Dave Algoso, a grad student at NYU, just published a great post called A Grad Student’s Guide to the International Development Blogosphere wherein he explains why grad students should be reading blogs. It struck me that many of the reasons he recommends students read blogs are similar to why I recommend that you, my dear colleagues and friends who are development or aid practitioners or who sit in headquarters or fundraising or regional offices, or who make policy decisions, read blogs.
I’m a bit hesitant to share these tips because then you will realize that I’m not really all that smart, I just read a lot of blogs and discuss them a lot on Twitter…. On the other hand, I’m fairly confident that no matter how much I recommend blogs and Twitter, most of you will say you don’t have time, and I’ll still come out looking like a genius for knowing what’s going to hit the New York Times 2-3 days ahead of when you read it and forward it to me asking me if I’ve seen it!
You can read Dave’s post here and I encourage you to do so – so that he will get additional hits to his site and because he deserves the credit for writing the original post.
Below, I’ve taken Dave’s post (note: with permission) and substituted “development and aid workers” for “grad student” and switched it up just a bit to make it fit that context.
Here’s Dave’s post with my changes in italics:
Several friends have recently asked me which blogs I read and how I manage my reading. This post is targeted at my fellow aid and development practitioners, but those of you who work on policy, advocacy, customer service, grant writing and technical support, communications, marketing, and anyone who wants to know what’s happening in aid and development should find it useful as well. Let’s start with why to read blogs, then move on to the how, and finally the what.
1. Why should I read blogs? I do plenty of reading for work already…
I’m a fan of reading blogs. No big surprise there. Reading blogs should be part of how you get smart about your field. You read the news, right? New York Times or the Economist or People Magazine (you know who you are!) or whatever? Well newspapers write for general audiences. They won’t get very far into the complexity and nuance. You read a bunch of internal reports for work too? Well most reports are written for donors. They generally won’t tell you about what the theories and the practical work have to do with the larger picture of development. They also won’t critique the way you do business or offer you a cross cutting picture of where development and aid are headed across sectors and across organizations.
Blogs cover many of the same issues as both newspapers and journals and project reports, but with an eye toward what they mean for practitioners and policy makers. You’ll get stories from the field, scathing critiques of the latest development fads, and heated debates on everything from microfinance to conflict minerals. The blogosphere is the one place where geography is no barrier to the conversation. Academics, journalists, donors, Washington think tank-ers, UN or NGO staff — they all bounce ideas around here.
For a development worker, blogs also provide a check on what the experts, your bosses, top government officials, donors, advocates, marketers, policy-makers and celebrity spokespersons say. You’ll find out pretty quickly which issues are actually top-of-mind for practitioners and which issues only matter to the Ivory Tower types, those sitting in offices making policies, and those making things up. And if work, work meetings, conferences and discussions around the water cooler don’t allow you to delve far enough into an issue you care about, blogs can make up for that.
2. Blogs can be overwhelming. How do I manage the information flow?
First and foremost: You do not need to visit every blog’s website to check for new posts. In fact, you shouldn’t. You can subscribe by email if you like (most blogs have a button on the right hand side where you can subscribe by email) but even that can be overwhelming as blog posts mix with your normal emails.
There’s an easier way to read blogs. Instead of subscribing by email, you subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed. RSS means “really simple syndication.” You just subscribe to the RSS feed using a feed aggregator, and you’ll get all of your blogs in one place.
Some email programs (e.g. Outlook) can act as feed aggregators. I prefer to use Google Reader; if you have a Google Mail account, then you already have a Google Reader account. If you are on the road someplace with spotty internet connections, you can use a free program called FeedDemon; it’s a little clunkier than Google Reader, but it can download posts for viewing when you’re offline. On your iPhone, you can use another free program called MobileRSS. Both FeedDemon and MobileRSS sync with Google Reader, so your RSS subscriptions or starred items will always be the same in all three. (There are also many other options for feed aggregators.)
