Archive for August, 2011

This is a guest post by Bertil van Vugt, who works as the content director at Africa Interactive.  Bertil and I met for the first time about a year ago at a tweet up in Amsterdam, though I had known about Africa Interactive’s fantastic work with African media professionals for much longer. I was thrilled to hear from Bertil last week that they’ve been working with Plan in West Africa, and have made 4 videos about the Girls Making Media project that I had written about earlier this month. 

Girls Making Media in Ghana

Men dominate the African media sector. Looking at our own database of over 2000 media-professionals in 50 African countries we see predominantly males. Fortunately we are also working with many talented women throughout the continent. When we were asked to produce videos and case studies about Plan’s Girls Making Media Project we got really exited about the initiative that is preparing young girls for a career in the media sector.

I work for Africa Interactive, a social venture delivering media and communication services with offices in Amsterdam, Nairobi and Accra. As I mentioned earlier we are working with local reporters, camera-crews and photographers throughout Africa to document activities of NGOs, multinationals and governments. While these organizations previously worked with Western crews who travelled to Africa, we work with African media-professionals and guarantee the quality of the productions.

Local film-crews

There are many advantages of working with local crews. They know their way around; they speak the languages and understand the culture since it is theirs. These people can be fixer, translator and journalist at the same time. And not unimportant: the costs are lower compared to flying people in. For this Plan assignment we worked with experienced crews (male AND female) in Lomé (Togo), Bomi (Liberia), Makeni (Sierra Leone) and Sogakope (Ghana). Our, by the way female, employees in Accra and Nairobi did the video editing and we finalized the videos in our Amsterdam office.


The Girls Making Media project’s goal is to contribute to the elimination of gender discrimination and benefits at least 140 adolescent girls and 30 adult journalists in the most marginalized areas in each country. With this project, girls and adult journalists are trained on various topics aiming at increasing their capacity to produce quality information concerning girls’ rights. It is also empowering girls to advocate on issues concerning their well-being.

In the four videos we focus on the three-year program (which started one year ago) and show the development, achievements and challenges so far. We hear about the effect the project has on the girls and their communities. Also, the girls explain how they see themselves after learning media skills and talking about gender related issues on the radio and TV.



Sierra Leone


Girls interact with journalists

Together with the Plan West Africa office in Ouagadougou we developed the idea that the video-shoot should also be an opportunity for the girls to interact with our crews and learn from them. During the filming days there was room for questions and sharing of experiences. We received positive feedback from the crews and the Plan offices about the cooperation with the girls. I would like to use this space to thank the camera-crews who did a great job to create the videos:  Comfort + Yudawhere (Liberia), Wotay + Idriss (Sierra Leone), Paul + Gary (Ghana) and Rodrique + Anselme (Togo).

Let me conclude by saying that I hope to welcome the girls to our network after they have finalized the GMM project!

If you are looking for any content on your activities in Africa, just contact me via e-mail: bertil [at] africanews.com or Twitter: @brutuz.

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“The story of a boy from Baltimore who evolves from a safecracking, jewel-heisting, deep-sea diving, ultimate-fighting, international playboy into a globetrotting humanitarian.”

Why yes, thank you very much, I would like to review that book…. My snark glands start working in anticipation.

Book arrives in the mail and I open to the preface where I read that Stefan Templeton, the troubled and risk-loving misfit hero of the story, has an innocent bright-eyed son and a good, virtuous, hard-working wife in the kitchen. Neither his son nor his wife knows about his sordid past. He risks his family’s well-being to be “a recurring presence in the aftermath of some of the last decade’s worst man-made and natural disasters”. He’s now heading to “the genocide-ravaged Horn of Africa…. On this mission, as on all the others, he would receive no payment.” 

OK, so this will be a story about one of those self-made, selfless martyr, I-have-seen-the-light types who wakes up one day and feels compelled to give up everything to save the world. And there will be fighting too!

We learn that the author David Matthews and Stefan, the hero, grew up together off and on in a hard-knock area of Baltimore, MD. That they are both ‘mixed’ race and that Stefan loves fighting and telling elaborate, hard-to-believe stories. Matthews’ re-encounter with Stefan starts off something like this:


“You taking all this stuff? I yelled to him in the bedroom…

…What’s this? I pointed at the black square.

I removed the device. A block of plastic the size of a primordial cell phone.

He shook his head. It’s a Taser, knucklehead.

Jesus, I said, Get pretty rough out there saving babies?

Stormy clambered into the room, midway through his drawing. What’s a Taser, Poppa?

A Taser makes bad people jump, Stormy-bear. Stormy held up his drawing. I could make out some red and black stick people with what looked like blue arrows raining down on them.

That’s amaaazing, Stefan said.

It’s the African children when you put water on them, Poppa.”


Jesus. I thought. Get pretty rough out there writing good dialog?

Regardless, I continue. The book starts to flow a little better as the story takes off.

I read that Stefan’s parents are from very different cultures — his father: a rigid African-American martial artist from a well-educated family in a rough Baltimore neighborhood, permanently affected by a stint in Vietnam; his mother: a Danish flower child from a wealthy family that runs a new-age spiritual healing school where people do primal screaming and other types of psycho-spiritual curing.

Early in the book, the author sets Stefan up as a pure-hearted good guy with bad luck, a poor hero who gets screwed time and time again by the system. His father’s hard-fighting rigidity combined with his mother’s heal-the-poor hippie sensibilities are lived out through Stefan who gets himself into one tricky situation after another, but only because he is compelled to perpetually defend the defenseless, to be a man.

His weakness for women is made clear early on, as is the idea that women are weak. (Almost all the women we run into in this book are extremely hot, in need of Stefan’s protection, and willing to drop anything to get with our hero.)

It’s Chapter 3 where Stefan has his “incredible hulk” breaking point transformation. A trained fighter who continually turns the other cheek, he is pushed to fight back when a couple of local thugs try to steal his house keys. He pulverizes them both and the defining moment emerges: “This was neither good, nor bad. Right, nor wrong. It was just.” 

Yep, and you won’t like him when he’s angry. Superhero moment complete.

Soon after, Stefan has his first sexual experience while living in a castle in Europe belonging to his mother’s side of the family. Unsurprisingly, it’s with a sexy older woman and Stefan is quite well-endowed: “Ach… zu gross… (oh so big)….” the woman exclaims. “Your mother would kill me.”

Throughout the rest of the book, the system continues making things difficult for Stefan. He tries and tries to make something of himself and his innate superior intellect, physical perfection and sexual prowess but time and time again he’s let down or has to fall back on his unstoppable fighting techniques and knack for straightforward, ethical crime, or he’s simply forced to put himself at risk to save someone at the wrong time or place. Poor guy, he’s just trying to help and it just never works out.

So what better place for him to end up than helping poor people in Africa, Asia or Latin America? By the end of the book, he has blundered his way into humanitarian aid work, yet again, the system has no place for him and he must go at it in selfless, renegade, superhero style, saving the poor because the locals need him and the humanitarians can’t get it right.

Matthew’s writing was entertaining enough to keep me reading throughout, but the marketers’ promise was more than what the book could live up to. But I expected that. “The story of a boy from Baltimore who evolves from a safe-cracking, jewel-heisting, deep-sea diving, ultimate-fighting, international playboy into a globetrotting humanitarian” is a bit much to swallow without a grain of salt.

Kicking Ass and Saving Souls is very much a man’s book. I felt throughout that the author was imagining the story embellished a bit further and on the big screen, and judging by the public’s hunger for violent, misfit heroes and feel-good stories about helpless poor people, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it there one day.

