing what where and who is spending what where and who is funding what. Kind of like that cool website Source Watch where you can type in a name (eg., the name of the guy who did that research saying that climate change doesn’t exist) and find out who he works for and who pays his salary is spreading to new areas and new levels.

Crowdsourcing/crowdfeeding in humanitarian and development work. Linked to the above, I’m increasingly interested in approaches that combine broad and quick information gathering with good quality information gathering, are based on experiences in past emergencies or development initiatives, that find ways to speed up information processing and response, and that improve on quality. Those efforts that consider proper management of expectations and privacy; child and witness protection, and that do not create parallel systems score extra points. Use of these technologies internally in organizations and among/across organizations, and with /by affected populations all fall into this category, which is closely linked with the one above. Check out this cool presentation on interaction design and crowdsourcing or this brilliant piece on Social Media and Humanitarian Response.

Online + offline combos. Not everyone is online, and not every context is the same. I’m really interested in approaches that use a variety of communication tools and methods to reach their goals and that are flexible and seamless across the initiative.  Looking at how to better connect knowledge and information from the local level to the global level and back again, and to link horizontally is key. I’m a fan of initiatives that are goal, results, impact driven, but that also consider good process and take local context into great consideration. I like initiatives that are not technology driven, but where technology is incorporated strategically if and when and where it actually adds value.  An example of this is where hand drawn maps and digital maps work together in participatory mapping to meet the needs of different groups.

Data and information collection and sharing by mobiles. Data collection – not new. But use of low cost mobile phones and data decentralization to district and community levels is a relatively new phenomenon. When data is owned more closely to the source, it seems more likely that people will care more about data validity and that the data will become information that they can use to manage their own processes and their own development. This is happening in many areas, from health to education to financial transactions a la mPesa and mKesho, to civil registration (eg, birth certificates) to government budgets to emergencies.

Expanding innovation. ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance) talks about the 4 Ps model (pages 3 and 4 of this really relevant .pdf file) of innovation in humanitarian aid, and expands on the typical thinking that ‘innovation’ means ‘creating a new thing/product’.  ‘Innovations can be directed towards improvements or new developments of four aspects: (i) products, such as improved cooking stoves or food products to counter malnutrition; (ii) processes, such as methods for stockpiling goods, improved coordination, or improving learning and quality assurance; (iii) the position of an organisation and its work in relation to key stakeholders, for example by changing an organisation’s public profile or by changing attitudes to an area of work such as shelter; (iv) paradigms or combined attitudes and beliefs determining the fundamental approach to humanitarian work, such as the calls for paradigm shifts in humanitarian business models towards beneficiary participation, local ownership and capacity development. Exploring these ideas in the context of humanitarian work gives a new way of understanding and harnessing organisations’ creative potential.’ Yeah. I guess Marketers have their own 4Ps, (product, price, place, promotion) and marketing innovators have theirs (population, penetration, price, purchase frequency), so having 4 P’s is not new, just maybe it’s new when thinking about innovation in humanitarian aid.

Questioning capitalism’s influence on aid and development. By that I mean looking more closely at things like Corporate Social Responsibility (sometime I think that term is an oxymoron — check this animated video version of Slavoj Zizek’s Marxist reading of charity). Questioning capitalism is not new. (Hello Marx). But it’s still relevant to pick apart capitalism and to wonder if things will ever change if we keep pushing the same system with all its flaws and inherent inequities.  Questioning CSR includes thinking critically about ‘philanthrocapitalism’ in the sense of 1) the application of business models/ approaches to aid and 2) doing things to benefit the poor at a profit.

Related to that, thinking critically about cause-based marketing and its link to consumerism and the destruction of the planet and having clear program-driven policies on if, when and how to engage volunteers, take gifts in kind, and work with corporations and other funding bodies; and having mechanisms in place to ensure before accepting them that the above are actually necessary and contribute to program goals and actually benefit communities in the long run. Then again, a lot of people are on the trade-not-aid kick (thanks to Dambisa Moyo) and the two sides are a bit at odds with each other. It’s a battle of the bands that I’m still not ready to vote on yet. Can someone please come up with a new political and economic system that is fair and works?