Once you have a feed aggregator, start subscribing. Most sites with feeds will have a link that looks like this orange square. Click on it to subscribe. Often you can just type the site’s URL into the feed aggregator, and it will figure out the rest.
The practical upshot of this feed aggregator stuff is that you can go to one place and see all of the new posts from all the blogs you follow. You can also “follow” your normal news (more on this below). This keeps you from being overwhelmed, so you’re more likely to keep up with them.
3. Okay, I’m sold. What should I be reading?
In my opinion, there are seven must-read blogs for any one working in the field of aid and development.
- Aid Watch (Bill Easterly and company)
- Chris Blattman
- From Poverty to Power (Duncan Green)
- Good Intentions Are Not Enough (Saundra Schimmelpfennig)
- Owen Abroad (Owen Barder)
- Tales From the Hood (anonymous)
- Find What Works (Dave Algoso’s blog of course!)
Following these seven will keep you up to speed with the debates of the day, and you’ll get links to the most interesting posts from other blogs. Seriously, if you read nothing else, at least subscribe to these seven.
4. C’mon. Only seven? I can handle a few more.
I hoped you’d say that. Here are some others that I highly recommend.
- A View From The Cave (Tom Murphy)
- Aid on the Edge of Chaos (Ben Ramalingam)
- Aid Thoughts
- Blood and Milk (Alanna Shaikh)
- Dani Rodrik
- Find What Works (that’s me!)
- Hand Relief International <– must-read satire
- Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations
- How Matters (Jennifer Lentfer)
- Jina Moore
- penelope m.c.
- CGD’s Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance
- Roving Bandit (Lee Crawfurd)
- Shotgun Shack
- Texas in Africa (Laura Seay)
- Wait… What? (Linda Raftree - hey, that’s me!)
- wronging rights
Most of the blogs above are pretty general, though everyone brings different perspectives and interests. There are also many issue/region-specific blogs you may want to check out. Here are a few that I recommend.
- Conflict Health (Chris Albon)
- Congo Siasa (Jason Stearns)
- Global Health Hub <– good aggregation of other blogs, along with original content
- Global Health Blog (Karen Grepin)
- Globlogization (Thomas Barnett)
- Knowledge management on a dollar a day (Ian Thorpe)
- Microfinance Open Book Blog (David Roodman)
- Science and Development Network
- War is Boring (David Axe)
(Note from Linda here: I also have a list of blogs I read regularly – you can see it here on the right hand side bar under the title ‘blogroll’. Check some of them out when you have a chance. Or if you have a particular area of development or aid that you are interested in, let me know and I’m happy to give you some recommendations on specific blogs on that topic to get you started.)
I generally steer away from the blogs of NGOs and donor agencies. The content tends to be fluff. Of course, if you work for (or want to work for) a particular organization, it might be worth following them. There are two that I would recommend as generally thoughtful and interesting:
Finally, there’s news. Almost every news website does RSS feeds, so you can subscribe to them through Google Reader. I get the Economist, the New York Times Africa feed, the East African, Foreign Policy, and others bundled together with my blogs. I also subscribe to TED talks, xkcd, Gallup World polls, and more. If a site publishes regular content, it probably has an RSS feed. I barely even go to websites anymore.
5. But hey, you forgot about…
Am I missing anything? Feel free to fill the comments section here and on Dave’s post with suggestions.
Please don’t be offended if I failed to include you or your favorite blog above. This isn’t meant as a definitive list. Here are some more blogs I think are worthwhile. The full list of what I follow is longer still. The above is simply meant to get people started — and I don’t want to scare off the newcomers.
Thanks to Dave for the great post, and hopefully some of you colleagues who haven’t caught the blog bug yet will get motivated!
Hopefully some more of you will start writing blogs too…. here are a couple links that talk about some of the reasons that blogging and other kinds of social media can be helpful in thinking about our program work: