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Archive for the ‘smart aid’ Category

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America Meet World – a contest to source the best comedy the world has to offer.

I met Trina Das Gupta when she headed up the GSMA’s mWomen program. We bonded at the personal level over a shared frustration with old-school aid and development approaches and an urge to change the way the US public understands the rest of the world.

Trina is always one step ahead of everyone, and she has the know-how and connections to make her visions happen. It’s no surprise then, that she’s moving full steam ahead with a cool new idea that aims to bring people together through comedy: America Meet World.

Rather than get preachy about race and stereotyping, America Meet World will take Americans around the world through laughter and entertainment. The premise is that there is more that makes us the same than that makes us different.

To curate content, Trina’s production company Single Palm Tree has launched a global video contest designed to find the best comedy the world has to offer. The contest’s winner (the video with the most votes) will win a sit-down meeting with executives from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and have a chance to ask for advice on building an entertainment career in the US.

Videos will also be reviewed by an all-star panel of judges, including Rebecca Paoletti, former head of video at Yahoo! North American and CEO of CakeWorks; Tim Rosta, senior VP of Integrated Marketing at E! Entertainment Networks; Baratunde Thurston, CEO and Co-Founder of Cultivated Wit and former digital director of The Onion; and John Vorhaus, best-selling author of The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You’re Not.

Finalist videos will be featured on AmericaMeetWorld.com and across syndicated channels. The videos submitted, along with other content that Single Palm Tree produces and curates, will feed into a digital video portal that connects US audiences with global comedians. The portal will go live in 2014.

Categories include: stand-up, sketch, reality, satire. Video submissions must be from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East, and they must not exceed 3 minutes. They must be in English or have accurate English subtitles. See contest rules and tips on how to create a successful entry here.

All you comedians, now’s your chance!

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Last Friday I had the opportunity to share a panel discussion on “Designing New Narratives: from poverty porn to agency” with Leah Chung, Maharam Fellow and RISD student, and Victor Dzidzienyo, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering Architecture and Computer Sciences at Howard University. The panel was part of the “A Better World by Design” Conference planned and run by a committee of students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, here in Providence.

Photo from http://www.affenstunde.com article on One Laptop Per Child.

I was responsible for setting the stage and moderating, wearing my Regarding Humanity hat. I showed a number of images and narratives that I find questionable – from aid agency fundraising campaigns to children receiving free shoes to famous musicians visiting Ethiopia to models posing in front of poor children to photos of them with imported technological “solutions”. The theme of the conference was “Pause and Effect.” My point was that we should pause and think about the long-term effects of these kinds of images and narratives on people we say we are helping, supporting or partnering with. Beyond fundraising, advocacy and branding for our organizations, what is the impact of these narratives? What long-term effects do they have when there is no strong competing narrative or variety of narratives that enable a more complex, nuanced and varied story?

Some of the ways that we can help change the narrative include:

Leah followed, sharing highlights from research she conducted this summer in Uganda on what Ugandans think about how they and Africans in general are represented in the Western media. With support from Hive Co-Lab, Leah and her research partner, Joseph Wanda, researched how people working in local NGOs and living in rural communities and informal settlement areas view ads like these:

People were asked which of these images they would prefer in a fundraising campaign. (Image courtesy of Leah Chung)

Image courtesy of Leah Chung

Perhaps not surprisingly, a large percentage of the adults interviewed said they preferred the sad photo, because it would be more effective at showing a story of need and raising funds. Interestingly, however, 66% of the children and adolescents interviewed preferred the happy one. Leah said  that a good number of people used the opportunity of her presence to include a story of their own needs and a personal appeal for funding or help during the interview process

Adults selected the sad image more often, whereas children and adolescents selected the happy one. (Image courtesy of Leah Chung)

Which of these images would you prefer for a fund-raising campaign? Image courtesy of Leah Chung

Overall, 76% of people Leah and Joseph interviewed said that they were not happy with the way that Africa is represented in the Western world.

The majority of people who participated in the study were unhappy with how Africa is represented in the "Western" world. (Image courtesy of Leah Chung)

Image courtesy of Leah Chung

Leah noted that through her research, she grew to understand that images are only the symptom of deeper dysfunction within the aid industry and its colonial legacy. She also noted that people all over the world hold stereotypes about others. She was viewed as someone bringing in resources to help, and called “Chinese,” although she is actually Korean.

Victor continued the topic by sharing his own story of living in DC as a child, and being one of the people that others wanted to come in to help. “For you as the outsider who comes in to save me, I have some questions,” he said. “For the folks who want to go on a ‘free trip’ to help, my question is: you are going there for what? What are the skill sets that you have that can make a difference? If you don’t have a skill set to offer, you should just stay home.” He recommended hiring local people for the various jobs needed during reconstruction after a disaster rather than sending over students with limited understanding of the local context and limited skills to work in it.

Victor emphasized the similarities in architectural design and designing programs aimed at helping after a flood or an earthquake. For both, a good understanding of the environment, the cultural context, the complexity of social structures, and the local beliefs and norms is required. He questioned whether academic institutions are doing enough to prepare students for working in these environments.