Along these lines is questioning models of social entrepreneurship, social innovations, innovation contests, and design for the BOP, design for the ‘third world’ and other similar initiatives. There is a great article that opens a lot of questions around that model and a cool initiative called “Design for the First World.” Not to mention the Bruce Nussbaum et al. debate around ‘Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?

Transmedia activism. I first heard about Transmedia Activism from Lina Srivastava (@lksriv) and I still don’t fully understand it, but then Lina is way smarter than I am, so that could be why.  I quote: ‘Transmedia Activism is a framework that creates social impact by using storytelling by a number of decentralized authors who share assets and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media to raise awareness and influence action.’ Again, not new is the concept of transmedia storytelling, used in marketing and product sales for quite some time, but it’s only recently that it’s being applied and used in advocacy work and non-profit causes.

Organizing your workers with the times. Rather than top-down, super structured, cubicle-based working environments, some offices are (and IMHO, all should be) looking at management styles that encourage innovation, collaboration and global teamwork.  Time Magazine, a  mainstream news source, talks about “global teams that use social media and collaborative decision-making that might involve team members scattered around the world, from Beijing to Barcelona to Boston, whom the nominal leader of a given project may never have met in person…. By 2019, every leader will have to be culturally dexterous on a global scale.”  If you ask me, not enough INGOs are paying attention to this and are still embracing old-fashioned structures and work environments. (Update: Google is known for stimulating innovation, and Netflix also seems to be doing this well.) (Update #2: Recommend subscribing to the Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog. Love this post – now, can I just get the organization where I work to see the light?)

Global warming and climate change. Whether because of the global meetings (COP15), because of the increase in disasters, because a younger generation is entering the workforce, or because we are finally realizing that it is for real, there are more programs dealing with climate change and its effects, especially looking at the differential impacts on women and children. Organizations are starting to think more about how they themselves contribute to climate change. Again, this is not a new thing, but it’s coming into vogue again. It makes us think about consumer based advocacy and cause based marketing, travel and carbon footprints, and starts asking why people are still coming up with ‘send your old crap to Africa’ schemes rather than working on changing consumer-based cultures in their own territories to stop buying so much stuff and producing so much waste.

Continuum between emergency and development. The gap between what is an emergency/humanitarian program and what is a development program continues to close up a bit more as organizations realize the importance of community ownership and engagement as soon as possible after a disaster. Again, not new. This was signaled as early as the 90s with the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct, but it’s taken awhile for it to hit home. The dangers of too much doing by external agencies and the damage it can cause to longer term development are coming more to the forefront and entering mainstream conversations a bit more. Here’s one blog post and related discussions that sort of gets at what I mean…. I’m sure there are many other discussions happening in the humanitarian world that I’m not currently participating in.

Some ideas I’ve been listening to a bit less/conversations I’m not very engaged in and (in keeping with our metaphor of music) where I’m trying to figure out if I want to buy the album:

RCTs: There is quite a lot of debate around RCTs (Randomized Controlled Trials) and the importance of evaluation. This is one of AidWatch’s favorite topics, and there’s a lot of debate every time they do a post on it. Here’s one such post by Alanna Shaikh.

Cash transfers… conditional or un-conditional, universal or targeted. Not new. Lots of agencies have done cash transfers in the past. Sponsorship agencies for example used to do only that, but they moved over to community based development in the 1970 and 80s. I’m trying to find some information on why, but haven’t been successful yet. Also trying to figure out what exactly is new about the current cash transfer model, and what makes it work better than the old sponsorship line-up-to-collect-your-$20 models. There’s more information on cash transfers here.  If anyone has concrete information from back in the day on why sponsorship organizations made this change in how they work, it would be much appreciated. I plan to do some more homework on this when I have time, as I do agree with giving people more control over the ‘aid’ and ‘development’ that is coming their way, but there must be a reason that organizations stopped giving out cash, and I’d hope some studies on that decision and its impact on ‘beneficiaries’ for better or worse.