As for me though, I’ve had quite too much of the Sean Penn style of humanitarian work to be excited. I’m wary of erratic amateur do-gooders. Not to mention I have some pretty major concerns about  Sam “the Machine Gun Preacher” Childers‘ and Peter “Advisor to Michelle Bachman (and hero of this hilariously scary film)” Waldron style forays into South Sudan and Uganda and such. So I’m the wrong audience for this kind of book.

I’m sure Stefan means well, and certainly Matthews is impressed with him. But I think Stefan is more the kind of guy you would enjoy running into at a bar overseas and trading crazy stories with and leaving it at that. You’d probably go home wondering how much of his shtick was bullshit (while he went home with one of the new volunteers or the local female bartender). And you’d probably have some real concerns about his modus operandi if any of his stories were true.

But the book didn’t really grab me. I’m tired of shoot-em-up-punch-em-up humanitarian aid heroes.  They take energy away from the real issues and the real people, local and non-local, who are doing the work that has long-term impact. And they can actually cause real problems, no matter how good their stories seem and how helpful they think they are being.

Thanks to the author and TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of the book to review.

About David Matthews

David Matthews is the author of the 2007 memoir Ace of Spades, which was selected as an Editor’s Choice pick by The New York Times.  Matthews’s work has also appeared in Salon, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir.  He lives in Manhattan, but can’t wait to move back to Brooklyn.

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This is a guest post by Joe Pavey who, along with Rebecca Tapscott, interned with us in Cameroon on the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media (YETAM) project during July and August. Reading Joe’s post I couldn’t help but think about how positive the contributions of youth can be, and about the attitudes that adults and elected officials need to have in order to encourage youth to engage in actions to make their communities better, and how important it is for communities to show young people that they are valued for the contributions that they make and respected for the role that they play.  

The original post appears on Joe’s blog Yakcast 2.0, titled Youth Led Action in Bamessing.

Following the conclusion of the refresher course at GBHS Bamessing, the YETAM youth began work on their first advocacy campaign of the summer. After much discussion the youth decided that the first topic they would take on would be the high prevalence of malaria in their community.

Malaria is one of the biggest killers of children under the age of six in Africa, but lack of health education means many people here still are not aware of how the disease is contracted, and how it can be avoided. Additionally, the direct relationship between cleanliness and the spread of this disease runs counter to many of the choices the environment here encourages. The long periods that often come between availability of running water, forces villagers to store water in containers, and collect it from the frequent rains. This water is frequently left sitting in open containers. Mosquitos will lay their eggs in this water, leading to an increase in the insect population. More mosquitos, means more carriers for the disease, which in turn leads to more people contracting the illness. Additionally, mosquitos tend to thrive in places with tall grass. Lack of funds to clean communal areas often means that shrubbery in public places such as the market square, aren’t cleared regularly. Ignorance of this cycle is what the youth intended to combat. Not an easy thing since explaining these correlations requires the understanding of multiple stages of cause and effect.

In order to get the attention of the village, the youth decided to hold a series of clean-up and sensitization campaigns, intended to illustrate the sort of changes they felt the village needed to make. The first stage was a clean-up at three of the local health centers. The youth divided themselves into three separate groups, and spent several hours clearing brush, dirt, and standing water, from outside these centers. They posted sensitization signs outlining the causes of malaria and what can be done to minimize it. Despite the fact that many of the youth had left town for holiday, there was excellent youth turnout at all three health centers. After the morning of the clean-up these centers were models of how the village should maintain their environment.

Next a major cleanup campaign was performed at the BamessingTown Square, the day before Market Day. Market day here is a huge event, so the time and location of this clean-up had been chosen for maximum exposure. Twenty-four youth and two facilitators (myself included) spent nearly seven hours cleaning brush, shoveling dirt, and picking up trash to make the campaign a success. The youth took turns documenting this work with both video and still cameras. When the clean-up was completed they hung signs in main areas of the market urging the community not to dump dirt and trash in the market square. Another sign was created instructing people to a landfill pit where waste could be properly disposed.