The ensuing comments and discussions made their way across a variety of related topics, with active participation from the room:

  • What can media and development professionals do to support agency? How can we move beyond satire and critique? The bullet points above are a start but what else can be done? We need to change our language, for one thing, and stop using phrases like “we are empowering people, giving them a voice, giving them agency.” We also need to remember that using poverty porn takes away agency from those who donate. The entire cycle is disempowering.
  • Local people are not passive in this: Communities and individuals can be very adept at manipulating this system. Local NGOs also have their own agendas and the aid industry also ties them in knots and makes it difficult for them to function, to be effective and to have a real impact.
  • How issues are framed and by whom matters. There is a great deal of exposure to the Western world and its viewpoints, and often the issues and narrative are framed by outsiders. Local work does not get the spotlight and credit, it’s normally sexy graphic design and social media campaigns like Kony 2012.
  • Should we help locally or internationally? The issues and problems in the world are global problems and they are interlinked at the global level, so where a person helps is not the issue. Location matters less than the underlying motives and levels of respect for people’s own agency, and level of ownership that local people have in the process. Going in to help a community in your own neighborhood or country that you do not understand or that you view as ‘lesser’ is not much different than doing that in a community abroad.
  • Poverty porn is a symptom of much larger issues in the international aid and development industry. The causes go much deeper and require a major shift in a number of areas.
  • Is it possible to change things or do we need to start over? Do we need a new model? It’s likely that international aid and development organizations will be disrupted and disintermediated by a number of forces and changes happening right now, from social entrepreneurs to global economic and power changes to technology to changes in “developing” country economies and attitudes. The problems are not going to go away and the market is not working for everyone, but the nature of how we address these issues will most likely change.
  • Poverty porn is profitable, how can we change this? How can we make the idea of agency and elevating other voices as profitable as poverty porn? How can we take a more comprehensive look at the system and where it’s not working? How can we change what the general public responds to and switch the general consciousness of people who care to a new way of looking at things? How can we re:see, re:listen and re:frame the narrative and get people excited about stories from people who know and live these issues? As intermediaries, our job is to provide platforms and to work to make these voices visible, not to tell other people’s stories. Can we engage people better by showing impact and change rather than miserable situations that victimize and provoke feelings of guilt?
  • Sharing and dialogue is one way that people can learn from each other and build strength in numbers to change things. Supporting “south-south” discussion and learning is key, as is discussion and dialogue between policy makers and practitioners.
  • People (we) need to be aware of their (our) own privilege. People give out of guilt. Until they (we) understand their (our) own power and privilege and step out of it, we will never move forward. Educational institutions confirm and allow people to benefit from their privilege. Going on a semester abroad to “help” people ends up looking good on a student’s resume and helping them, in the end, get a job, not really helping those they went to “help.” So the volunteer ends up getting wealthy from these situations, in a way.
  • Empathy matters, but how do we take it a step further than sleeping outside for a night to understand homelessness? Do these small efforts towards empathy add up to a larger awareness and behavior change, or are they meager attempts to experience life as “the other” without a real examination of power and privilege? How do we take this conversation a step wider also and look at how the West perpetrates and causes poverty by our own policies and consumption patterns?

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This is a cross-post from the always thoughtful and eloquent Ian Thorpe, who notes that fundraising is a means to help non-profit organizations fulfill their wider mission; it should not be mistaken as the end goal of non-profit organizations. Consistency in how we achieve our missions across all of our operations becomes ever more important in this age of growing transparency. Read the original post here.

by Ian Thorpe

I’ve been reflecting on a couple of interesting discussions lately on aid communication and fundraising.  In the first, Kurante organized a Google Hangout on “Poverty Porn” i.e. the use of negative, shocking images in aid campaigns (the recording and the twitter storify of the discussion can be found on Tom Murphy’s blog here). During the discussion @meowtree  shared a link to this rather discouraging blog post by a fundraising guru here that suggests that those who criticize the use of negative images are undermining the organizations they work for and should be fired!

A second twitter discussion concerned a new “buy one, give one” programme and whether or not it is harmful or helpful and on what basis this type of programme might be judged.

What comes out of both of these is the potential conflict between what makes good aid versus what makes good fundraising. It’s quite possible to raise money, a lot of money, if one is willing to do whatever it takes, use any kind of images and words and tactics in order to open their wallets. Marketers and fundraisers, to give them their due, make extensive use research and evidence in their work, perhaps more so than programme people, and much research backs up the claim that negative imagery is often more successful than positive imagery in evoking a response and getting out checkbooks.

If you were a private company then “maximizing shareholder value” by going where the money is might well be a great strategy. But aid agencies and civil society organizations are generally in place to serve a mission. The mission of the organization is a huge asset both in motivating staff and in generating support – but it’s also an important constraint in that in places limits around what you will be prepared to do to raise funds or attention. Essentially, if you exist to pursue a mission then all your activities need to be consistent with it. Generally an aid mission is not simply to raise as much money as possible, it’s to achieve a purpose such as reducing poverty or protecting children from harm. And it’s often more complicated to pursue this goal to maximize the amount of positive impact on your beneficiaries – you also need to do this in a principled way informed by your organization’s values such as in respecting the human dignity of the people of the people you aim to help and not exploiting them (even if with the aim of helping them).

I recall a conversation from when I worked on communication in UNICEF with our fundraisers about a similar topic (from more than 10 years ago so I’m not spilling any secrets). At that stage the organization was looking to move more into “upstream policy work” and on scaling back on “service delivery”, especially in middle-income countries. Programmatically this made a lot of sense, but the fundraisers were naturally concerned about the impact on their ability to talk about this shift in fundraising campaigns. It’s much easier to fundraise using images of nicely branded supplies coming in on trucks being handed out by aid workers to poor people than it is to “show” work on, or the results of influencing government policy, improving data collection and building capacity of civil servants.  But at the end of the discussion we were ready to say that while it might be harder to raise money for upstream work, and we might be able to raise less money as a result – if this is the work that needs to be done, then the task was to fund better ways of fundraising about this work, rather than changing the nature of the work to make it easier to raise funds.

Of course aid organizations rely on external funding (whether government, corporate or individual) and they need professional fundraisers to be able to get the resources they need to do their work. Professional fundraisers and communicators know better than programme staff, from their experience and research, how to put together effective fundraising communications in terms of who to approach, what approaches to use and what information is needed from programme staff to support it. That can include coming up with novel approaches to raising funds for something that is already a priority, even if these appear gimmicky to aid workers on the ground (such as sending a quarter coin to people to get them to send in donations or getting them to buy something to give something).