Cash on Delivery aid is being discussed quite a bit. I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion one way or another, but you can check out the Center for Global Development’s site. As I was in the middle of composing this post, Amanda Makulec commented on my last post, saying: In some ways, CGD’s Cash on Delivery Aid idea isn’t entirely new either (and I’m not the first to call them out on this), though it’s gotten a lot of press from everyone from DfID to Nick Kristof who have heralded it as a “new” way of doing development. Programs in Haiti, Rwanda, and other countries have relied on the idea of making either financial incentives or even specific percentages of an annual budget contingent on meeting specific service delivery targets. I’d have to go back into old files from my grad school internship for specifics, but, for example, in a past program in Haiti funded by USAID, NGOs received funding to accomplish certain program outcomes (vaccinate X children, for example). By meeting their targets, the NGOs ensured they received continued funding.

The CGD proposal does, however, advocate for taking the principles behind performance-based financing (or results-based financing, if you work for Abt or the World Bank), and applying those ideas to how governments spend aid dollars. So perhaps it could be held up as a good example of a new way to apply an existing idea, elevating it from a program to a policy.

So, time will tell which of the song categories each of these development trends will fall into…. and there are certainly many more trends. Feel free to add your own in the comments section or challenge the ones I mentioned above… But maybe more fun than that, what do you think? Which of the ideas above or the new ideas you’re seeing will fall into which of the categories below?

  • Instant Classic –good enough to get played on the Classic station even when it’s only been out for a year
  • Alternative – but eventually you’ll hear it at the dentist office, or feel obliged to comment when you see the next generation be-bopping to it at wedding receptions because it used to be so provocative
  • Underground – edgy and radical, still waiting for pop stars to water it down or to cover it when the time is right for it to go mainstream
  • One Hit Wonder – great idea, doesn’t last past evaluation stage or burns out
  • Child Star — forced to mature before its time by too much media attention and too much donor money
  • Pay to Play –not necessarily bad, but forced on everyone because it’s backed by big corporations/ donors and crowds out the other ideas that have less financial backing
  • We are the World – feel-good idea that most people buy into that is actually bad development / bad aid and a waste of everyone’s time
  • Next  Bono  – seemed pretty cool at first, but overrated

PS: thanks to everyone who contributed directly or indirectly to this post for constantly challenging my thinking and taking it to new levels.

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Orgasmatron Moments

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I taught English in El Salvador when I was 24. A few of the students liked to talk with me about music. One day they wanted me to hear ‘this great song by Sepultura’, and I was like ‘Cool! That’s Orgasmatron!‘ and mentioned that I knew the Motorhead version. I don’t know what shocked them more: that I knew that particular song, or that their Sepultura version wasn’t the original.

I find myself having my fair share of those moments these days. I’m happy when good ideas in development and aid work are taken up, and especially happy when they are improved on (though I have to say that I like Motorhead’s version better than Sepultura’s). But it kinda bugs me when people talk about those ideas as if they are brand spanking new when they’ve actually been around for awhile. It seems like people should do some research, to at least know what came before.

What are some examples of 2010 re-makes?

Bottom up development

I find it weird that we are still discussing ‘bottom up’ development as a new or innovative thing in the year 2010 when it’s clearly been around for a really long time.

I started in development in 1994 in El Salvador. Most of the work that local NGOs were doing at that time was focused on helping grassroots groups and communities organize and manage their own development. A lot of time was spent in communities with community organizations. But this concept wasn’t born in the 1990s. It was grounded in Liberation Theology and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Liberation Theology emerged in the 1960s ‘as a result of a systematic, disciplined reflection on Christian faith and its implications’ as the Catholic church in Latin America was reflecting on itself and its relationship with the poor. Those who formulated the concept worked closely in communities with the poor and saw the social and economic injustice begun by colonization and continued through those in power both in governments and within the church. Liberation theology re-interpreted the scripture in a way that affirmed the dignity and self worth of the poor and their right to struggle for a dignified life. ‘Liberation theology strove to be a bottom-up movement in practice, with Biblical interpretation and liturgical practice designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by the orthodox Church hierarchy.’  Check here and here for good links on Liberation Theology.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Brazilian Paolo Freire, based on his experiences working on literacy with poor communities developed his Pedagogy of the Oppressed all the way back in 1968, around the same time that Liberation Theology was emerging. Freire’s philosophy has been heavily drawn from and applied to development. Especially pertinent is the concept of dialogics an instrument to free the colonized, through the use of cooperation, unity, organization and cultural synthesis (overcoming problems in society to liberate human beings). This is in contrast to antidialogics which use conquest, manipulation, cultural invasion, and the concept of divide and rule’. Freire’s ‘emphasis on dialogue struck a very strong chord with those concerned with popular and informal education…. However, Paulo Freire was able to take the discussion on several steps with his insistence that dialogue involves respect. It should not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. For more on Freire (I certainly did not do him justice) check here and here.

These 2 philosophies closely mirrored ideas that arose during the Civil Rights Movement in the US. There’s a brilliant book called “We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change” where Paulo Freire and Myles Horton (who started the Highlander Folk School in 1932 and influenced Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) discuss the similarities between their philosophies.

Public policy and advocacy

Fast forward to 1996, where we get a new director at the organization where I’m working, a Brazilian. He simply won’t stop talking about ‘civil society’ and ‘public policies’.  ‘There will be no sustainable changes if we don’t have an impact on the level of policies and their implementation. How does this program idea impact on public policies? How is civil society involved in holding the government accountable? Where is the budget for Peace Accords implementation going?’ Changing systems, transparency, political participation by those formerly excluded, and moving away from hand outs and emergency type programs were key in the vision of how the country would improve.

Working with local partners

To that aim, we funded different local organizations that raised awareness in rights holders on their rights and that advocated for the implementation of the 1992 Peace Accords. We worked with an association of women who were demanding that the alimony laws be operationalized, ex-combatants groups from both sides of the conflict who were not getting the benefits promised them in the Peace Accords, sex workers who were being harassed and abused by police, civic education, environmental organizations who worked with local communities on issues such as deforestation, water and land rights, etc. We also met and discussed a lot with other international organizations, and many of them were doing similar kinds of work.

Local management of the development process

I was pretty much ineligible for any advancement in the organization because the director’s mandate was to nationalize and hand over the program, now that the civil war and the ‘state of emergency’ were over. Local organizations now had more political space to work without the protection of international organizations. The idea was to strengthen capacities of all local staff, to move over to a national board of directors and to nationalize the organization. At the same time, the thought was to build the administrative capacity of local organizations so that they could function transparently with full accountability.

Participatory design/participatory development

I moved to a different organization in 1998, and one of my first tasks was to help write the organization’s strategic plan. The first step in developing that plan was community consultation. Staff (all of them local by the way) facilitated a consultation process with people  in the 400+ communities where we worked. In addition, they met and consulted with community based organizations, local NGOs, local governments, national level ministries as well as other international organizations, to learn of their plans and to avoid duplication of efforts.

The community consultations were done using PRA (aka ‘participation, reflection, action’) methodologies. Many of the tools staff used were developed and written about by Robert Chambers. Check here for a great overview of PRA or these 2003 notes on PRA since 1998.  PRA traces many of its roots back to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and looks to make communities the real owners of the development process. Any externals involved act as facilitators of a process (not drivers of the discussion) who ‘hand over the stick’ to local people as often as possible so that they fully manage their own processes. Chambers warns against ‘fascipulation’ – facilitation + manipulation, and surface PRA, saying the main ingredient in PRA is having real respect for local knowledge and local people. Some reading suggestions here.

(Side note to get an idea of how awesome Chambers is. I went to a workshop with him once and he walked in barefoot, pants rolled up, hair askew. He stood in front of us holding a map. It was upside down. Someone raised their hand to tell him it was upside down. He looked down at it and said ‘it looks fine from my perspective’. Then he went into a whole discussion about perspective. As part of that discussion, he started talking about computers and network thinking and how birds fly in flocks. This guy is some kind of genius.)

Community managed projects

Following the strategic consultations, staff worked with communities to design, plan and carry out their own projects, which were also administered by the community once they had gone through project administration training and had opened their community bank account to receive deposits.

Orgasmatron moments

Thinking about sustainability and working with local communities is really not a new concept, nor is the idea of working yourself out of a job if you work in development. The buzz words of transparency and accountability have also been around for awhile. Participatory design is not new either.

I don’t know. Maybe the organizations I’ve worked with in the 1990s and up to now are just amazingly progressive. Or maybe I’m missing something and when people use the terms above they are talking about something different and much more advanced and innovative than what I’m talking about.  I mean, the White Stripes first album was a total Doors/Zeppelin rip off, but they did go on to develop their own sound as they matured, and their third album was brilliant.  Snoop’s Upside Ya Head is obviously drawing on the Gap Band’s Ooops Upside Ya Head, but both versions are excellent. I do actually like a lot of the re-makes that are out there and there are also some really good new concepts and ideas and some great people and organizations that I learn from on a regular basis.

However, Green Day are not the ‘godfathers of punk rock’ (sign the petition here and help settle that issue once and for all) – How could they be if they came out in the late 80s and punk started in the early 70s? And I keep having Orgasmatron Moments when I see people gushing over an NGO that hires local staff (no brainer) or has a child protection policy (implementing ours since 2003) or consults with communities (why wouldn’t you consult with local communities?).

I suppose, like with my students in El Salvador, it kind of sucks when you realize your idea or your version isn’t the original. But you can be annoyed or bummed out or remain in denial, or you can go back and do some research, and see what you can learn from the original and try to improve on it. With music, knowing about the original song (even if it’s horrible and the new version is much much better), usually scores you some points for legitimacy.

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mGESA mobile mapping application

I wrote about a mobile mapping tool called mGEOS a few months ago, mentioning that I’d probably get a chance to try it myself in late July. Well that is just what happened.

I was at a workshop on ICT4D, including digital mapping, in Kwale, Kenya, and Peter Njuguna from Plan Kilifi’s District office came to share mGESA (aka Mobile Geographical Services for Africa) with us.

As far as I can tell, the difference between mGEOS and mGESA is that mGESA is a tailored application of mGEOS, designed together with Plan’s community based front-line staff for their specific information collecting and geo-visualization needs in Kenya.

Update: mGESA was the name for the pilot project. The final application is called PoiMapper (see www.pajatman.com). You can give it a try by downloading it and installing it on your mobile!

According to Njuguna, “the application is designed to run on simple mobile phones that have GPS capability and on which you can run applications.” It’s installed on the phone in the picture (update: the phone is a Nokia 6700 classic).

Njuguna explained “In Kilifi, we diverted from the route of going for applications that are there on the shelf or buying an application over the counter. We went the route of developing an application from scratch. We are working with various partners. We have Plan in Finland, we have Plan in Kenya, we have the University of Nairobi and we have the company Pajat in Finland. Plan Kilifi is the implementing office. So that is where we are coming from.”

The project has been on-going for 7 months. The first thing to define, according to Njuguna, was “Why do we need mapping? Why do we need GIS in the first place? Well, we need GIS to enhance the work we are doing and to try to answer some of the questions we are asking on a day to day basis. So that’s why we wanted to incorporate GIS into our work. Everything we’ve developed is towards helping us answer questions and make decisions in our program and sponsorship work. We wanted to build something that would suit our needs.”