The next morning, when Market Day was in full swing, the youth headed down in their bright yellow YETAM t-shirts to explain to market sellers and patrons what they had done and why they had done it. Their message was well received. Community members were thankful for the hard work the youth had performed, and therefore open to hearing their advice. At the end of the day there was a marked increase in people disposing of their trash appropriately.

Finally, the youth invited members of the village community and high-ranking officials to a workshop to discuss the causes of malaria and what could be done about it. My colleague Rebecca had arranged for a Peace Corps volunteer working on health education to come to the event to give a brief presentation. Unfortunately, only one community member apart from YETAM youth and facilitators attended the workshop. Thankfully this attendee was a member of the Sanitary Committee, so all was not lost. She arrived to the workshop quite late (just as we were finishing), so a short recap was given for her benefit.

The woman from the Sanitary Committee requested that the youth express their concerns to the village council, which they did two days later. The council was happy to receive the youth’s concerns and invited them to sing the national anthem at a special ceremony celebrating the arrival of the District Officer later in the week.

This ceremony turned out to be the closest thing to a festival I experienced during my time in Bamessing. Well over 1000 villagers attended the event. There was dancing and singing. There were masked characters called Ndobo, who shook fistfuls of brush at passers-by. (Check out this link for a great post on Ndobo by Plan USA’s Linda Raftree.) There were Muslim men in full regalia riding bucking, wild horses. There were flute players, and drummers, and dignitaries. Everyone arrived dressed in their finest traditional outfits. The Fon of Bamessing (the village ruler), a proud mountain of a man, oversaw the ceremony from the perch of his throne. If his hulking stature weren’t enough to separate him from the massive crowd outside the palace, he was seated on top of an authentic (and I’m sure locally made) animal skin rug to emphasize his authority.

YETAM was represented at the event in two ways: First, several of the youth led the singing of the national anthem. Second, the President of YETAM Bamessing, Martin, gave a short speech informing the District Officer about the activities of YETAM. His was the only speech not given by a high-ranking dignitary. Martin presented the District Officer with a copy of a Small-Grant Project Proposal To Increase School Attendance in the Bamessing Community which the youth had written for an upcoming advocacy project.

It cannot be over-emphasized how big an event this was for the community, and how impressive it was that the Village Council chose to make the YETAM youth such an integral part of the proceedings. Whether the youth’s efforts will lead to lasting behavioral change in the community is unknown, but it was a fascinating thing to see this project escalate over the course of the month. I couldn’t have had an experience like this without investing the length of time I did here this summer. And for me at least, that made the experience worthwhile.

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Charles Suglo, Bestway Zottor and Francis Diamenu from Radio Tongu

Sometimes among all the ICT4D hype, we forget about one of the biggest and oldest ICTs there is:  radio.

Last month while in Ghana, I visited Radio Tongu in Sogakofe. The compound where this community radio station sits also serves as a community center, with computer training, a press center and Internet access for a discounted rate.

Plan Ghana staff was meeting with the radio director, Bestway Zottor, and two of the managers, Francis Diamenu and Charles Suglo, to discuss the idea of offering internships for 6-8 youth from the nearby school-based Girls Making Media (GMM) program Plan Ghana and Plan US are supporting.

Charles explained to us that the station gets some 70% of its news from the Internet. The other 30% is sourced from local communities, and recorded on the ground wherever the news is happening. ‘The voice is reality,’ he said. ‘It’s what promises that the news is real. It’s what makes people believe.’ The station broadcasts in 3 languages: Ewe, English and French.

If the youth in the GMM program want to be radio hosts, according to Charles, they need to be well trained and professional, especially since the topics that the youth are bringing up — violence against children and bullying — are sensitive. ‘We have our credibility as a radio station,’ he said. ‘So they need to be well-trained on radio program hosting, know how to manage on air, be skilled on how to ask good questions and follow-up questions.’

There are all kinds of jobs that the youth can do at the radio station, including news, marketing, voice, or running the cafe. Having job skills such as these can begin to give the youth some experiences that will serve them later in life. The training and work they’ve done through the GMM project over the past year give them a foundation for the internship positions at Radio Tongu.

Following the visit to the radio station, we went to the school to meet with the media club. It’s called the  ‘Eye Media Network.’ The group’s slogan is ‘Our eyes are always watching.’

The GMM program began last year with a workshop for 20 of the students on media skills and gender. Following that the Club received a small media kit consisting of digital cameras, voice recorders, a radio, a notice board and Flip cameras. The girls work with 2 advisers and now several boys have also joined the Club. The club plans its own programs and actions, and does a school-wide newscast every Wednesday during the school assembly.

A student reads us the news they've posted on the Notice Board

As part of the program, the Club meets and interviews local and national figures, with a focus on women journalists, government officials and businesswomen. The group has covered school elections and put into place a ‘Walk your Talk’ Accountability initiative.

They conducted a bullying campaign with the goal of reducing the incidence of bullying by 30%. After the campaign, which included posters, educational sessions and other outreach, the Senior Housemaster claimed that bullying had been reduced by 90% compared to the year before. They will begin a campaign against sexual harassment in the coming year.

Some of the challenges that the group faces include posters being ripped down, friends trying to discourage them, boys suffering discrimination for belonging to the “Girls Making Media” club, and not having enough equipment. The club hopes to obtain their own modem, computer, printer and more cameras.

The first week of August, select students from the GMM group participated  in social media training, where they learned how to shoot video, subtitle, access different social networking sites to post their content, and stay safe while online.

The girls in the club said the project has helped them to build confidence and take up leadership positions. ‘We learn how to find information and to bring out problems and get solutions,’ said one girl.

Another said ‘We took bullying as a normal thing. Now we know that bullying is not normal. Now when we see something, we are alert.’

‘I used to walk around without seeing,’ added another ‘but now I see everything because I am looking for news. My mind has been opened.’

The Girls Making Media program covers 7 schools in Ghana. Several other groups in Togo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone also participate in the GMM program.

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This week I came across the “Feedback Mechanisms in International Assistance Organizations” report by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, based on research undertaken by the Listening Project and funded by the Gates Foundation.

The findings and recommendations are very intuitive and it’s nice to have them gathered in one place. The report can serve as a starting point or a pause-and-reflect moment for organizations working specifically on humanitarian accountability as well as those who are looking to integrate better ‘downward’ or beneficiary feedback into development or humanitarian work overall. It also offers good food for thought for those interested in crowd sourcing and the use of new technology for citizen engagement and input.

The report is not too long, and it’s easily laid out for a quick read, so I’d recommend downloading the .pdf and digesting it fully.

To whet your appetite, here are some points I found interesting:

Why do agencies seek recipient feedback?

Four reasons were identified in the report: to improve accountability, to improve effectiveness, to respond to donor requirements or media pressure, and to increase security for staff. Feedback from recipients* was seen to give staff the fuel needed to pressure higher-ups for necessary changes in programming; beneficiary feedback often improved program quality and recipient satisfaction, and seeking dialogue and communication with communities tended to reduce threats of violence. When accountability was a donor requirement but wasn’t part of a larger organizational buy-in or value, unsurprisingly, initiatives were less successful.

To many reading this post or who may read the CDA report, the benefits of participation and feedback and accountability are already obvious, nonetheless it’s  good to see them captured and documented in a report as a support to those who are trying to establish accountability and transparency mechanisms in less-friendly or convinced atmospheres.

Other key points (any quotes come directly from the report):

  • All practitioners interviewed for the study “expressed their unequivocal commitment to participatory and inclusive approaches to humanitarian and development work, and placed significant emphasis on accountability mechanisms.” In addition, many organizations have signed different charters and standards including SPHERE  Guidelines, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) Standard in Accountability and Quality Management and the INGO Accountability Charter. This rather contradicts the impression the media often likes to give about aid agencies as being totally unaccountable to anyone. Or maybe certain parts of aid agencies are more interested and prone to seek accountability and transparency than others.
  • The report says, however, that there are still issues with continuous feedback loops and information doesn’t always return from whence it came. “Typically information gathered from primary stakeholders flows through different parts of organizations, but decisions are rarely communicated back to communities.” One could also ask how often this feedback (or similarly, any information, or data) is returned to communities in accessible formats so that they can use it as well for their own purposes.
  • Good accountability mechanisms are not possible without management buy-in or staff competency. Managers play a critical role in “creating incentives and requirements for field staff to regularly solicit and utilize feedback.” Organizations need to invest in the skills necessary to ensure honest feedback can happen at community level, and/or among the various people and organizations involved (community members, CBOs, local partners, local staff, management staff, headquarters, government, etc).
  • Different agencies are working to develop frameworks to improve feedback and accountability mechanisms. “Some of these new approaches have built-in mechanisms for integrating recipient voices into program strategies and operations.” Some organizations have been collecting primary stakeholder feedback and sharing information with recipients for years as part of participatory development processes. However, the report says, often the exercises are very focused on individual projects or towards particular practical results and the richness of the feedback is not fully appreciated or systematically fed into broader decision-making processes.  “The practices of systematically listening to, gathering and analyzing people’s perspectives, recommendations and complaints have not become routine in many agencies.”
  • Feedback mechanisms need to be designed together with recipients. “Mechanisms must also be appropriate to the specific contexts where they are intended to operate, and agencies have to consider the most appropriate name for the [system], channels, and methods for raising complaints, and culturally appropriate ways of responding.” This is especially important in tense environments or with people who are not accustomed to voicing their opinions.
  • Trust is important, and according to the report is “the first step in getting meaningful feedback. Providing information about the goals and expectations of the organization is the first step in building trust…. Organizations need to establish systematic procedures for reviewing, investigating and responding to feedback or complaints. All this needs to occur in a consistent, timely manner for people to believe in the system and use it.” My own experience with children and youth participation initiatives, has taught me it’s also critical to discuss and agree on clear and honest expectations about what can and will be done with the feedback, and the degree to which feedback will actually be able to change a situation. This goes back to the report’s point on management buy-in and institutional systems. Unless your organization really wants to hear the feedback, is willing to change itself or its actions or viewpoints to respond to the feedback, and has the internal capacity to respond and modify how it’s doing things, asking people what they think can be really tricky and potentially demoralizing for all involved. It’s never nice to hear people say “why did you ask us if you didn’t want to know” or “what is the point of knowing what we think if you’re not going to change?”
  • New and emerging approaches are being tested, including those that use innovative tools and technologies such as SMS and social media. However, the same principles apply to these new technologies as to any other type of feedback loop, and it’s clear that there are still challenges with new technologies.  As mentioned earlier in the report “Most organizations that were successful in gathering feedback… and distributing information back… found it necessary to have more than one mechanism in place…in order to provide options for all of the different groups within the local community to provide feedback and to get information.” This is especially true with new technologies, given the large numbers of people left out of feedback loops due to cost, literacy, age, gender, and access if only SMS or social media are used. Specific challenges with new technologies are highlighted in the report, such as the case of Haiti where an SMS service was set up and people were very willing to use it, “but the agencies had not incorporated a way to monitor the replies and feedback. This resulted in some frustrations and a lost opportunity for a feedback loop between recipient and aid agencies.”

Page 17 of the report offers some good examples of what effective feedback loops look like, page 20 lists several areas that need investment and incentive to ensure effective feedback mechanisms and to guarantee that information is properly gathered and well-utilized, and page 23 offers a list of recommendations for effective and comprehensive feedback loops.

Read the full report here.

*I’m not a big fan of the terms ‘recipient’ and ‘beneficiary’ but have used them here because they are the terms used in the report.

Related Posts:

Ian Thorpe does a good job of commenting some of the portions of the report I didn’t expand on:  “Listening to the people we work for

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