But it’s important to ensure that the fundraising is in service of the organization’s goals rather than the reverse. It can be easy to be tempted to do something because it’s popular with donors even if it isn’t fully consistent with your mission and values, and hard to forswear potential opportunities when aid funding is tight. In particular it can be tempting to agree to programmes which are appealing to donors but for which there isn’t a demand, or worse that do unintended harm. But if the organization exists to serve a mission – then it’s important to keep that front and centre in decision-making on what opportunities to pursue or what tactics to use to pursue them – in fundraising just as much as in programmes.

In fact in an age of increasing aid transparency it becomes ever more important to focus on your mission and values since it’s much more obvious if your communications, partnerships and programmes are not consistent with each other or with your mission, and your reputation will suffer as a result –as will the cause you are pursuing.

Greater transparency is also an opportunity to bring donors and beneficiaries closer together so that donors can see and hear the results of aid work directly from those being helped rather than via a “story” whether positive or negative constructed by the aid agency for the benefit of donors. Similarly donors can also hear more from those they are helping about what they want and need, seeing them more as individuals with dignity, aspirations and agency to improve their lives aided by donors rather than as passive objects of pity and charity. This way instead of going where donors give most now, you can change the discussion to educate and encourage them to give money to where it is really needed, and to understand better what their support really does and can do.

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About 15 years ago, I was at a regional management meeting where a newly hired colleague was introduced. The guy next to me muttered “Welcome to the Titanic.”

In the past 20 years, we’ve seen the disruption of the record, photo, newspaper, and other industries. Though music, photos, and news continue to play a big role in people’s lives, the old ‘owners’ of the space were disrupted by changes in technology and new expectations from consumers. Similar changes are happening in the international civil society space, and organizations working there need to think more systematically about what these changes mean.

I spent last week with leadership from a dozen or so international civil society organizations (ICSOs) thinking about what is disrupting our space and strategizing about how to help the space, including our organizations, become more resilient and adaptive to disruption. Participants in the meeting came from several types of organizations (large INGOs doing service delivery and policy work, on-line organizing groups, social enterprises, think tanks, and big campaigning organizations), both new and old, headquartered and/or founded in both the “North” and the “South.”

We approached discussions from the premise that, like music, photos, and news; our sector does have value and does serve an important function. The world is not a perfect place, and government and the private sector need to be balanced and kept in check by a strong and organized “third sector.” However, many ICSOs are dinosaurs whose functions may be replaced by new players and new ways of working that better fit the external environment.

Changes around and within organizations are being prompted by a number of converging factors, including new technology, global financial shifts, new players and ways of working, and new demands from “beneficiaries,” constituencies, and donors. All of these involve shifting power. On top of power shifts, an environmental disaster looms (because we are living beyond the means of the planet), and we see civil society space closing in many contexts while at the same time organized movements are forcing open space for civic uprising and citizen voice.

ICSOs need to learn how to adapt to the shifting shape and context of civil society, and to work and collaborate in a changing ecosystem with new situations and new players. This involves:

  • Detecting and being open to changes and potential disruptors
  • Preparing in a long-term, linear way by creating more adaptive, iterative and resilient organizations
  • Responding quickly and nimbly to disruption and crises when they hit

Key elements of preparing for and navigating disruption are:

  • Maintaining trust and transparency – both internally and externally
  • Collective action
  • Adaptability
  • Being aware of and able to analyze and cope with power shifts

Organization cannot prepare for every specific disruption or crisis, and the biggest crises and shocks come out of nowhere. ICSOs should however become more adaptive and agile by creating built-in responsiveness. We surfaced a number of ideas for getting better at this:

  • Networking/Exchange: actively building networks, learning across sectors, engaging and working with non-traditional partners, bringing in external thinkers and doers for exchange and learning
  • Trend spotting and constant monitoring: watching and participating in spaces where potential disruptions are springing up (for example, challenge funds, contest and innovation prizes); exit interviews to understand why innovative staff are leaving, where they are going, and why; scanning a wide range of sources (staff, people on the ground, traditional media, social media, political analysts) including all ICSO’s audiences – eg., donors, supporters, communities
  • Predicting. Keeping predictable shocks on the radar (hurricane season, elections) and preparing for them, scenario planning as part of the preparatory phase
  • Listening: Ensuring that middle level, often unheard parts of the organization are listened to and that there are open and fluid communication lines between staff and middle and upper management; listening to customers, users, beneficiaries, constituencies; basically listening to everyone
  • Confident humility: Being humble and open, yet also confident, systematic and not desperate/chaotic
  • Meta-learning: Finding systematic ways to scan what is happening and understand it; learning from successes and failures at the ‘meta’ and the cross-sector level not just the organizational or project level
  • Slack time: Giving staff some slack for thinking, experimenting and reflecting; establishing a system for identifying what an organization can stop doing to enable staff to have slack time to think and be creative and try new things
  • Training. Ensuring that staff have skills to do strategic decision making, monitoring, scenario planning
  • Decentralized decision-making. Allow local pods and networks to take control of decision-making rather than having all decisions weighed in on by everyone or taking place at the top or the center; this should be backed by policies and protocols that enable quick decision making at the local level and quick communication across the organization
  • Trust. Hiring staff you can trust and trusting your staff (human resources departments need strengthening in order to do this well; they need to better understand the core business and what kind of staff an organization needs in these new times)

Culture, management, and governance changes are all needed to improve an organization’s ability to adapt. Systems need to be adjusted so that organizations can be more flexible and adaptive. Organizational belief systems and values also need to shift. Trying out adaptive actions and flexible culture in small doses to develop an organization’s comfort level and confidence and helping to amass shared experience of acting in a new way can help move an organization forward. Leadership should also work to identify innovation across the organization, highlight it, and scale it, and to reward staff who take risk and experiment rather than punishing them.