The end users of mGESA are front-line staff in Plan Kilifi District office, and eventually in all of Plan Kenya’s district offices. “Kilifi front-line staff have all been involved in developing the application. The first step was developing a list of points of interest, for example, schools, hospitals and health centers, interest groups, water sources, trading centers, and the like; and outlining the kind of information that staff regularly collect about the points of interest for use in their work.

mGESA points of interest

“Developing the points of interest was a challenge,” said Njuguna. “It might look like we just sat down and listed them. But it has been a process. We had to go over and over it. We had to be sure the questions made sense, that the questions that we were asking were the right ones and made sense to people in the field.”

mGESA was tested in the field for the first time in mid-July. Njuguna and the team are hoping to kick off in another 3-4 weeks and start collecting the actual data. When the points are mapped out using the mobile application, then they are uploaded to a server that links with Google (or other) maps. The team is exploring the possibility of getting Kenya maps with administrative boundaries to use as the mapping platform. The data collected in mGESA can be exported into excel and .pdf files.

Peter let me try out mGESA while we were doing some GPS mapping in Kinango. He was using the opportunity to test accuracy, and whether mGESA was pulling in the same coordinates as the Garmin GPS units that we were using (it was). I found the data collection process to be quite simple. You basically arrive to your point of interest, take the point on the phone, and scroll through a menu to select pre-existing information (such as name of the district, type of point, etc.) or fill it in yourself. You can take a photo of the POI if your phone has photo capabilities (which most GPS enabled phones should have). I didn’t get a chance to upload data to the server or the web to see how easy that process is.

Peter Njuguna, ICT coordinator at Plan's Kilifi District Office

The group at the workshop had just been trained on several ICT different tools, so they had a lot of questions about mGESA for Njuguna:

What phones does it work on?
Any phone with GPS and capability to download an application will work.

Does it use up your airtime?

mGESA will work on the phone even without any airtime, but during testing, it seemed to work faster with about 10 shillings of credit (equivalent to about $.13).

Is mGESA free?

No. The application is in development and will eventually end up on the commercial market, via Pajat Management in Finland.

Can the application produce a base map or only points?

It can map points of interest only.  Later on it should be able to map out lines (roads) and areas.

mGESA data points on the web interface

Where do the points of interest go?

The points of interest that are collected on the phone are downloaded via a USB cable onto a computer, in the same way that you would download photographs from a camera. Then the points are uploaded to the on-line platform, and also then they will be visible on top of a Google map or other kind of map.

Is mGESA compatible with Open Street Maps?

Now that we know about OSM, this is something we shall look into, as it could be quite useful.

Will the information that you collect be public or private?

At this point the information will be closed, because the application is still in development.  Also for privacy reasons, some information will be shared and other information not shared. For example, if we are collecting personal information on individuals, or data that could put someone at risk, this will not be shared on the map.

What types of uses will the application be suitable for?

Plan can use mGESA when determining plans for phasing out of one area and moving into another area, for example. Instead of collecting data and indicators on paper, staff and managers can see this information on a map and the information that is collected can help us to know where to work.  Having the points of interest mapped out and linked with development information, and being able to select out different information layers on the map (on the internet) should make these decisions easier and more sound.

Will communities be involved and able to use mGESA for their own purposes?

Yes, communities will be able to use the information collected to make their own decisions. Communities can also purchase mGESA for their own use. We might also say to them, come and bring your phone and we will install this application so that you can use it for your own purposes.

Why are you developing a software from scratch and that costs money to the end user if there are existing tools available?

We know that GPS gadgets are expensive and so we thought – why not look into a mobile option. We also had very specific ideas and needs, and we had people willing to develop the idea from scratch. It’s a customized application based on our existing information needs and systems, and we can collect it by mobile rather than trying to find and purchase GPS units here in Kenya.

Update: see this post on Mobile Active for more information on the continued piloting of PoiMapper.

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I had a doctor’s appointment a couple months ago, and my doctor asked me if it was OK for a student to do the prep work, you know, the usual: height, weight, temperature, blood pressure, the like. I said sure.

What I didn’t expect though, was that the student intern was going to read through a list of health questions to try to find out if I was menopausal. Nothing against menopause – it’s a natural thing and I think some women even look forward to it. But I just turned 42, and no, I’m not having hot flashes quite yet.

I suppose it’s some kind of mandatory thing to ask a woman who is in her 40s a series of questions like that. And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have minded if it had been my doctor asking me. I’ve been seeing her for years now, she knows me, and she knows how to ask questions in the right way. I trust her.

But sitting up on an examination table in a sterile room, clothes off save for an oversized paper gown that keeps falling off my shoulder, with a 20-something I’ve never met sitting in front of me asking if I’m incontinent, suffer from bouts of depression, and have loss of libido was a bit off putting.

It made me want to lie to her. To not reveal any sign of potential menopausal weakness. To tell her that I never feel fatigued. That I never, ever forget anything, and that I am never ever ever distracted or unfocused. I secretly shunned all her suggestions. Calcium? nope, not taking it. Multi vitamins, pah, I feel fine. Let’s get this interview over with STAT.

It felt disempowering to have this young woman, who I don’t know and haven’t developed any trust in, asking me very personal questions about myself and my life and offering scripted solutions to something she imagined I might have, and that she’d obviously never experienced herself.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about it off and on, and related life stories come to mind.

—–

Julia*, someone I was very close to in my Barrio in El Salvador (where I lived for most of the 90s) had a long history of domestic abuse. She would talk to me about it all the time – she still lived with the man, who had tapered off a bit as he got older but who was still not entirely pleasant to her. She would get depressed sometimes and talk about leaving, but she never did. As I got to know her better, I realized my role in the relationship was not trying to find solutions, or criticizing the man, or feeling enraged. It was listening and not judging. An older woman, with a small pension. Where would she go? She believed that she would be seen by the neighbors as weak, and that people would lose respect for her. She really didn’t have a lot of options. So she’d tell me and I’d listen, and that was enough. I’d tell her my work troubles too, and she’d listen, and that was also enough for me. I realize as I write this how much I miss her.

About 15 years ago at work, while still in El Salvador, I was responsible for overseeing a study on gender violence that a partner organization was carrying out and that we were funding. It was going to be a door-to-door survey mixed with some focus group discussions. I immediately thought of Julia; of all the women in the Barrio. I thought ‘Julia would never tell anyone the truth if they came knocking on her door to interview her about domestic violence.’ She would say no, that doesn’t happen here, and close the door until they went away. I doubt any of the other women in the Barrio would have acted any differently.

I felt pretty sure that the information that was produced in that study on domestic violence was not going to be valid, even though it was being managed by a group of well-known, well-educated Salvadoran feminists.  But I felt like I couldn’t say anything, because I wasn’t a well known local feminist. And after all, they’d often imply, what did I know about El Salvador? I was a foreigner. What I did feel certain about was that no one in the Barrios where they wanted to do their study was going to tell them the truth.

—–

And somehow related to that, I started thinking about the time I went to the doctor’s office with my mother-in-law, a brilliant, strong and upright woman from the Barrio, with a 6th grade education, who would be considered ‘impoverished’ by most standards. I remember vividly a young male doctor who addressed her using the familiar form of ‘you’ (vos) instead of using the respectful form of ‘you’ (Usted). I remember being furious. I don’t even use vos with my mother-in-law, out of respect. What was this young, wealthy doctor doing using it? I hated seeing her stripped of her well-earned Barrio respect once she entered the doctor’s office, just because she was poor.

—–

What am I trying to say here? I’m not entirely sure, but I guess I’m thinking about respect and the hierarchies of information and education and offices, and the importance of developing a rapport with people before you go prying around in their personal lives and offering solutions.

I’m relating that to ‘aid’ and ‘development’ work, which in my world, is an intensely personal thing. I try to work from the heart, and I hope I’m never making people feel belittled, judged, or like they need to lie to me or conceal things from me because I haven’t taken the time to get to know them. I hope I’m not disrespecting anyone, knowingly or unknowingly, and that I’m not messing around in things that are none of my business or where I haven’t got an invitation. I hope I’m not always trying to offer solutions, but rather listening and supporting people to come to their own conclusions. I hope I don’t make people feel like they are sitting, half naked on an examination table, while someone who knows nothing about them or their life politely asks them some standard questions and comes up with some generic recommendations for how to prevent or cure something they may or may not have or may not think is an illness.

*Not her real name

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