These changes are very difficult for large, established organizations. Staff and management tend to be overworked and spread thin as it is, managing an existing workload and with little “slack time” to manage change processes. In addition, undesignated funds are shrinking, meaning that organizations have little funding to direct towards new areas or for scanning and preparing, testing and learning. Many organizations are increasingly locked into implementing projects and programs per a donor’s requirements and there are few resources to strategize and focus on organizational adaptation and change. Contractual commitments and existing promises and community partnerships can make it difficult for ICSOs to stop doing certain programs in order to dedicate resources to new areas. The problem is usually not a shortage of innovative ideas and opportunities, but rather the bandwidth to explore and test them, and the systems for determining which ideas are most likely to succeed so that scarce resources can be allocated to them.

Despite all the challenges, the organizations in the room were clear that ICSOs need to change and disrupt themselves, because if they don’t, someone else will. We profiled three types of organizations: the conservative avoider, the opportunistic navigator, and the active disruptor, and determined that the key to survival for many ICSOs will be “dialing up the pain of staying the same and reducing the pain of changing.”

What might an adaptive organization look like?

  • Focused on its mission, not its traditional means of achieving the mission (get across the water in the best way possible, don’t worry if it’s via building a bridge or taking a boat or swimming)
  • Not innovating for the sake of innovation or disrupting for the sake of it – accompanying innovation and disruption with longer-term and systematic follow through
  • Periodically updating its mission to reflect the times
  • Piloting, gaining experience, monitoring, evaluating, building evidence and learning iteratively and at the meta-level from trends and patterns
  • Sub-granting to new, innovative players and seeding new models
  • Open, in the public domain, supporting others to innovate, decentralized, networked, flexible, prepared for new levels of transparency
  • Systematically discovering new ways of working and new partners, testing them, learning and mainstreaming them
  • Keeping its ear to the ground
  • Learning to exit and say no in order to free up slack time to experiment and try new things

Many “dinosaur” organizations are adopting a head-in-the-sand approach, believing that they can rely on their age, their hierarchical systems and processes, or their brand to carry them through the current waves of change. This is no longer enough, and we can expect some of these organizations to die off. Other organizations are in the middle of an obvious shift where parts of the organization are pushing to work under new rules but other parts are not ready. This internal turmoil, along with the overstretched staff, and ineffective boards in some cases, make it difficult to deal with external disruption while managing internal change.

Newer organizations and those that are the closest to the ground seem to have the best handle on disruption. They tend to be more adaptive and nimble, whereas those far from the ground can be insulated from external realities and less aware of the need for ISCOs to change. Creating a “burning platform” can encourage organizational change and a sense of urgency, however, this type of change effort needs to be guided by a clear and positive vision of why change is needed, where change is heading, and why it will be beneficial to achieving an organization’s mission.

After our week of intense discussions, the group felt we still had not answered the question: Can ISCOs be nimble? As in any ecosystem, as the threats and problems to civil society shift and change, a wide array of responses from a number of levels, players and approaches is necessary. Some will not be fit or will not adapt and will inevitably die off. Others will shift to occupy a new space. Some will swallow others up or replace them. Totally new ones will continue to arise. For me, the important thing in the end is that the problems that civil society addresses are dealt with, not that individual organizations maintain their particular position in the ecosystem.

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Imagery and stories used to frame issues of humanitarian development for advocacy and funding are often sensational and culturally disrespectful, representing those living in poverty as helpless victims in need, rather than as empowered and capable individuals.

Fueled by intense Twitter and blog discussions about this topic (which is often referred to as “Poverty Porn,”) a few years ago a number of us decided to work together to create a space for wider dialogue around issues of representation of the people that aid and development organizations support.

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Today we launch our multimedia platform Regarding Humanity or “Re: Hum.” The platform aims to engage practitioners, educators, and students in discussions on how to represent  communities we work with in relevant and respectful ways.

Re: Hum is a website and blog that explore how the way we see, listen and frame stories of “the poor” often strips individuals of their agency and creates a general sense of hopelessness and disempowerment. More respectful and relevant methods of seeing, listening and framing can help tell more nuanced stories that respect people and their complex realities.

The Re: Hum website will source content from a diverse set of authors and creators in order to bring a global perspective to the issue. It will serve as an educational resource and discussion forum to teach visual literacy, the importance of ethnography, and ways to maintain narrative integrity. We will be expanding to a discussion series, research, and an educational curriculum over time and as resources permit.

We invite you to take a quick look at Re: Hum (which is still a work-in-progress) and let us know your thoughts and suggestions on how to generate constructive conversation and learning on this issue!

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This is a summary of the May 14th Technology Salon in New York city on “Does social media exacerbate poverty porn”.

  1. MT @nidhi_c: #povertyporn is never about the beneficiary..it’s an org’s attempt to stay relevant. #techsalon
  2. RT @nidhi_c: How do we teach orgs & journalists that #povertyporn isn’t necessary to raise $ or awareness? #techsalon
  3. Fr my notes on today’s NYC #TechSalon on #povertyporn: Ppl visit Africa like it’s the zoo. Do you know the names of ppl u took photos with?
  4. #povertyporn is disempowering both to those it portrays and to those it’s aimed at, bc you only offer one solution – yours. #techsalon
  5. Telling only “positive” stories is also not the solution. Life anywhere is not only one or the other. It’s complex. #povertyporn #techsalon
  6. Great question from @meowtree & #TechSalon on #povertyporn – Do you know the names of people you take photos with?
  7. Stop hijacking people’s stories by putting your NGO/organization at the center of it. #povertyporn #techsalon
  8. transmedia storytelling is one good way to bring in more stories fr more angles to create a diverse narrative #techsalon #povertyporn
  9. Don’t need to take the western voice out. We need all the voices. But often the most vulnerable are not included. #povertyporn #techsalon
  10. Why do donors demand impact evals for ‘regular’ devt pjcts, but to prove soc med impact they’re fine w likes/clicks? #povertyporn #techsalon
  11. Where is the accountability to small individual donors/donations garnered via social media, i.e. for Kony2012? #povertyporn #techsalon
  12. Why do ppl from US photo’d during tragedy have name/story, yet ppl from other places are unknown victims? #povertyporn #techsalon
  13. Yet also, are we respecting privacy, consent and dignity when we photograph ppl in other countries? #povertyporn #techsalon
  14. Why ppl in US portrayed as heroes after tragedy (eg., Boston, 911) but not first responders in other countries? #povertyporn #techsalon
  15. How to get influentials w lrge audience (eg N Kristof) to see that external hero narrative not helpful in long term? #povertyporn #techsalon
  16. #PovertyPorn not only problem of “white” saviors/Africa. Privileged often view “the poor” this way in their own countries #techsalon
  17. Social media does not necessarily reduce the “othering” of #povertyporn. We still create our own filter bubbles #techsalon
  18. NGOs send media teams to find pre-conceived #povertyporn stories. Eg: this post by @morealtitude ht.ly/l23yQ #techsalon
  19. Diff to change existing orgs/system. But what is being done in schools re global education and media literacy? #povertyporn #techsalon
  20. Sites like everydayafrica.tumblr.com can help to overcome the #povertyporn narrative. #techsalon
  21. Or google “tumblr” and any country a hashtag (eg., #elsalvador) to find a diverse range of images, not only #povertyporn #techsalon
  22. How can we harness social media to show this range of images/realities to overcome the #povertyporn narrative? #techsalon
  23. And I’ll stop now – here’s @viewfromthecave‘s summary of this really thought provoking #techsalon on #povertyporn ht.ly/l24sJ

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This is a cross-post from Tessie San Martin, CEO of Plan International USA. Tessie’s original post is published on the Plan International USA blogFor more on the status of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in the US and information on which donors sit where on the Transparency Index, visit Publish What You Fund.

Over 40 governments, along with UN organizations and the World Bank, have committed to a common standard and time schedule for publishing aid information under the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).  There are high expectations for this initiative. The ultimate objective is to increase the effectiveness of donor assistance, making aid work for those whom we are trying to help and contributing to accelerated development outcomes on the ground. IATI is good news for increased accountability, can help improve coordination, and provides a space for engaging donors, communities, governments and the general public in a broader development dialogue.

Secretary of State Clinton signed on behalf of the US Government on November 2011. While US engagement has been very welcomed, US Government performance in terms of actually executing IATI has left much to be desired.  Publish What You Fund, an organization helping to ensure governments are held to their initial aid transparency commitments, ranked only one out of six agencies (MCC) in the ‘fair’ category in terms of execution. Recently, organizations like Oxfam and ONE have rightly questioned the US Government’s commitment and progress, and exhorted the Obama administration to make full compliance with the IATI standard a priority.

But with all the attention focused on how USG is performing, what are INGOs doing about IATI?  After all, governments can only open access to the data they have. Official development assistance is an increasingly smaller proportion of the entire aid flows, so having INGOs — particularly, and at the very least, the largest global INGOs — also committed to this process is vital to the success of the Initiative.

What are INGO’s doing about IATI? The answer is: not much.

Very few INGOs have committed to publishing their information to the IATI standard.  INGOs that have complied are doing so primarily because a donor is requiring it.  For example, DfID, the UK foreign aid agency, has such a requirement and, as a result, the UK has the largest number of INGOs in compliance.  The US Government has not imposed this requirement on US-based INGOs and it is not likely to do so in the future.  It is therefore not surprising that US-based INGOs have not shown much interest in IATI.

This is a lost opportunity for everyone.  Accountability and transparency are as relevant to the private and the non-profit side of development assistance as they are to the public side.

At Plan International, an INGO with offices in almost 70 countries, it is not surprising that the part of our organization making the fastest strides in this area is our office in the United Kingdom.  As an important recipient of DfID money, they were instructed to do so.  In the US, though Plan International USA is not a major recipient of USG funding, we believe that making the investment to comply with IATI reporting format and timelines is good development practice; we are thus committed to publishing to IATI in the next year.  How can we effectively preach transparency and increased accountability to our recipient communities and to the governments with which we are working yet not commit to something as eminently common sensical as uniform formats, comparable data sets and systematic reporting frequencies?

We are not Pollyannaish about the task.  Like all INGOs pondering whether and how to comply with IATI, we have many concerns, including the costs of complying and what it will do to our overhead (and therefore to something like our Charity Navigator) rating.   We have established an internal project code so we can better capture, track and understand the costs involved in this initiative.  And we are evaluating where we draw the line in terms of the size of the projects on which we should be reporting, balancing costs with the desire to maximize disclosure (it is also worth remembering that rating agencies themselves are placing increasing emphasis on transparent reporting, so rating concerns may ultimately support a move towards greater IATI compliance).

As we have moved forward, we have had many issues to address, including privacy concerns, since a fair bit of Plan’s internal documentation was not written with the idea that it would one day be shared with the public.  Publishing some information may pose security risks for minority or political groups being supported.  These situations have been contemplated by IATI already, however, and there are valid exemptions for sensitive data.  We have also learned that there are many resources to help INGOs navigate the IATI compliance waters.  These resources are not well known to US INGOs, and need to be better publicized. Plan in the US, of course, is also benefiting from the research and hard work our UK office has done to comply with DfID’s mandate, allowing us to start off on a strong foundation of organizational experience.

I am convinced that IATI is not just good development practice but also makes good business sense. At the same time, it is worth remembering that IATI is not the entire solution.  IATI is designed to improve upward accountability to donors and taxpayers.  It is not designed explicitly to improve accountability to the children and communities with which we are partnering and whom we serve. And, as the ultimate goal is improved aid effectiveness, data must be accompanied by better information about goals, methodologies and approaches.  We also need to get better at sharing not just successes but failures within our federation and across all development organizations.

Despite all the shortcomings, IATI is a good start.  And as we push the US Government to do better, INGOs need to be pushing themselves to do better as well.

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The February 5 Technology Salon in New York City asked “What are the ethics in participatory digital mapping?” Judging by the packed Salon and long waiting list, many of us are struggling with these questions in our work.

Some of the key ethical points raised at the Salon related to the benefits of open data vs privacy and the desire to do no harm. Others were about whether digital maps are an effective tool in participatory community development or if they are mostly an innovation showcase for donors or a backdrop for individual egos to assert their ‘personal coolness’. The absence of research and ethics protocols for some of these new kinds of data gathering and sharing was also an issue of concern for participants.

During the Salon we were only able to scratch the surface, and we hope to get together soon for a more in-depth session (or maybe 2 or 3 sessions – stay tuned!) to further unpack the ethical issues around participatory digital community mapping.

The points raised by discussants and participants included:

1) Showcasing innovation

Is digital mapping really about communities, or are we really just using communities as a backdrop to showcase our own innovation and coolness or that of our donors?

2) Can you do justice to both process and product?

Maps should be less an “in-out tool“ and more part of a broader program. External agents should be supporting communities to articulate and to be full partners in saying, doing, and knowing what they want to do with maps. Digital mapping may not be better than hand drawn maps, if we consider that the process of mapping is just as or more important than the final product. Hand drawn maps can allow for important discussions to happen while people draw. This seems to happens much less with the digital mapping process, which is more technical, and it happens even less when outside agents are doing the mapping. A hand drawn map can be imbued with meaning in terms of the size, color or placement of objects or borders. Important meaning may be missed when hand drawn maps are replaced with digital ones.

Digital maps, however, can be printed and further enhanced with comments and drawings and discussed in the community, as some noted. And digital maps can lend a sense of professionalism to community members and help them to make a stronger case to authorities and decisions makers. Some participants raised concerns about power relations during mapping processes, and worried that using digital tools could emphasize those.

3) The ethics of wasting people’s time.

Community mapping is difficult. The goal of external agents should be to train local people so that they can be owners of the process and sustain it in the long term. This takes time. Often, however, mapping experts are flown in for a week or two to train community members. They leave people with some knowledge, but not enough to fully manage the mapping process and tools. If people end up only half-trained and without local options to continue training, their time has essentially been wasted. In addition, if young people see the training as a pathway to a highly demanded skill set yet are left partially trained and without access to tools and equipment, they will also feel they have wasted their time.

4) Data extraction

When agencies, academics and mappers come in with their clipboards or their GPS units and conduct the same surveys and studies over and over with the same populations, people’s time is also wasted. Open digital community mapping comes from a viewpoint that an open map and open data are one way to make sure that data that is taken from or created by communities is made available to the communities for their own use and can be accessed by others so that the same data is not collected repeatedly. Though there are privacy concerns around opening data, there is a counter balanced ethical dilemma related to how much time gets wasted by keeping data closed.

5) The (missing) link between data and action

Related to the issue of time wasting is the common issue of a missing link between data collected and/or mapped, action and results. Making a map identifying issues is certainly no guarantee that the government will come and take care of those issues. Maps are a means to an end, but often the end is not clear. What do we really hope the data leads to? What does the community hope for? Mapping can be a flashy technology that brings people to the table, but that is no guarantee that something will happen to resolve the issues the map is aimed at solving.

6) Intermediaries are important

One way to ensure that there is a link between data and action is to identify stakeholders that have the ability to use, understand and re-interpret the data. One case was mentioned where health workers collected data and then wanted to know “What do we do now? How does this affect the work that we do? How do we present this information to community health workers in a way that it is useful to our work?” It’s important to tone the data down and make them understandable to the base population, and to also show them in a way that is useful to people working at local institutions. Each audience will need the data to be visualized or shared in a different, contextually appropriate way if they are going to use the data for decision-making. It’s possible to provide the same data in different ways across different platforms from paper to high tech. The challenge of keeping all the data and the different sharing platforms updated, however, is one that can’t be overlooked.

7) What does informed consent actually mean in today’s world?

There is a viewpoint that data must be open and that locking up data is unethical. On the other hand, there are questions about research ethics and protocols when doing mapping projects and sharing or opening data. Are those who do mapping getting informed consent from people to use or open their data? This is the cornerstone of ethics when doing research with human beings. One must be able to explain and be clear about the risks of this data collection, or it is impossible to get truly informed consent. What consent do community mappers need from other community members if they are opening data or information? What about when people are volunteering their information and self-reporting? What does informed consent mean in those cases? And what needs to be done to ensure that consent is truly informed? How can open data and mapping be explained to those who have not used the Internet before? How can we have informed consent if we cannot promise anyone that their data are really secure? Do we have ethics review boards for these new technological ways of gathering data?

8) Not having community data also has ethical implications

It may seem like time wasting, and there may be privacy and protection questions, but there are are also ethical implications of not having community data. When tools like satellite remote sensing are used to do slum mapping, for example, data are very dehumanized and can lead to sterile decision-making. The data that come from a community itself can make these maps more human and these decisions more humane. But there is a balance between the human/humanizing side and the need to protect. Standards are needed for bringing in community and/or human data in an anonymized way, because there are ethical implications on both ends.

9) The problem with donors….

Big donors are not asking the tough questions, according to some participants. There is a lack of understanding around the meaning, use and value of the data being collected and the utility of maps. “If the data is crap, you’ll have crap GIS and a crap map. If you are just doing a map to do a map, there’s an issue.” There is great incentive from the donor side to show maps and to demonstrate value, because maps are a great photo op, a great visual. But how to go a level down to make a map really useful? Are the M&E folks raising the bar and asking these hard questions? Often from the funder’s perspective, mapping is seen as something that can be done quickly. “Get the map up and the project is done. Voila! And if you can do it in 3 weeks, even better!”

Some participants felt the need for greater donor awareness of these ethical questions because many of them are directly related to funding issues. As one participant noted, whether you coordinate, whether it’s participatory, whether you communicate and share back the information, whether you can do the right thing with the privacy issue — these all depend on what you can convince a donor to fund. Often it’s faster to reinvent the wheel because doing it the right way – coordinating, learning from past efforts, involving the community — takes more time and money. That’s often the hard constraint on these questions of ethics.

Check this link for some resources on the topic, and add yours to the list.

Many thanks to our lead discussants, Robert Banick from the American Red Cross and Erica Hagen from Ground Truth, and to Population Council for hosting us for this month’s Salon!

The next Technology Salon NYC will be coming up in March. Stay tuned for more information, and if you’d like to receive notifications about future salons, sign up for the mailing list!

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policy forum

This past Monday I had the opportunity to join Engineers without Borders (EWB) in Calgary, Canada, at their Annual Policy Forum on Global Development to discuss “How can open government contribute to community and economic development?”

Morning panels covered some examples of open government initiatives from Finland, Ghana and Canada. In the afternoon we heard about some of the challenges with open data, open government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Table discussions followed both of the panels. The group was a mix of Canadian and African government representatives, people from organizations and groups working in different countries on open government and open data initiatives, and young people who are connected with EWB. The session was under Chatham House Rule in order to encourage frank conversation.

Drawing from such documents as the Open Government Partnership’s Open Government Declaration, Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson’s “The New Ambiguity of “Open Government,” Beth Noveck’s What’s in a Name? Open Gov and Good Gov and Nathaniel Heller, A Working Definition of ‘Open Government’, the following definition of Open Government was used to frame the discussions.

EWB Definition of Open Government

Below (in a very-much-longer-than-you-are-supposed-to-write-in-a-blogpost summary) are the highlights and points I found interesting and useful as related to Open Development, Open Data, Open Government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)

1.  Participation thresholds need to be as low as possible for people to participate and engage in open government or open data initiatives. You need to understand well what engagement tools are most useful or comfortable for different groups. In some places, to engage the public you can use tools such as etherpad, wiki platforms, google docs, open tools and online collaboration spaces. In other places and with other populations, regardless of what country, you may be more successful with face-to-face methods or with traditional media like television and radio, but these need to be enhanced with different types of feedback methods like phone calls or surveys or going house to house so that your information is not only traveling one way. Community organizing skills are key to this work, regardless of whether the tools are digital or not.

2.  Literacy remains a huge challenge hindering access to information and citizen engagement in holding government accountable in many countries. This is why face-to-face engagement is important, as well as radio and more popular or broad-based communication channels. One participant asked “how can you make open government a rural, rather than an urban only, phenomenon?” This question resonated for participants from all countries.

3.  Language is still a critical issue. Language poses a big challenge for these kinds of initiatives, from the grassroots level to the global level, within and among countries, for citizens, governments, and anyone trying to share or collect data or information. It was noted that all the countries who have published data to IATI are publishing in English. All the IATI Standards are in English, as is the entire support system for IATI. As one participant noted, this begs the question of who the information in IATI is actually designed for and serving, and who are the expected users of it. Open data initiatives should consider the implications of language they publish in, both politically and practically.

4.  Open data can serve to empower the already empowered. As one speaker noted, “the idea that everyone has the potential to make use of open data is simply not true.” Access to digital infrastructure and educational resource may be missing, meaning that many do not have the ability to access, interpret or use data for their own purposes. Governments can also manipulate data and selectively release data that serves their own interests. Some questioned government motives, citing the example of a government that released “data” saying its unemployment rate was 10% when “everyone knew this to be false, and people grumbled but we did not feel empowered to challenge that statement.” Concern was expressed over the lack of an independent body or commission in some countries to oversee open data and open government processes. Some did not trust the government bodies who were currently in charge of collecting and opening information, saying that due to politics, they would never release any information that made their party or their government look bad.

5.  Privacy rights can be exploited if data is opened without data protection laws and effort to build capacity around how to make certain data anonymous. Citizens may also not be aware of what rights are being violated, so this should also be addressed.

6.  Too much open data discussion takes place without a power analysis, as one participant commented, making some of the ideas around open data and open government somewhat naïve. “Those who have the greatest stake will be the most determined to push their point of view and to make sure it prevails.”

7.  Open data needs to become open data 2.0. According to one participant, open data is still mostly one-way information delivery. In some cases there isn’t even any delivery – information is opened on a portal but no one knows it’s there or what it refers to or why it would be useful. When will open data, open government and open aid become more of a dialogue? When will data be released that answers questions that citizens have rather than the government deciding what it will release? The importance of working with community groups to strengthen their capacity to ask questions and build critical consciousness to question the data was emphasized. A counter point was that government is not necessarily there to start collecting information or creating data sets according to public demand. Governments collect certain data to help them function.

8.  Intermediaries working on open government should be careful of real or perceived bias. Non-profits have their own agendas, and ‘open data’ and ‘open information’ is not immune to being interpreted in non-objective ways. Those working on civic engagement initiatives need to be careful that they are not biased in their support for citizen initiatives. One presenter who works on a platform that encourages citizens to be involved in petitioning new laws for contemplation in Parliament said “Our software is open source so that anyone can set up a similar process to compete with us if they feel we are biased towards one or another type of agenda.”

9.  Technology-based engagement tools change who is participating. Whether in Finland, Canada, Ghana or Malawi, it’s critical to think about reaching those who are not active already online, those who are not the typical early adopters. To reach a broader public, one speaker noted “We are going to remote places, doing events in smaller towns and cities to see how people want to influence and take part in this. Making sure the website is accessible and understandable.”

10. Technological platforms are modifying how political parties and democratic processes operate. This may or may not be a good thing. Normally priorities arise and are discussed within political parties. Will people now bypass the party process and use ‘direct democracy’ channels if they are passionate about an issue but do not want to enter into negotiation around it? Will this weaken political processes or longer standing democratic processes? One speaker considered this change to be positive. People are not happy with being able to vote every 4 years and they want opportunities to participate in between elections cycles and direct voice in how priorities are decided. Others questioned whether bypassing official processes can lead to less participation and more apathy overall on national issues. Some questioned whether within fairly long-standing democracies, open data will have any real impact, considering existing levels of apathy and the lack of political participation.

11. Strong information, statistical, monitoring and evaluation systems are critical for open data and open government processes and to ensure more effective management of development results. This is still a challenge for some countries that need to review their mechanisms and improve their tools and processes for data collection and dissemination. If there is no data, or no current data, there is not much point in opening it. In addition, there are capacity and technical competency challenges within institutions in some countries. One participant mentioned a lack of current government geological information about gold and oil deposits that weakens government capacity to negotiate with the private sector extraction industry and ensure partnerships and earnings will contribute to national development. In addition more evidence is needed on the impact, use, and outcomes of open data. At the moment it’s quite difficult to say with any real authority what the outcomes and impact of open data and open government have been.

12. IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative) needs more partners. Government representatives noted that they are opening their data, but they can only open the data they possess. In order for data on aid to be useful, more data is needed, especially that of NGOs who are implementing programs. Not many NGOs have published their information to the IATI standard at this point. “The really interesting thing will be when we can start mashing up and mapping out the different kinds of information,” as one speaker noted, “for example, this is the goal of the Open Aid Partnership. It will involve combining information from the donor, development indicators from the World Bank, and country information, and this will open up amazing possibilities once this is all geo-coded.” There are reporting challenges related to IATI and open government data, however, because at times countries and NGOs do not see the benefits of reporting – it feels like just one more top-down administrative burden. There are also issues with donor governments reporting their committed intentions and amounts, recipient governments reporting back, and communications with citizens on both sides (donor and recipient countries). One example that was reported to be enjoying some success was the multi-donor budget support initiative in Ghana, where development partners and government work together to establish development indicators and commitments. If the government delivers on the indicators, the development partners will then provide them with the funding. Development partners can also earmark funding to particular areas if there is government agreement.

13. We need more accountability towards ‘beneficiaries’.Currently many of these initiatives are perceived as being focused on donors and donor publics. As one participant noted, “the interesting thing is less about government and more about getting regular people involved in these processes. When you engage the public you’ll engage government leaders in thinking they will need to change to respond to what citizens are asking for.” Another noted that the essential issue is the link between transparency/accountability and citizens and their own governments. In addition, as one participant asked, “How can you strengthen capacity among citizens to ask the right questions about the data that’s being opened?” For example, citizens may ask about the number of schools being built, but not ask about the quality of education being provided. Public education was a strong focus of discussions around citizen engagement during the policy forum.

14. Should citizens be consulted on everything? however, was one big question. The public at large may not understand the ramifications of its own deep misunderstandings on particular issues and may be inputting from a viewpoint that lacks scientific evidence or fact. “It’s one thing to have an opinion about whether your child should be able to drink energy drinks before age 16, it’s another to input about technical programs like the best policy for green energy,” commented one group.

15. Can citizens really have greater participation if government is still in control of data? was another big question. An example was given of an open consultative process that became unwieldy for a local government, which then shut down the consultation process and changed the nature of the documents to ‘administrative’ and therefore no longer open. Others asked why governments pat themselves on the back over being part of the Open Government Partnership yet they do not have Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) or they prosecute those who open data in alternative ways, such as Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz.

16. If citizens don’t get a response from government (or if they don’t like the response, or feel it’s biased or manipulated), apathy and cynicism will increase. It’s important to make sure that ‘open government’ is not just a box that gets ticked off, but rather a long-term change in mentality of those in power and deeper expectations and efforts by citizens for openness and participation in conversations of national importance.

The conclusion was that Open Government is somewhat of a paradox, rooted in aims that are not necessarily new. Open Government strives to enable leaders in their communities to create change and transform their lives and those of people in their communities. It is a complex process that involves many actors and multiple conflicting goals and interests. It’s also something new that we are all learning about and experimenting with, but we are very impatient to know what works and what the impact is. In the room, the feeling was one of ‘radical pragmatism,’ as one participant put it. Open Government is a big idea that represents a big change. It’s something that can transform communities at the global level and there is a great deal of hope and excitement around it. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the challenges associated with it in order to address them and move things forward.

I’ll do a follow up post with the points I made during the panel as this post is clearly way too too long already. Kudos if you are still reading, and a huge thanks to the organizers and participants in the EWB policy forum.

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I’m just home after a week at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki (and wishing I could have cloned myself and attended each of the 13 streams!):

Here’s a video summary of some of the highlights of the Open Development stream.

Thanks so much to everyone who organized, supported, funded and attended the sessions!

Also see:

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