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Posts Tagged ‘agency’

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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My main experience with disasters comes from working at an international development organization in El Salvador and happening to be the only senior manager who wasn’t on annual vacation when a huge earthquake struck almost exactly 9 years ago, on January 13, 2001. The rush to act was immediate, and it was a lot of learning by doing.  I got handed the responsibility by fate I suppose and didn’t do such a bad job of it, if I do say so.  At that time we were pretty unprepared; something that has certainly changed since then in the organization where I work.  We now have country level disaster plans at hand and support a lot of disaster risk reduction and preparedness work with local communities and governments.

One of the main challenges for us in responding to the Salvadoran earthquakes in 2001 was information:  lack of information, wrong information, too much information to sort through, outdated information, etc.  We spent way too much time in staff meetings and meetings with other organizations/government sharing what we had done and what we were planning to do, only to find out that everything had changed while we were sitting there, and some decisions were no longer valid.  There was no effective way to manage all the information in the constantly moving and changing circumstances.

And in 2010…?

I’m sure things have changed quite a lot in disaster work since 2001, and since 2005 when I spent about 6 weeks in India and Thailand after the Tsunami, but I would bet that information management will still be a major challenge during the relief and recovery efforts in Haiti following the January 12, 2010 earthquake, especially given the scale of the crisis and the number of agencies who are already working there or are just now arriving to set up shop.

Today’s technology should allow us a better way to manage this information.  I hope that organizations working on the ground in Haiti will take advantage of the shared and open digital information systems available to them that can be updated in various ways by various people in various locations.  The convergence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as digital mapping, crowd sourcing and crowd feeding of information, GPS, mobile phones and SMS,  geo-visualization for rapid decision making and trend spotting will be put to a massive test as the disaster response in Haiti unfolds.

In comes Ushahidi

The place where these ICT tools are converging right now into one ready to use platform is at www.haiti.ushahidi.com.  (I confess that I’m unaware of other options that offer the same or similar crisis management capacity – feel free to post other examples in the comments section). [update: for regularly updated detailed info on Ushahidi and other digital tools being used in the Haiti Crisis, visit the Ushahidi Situation Room].

According to the Ushahidi blog, work on the Haiti crisis map began about 2 hours after the massive quake struck, thanks to a global effort of people linked to Ushahidi, Frontline SMS/Frontline SMS: Medic, UN OCHA Colombia, the International Network of Crisis Mappers, and the US State Department (and probably others behind the scenes that haven’t been mentioned yet).  The system is now operational.  The in-country short code 4636 went live on January 16th.

What is Ushahidi and how does it work?

Ushahidi could be described as a mapping tool and also as a platform I suppose.  Each Ushahidi ‘instance’ is created based on the information needs of whoever is setting up the instance, and a map of a particular geographical area.  Via email, SMS, Twitter, or by filling in an on-line form, anyone can send in information to populate the map with information.  This information falls into specific topic areas that have been decided beforehand by whoever is setting up the site. (Ushahidi instances have been used to track drug stock outs, to monitor elections and human rights abuses, and in crisis situations, for example.)  In the case of Haiti, it’s deaths, emergencies, threats, responses, missing persons, etc.

The “incident reports” that people send in are uploaded onto the map (using geo-location tags) to give a visual representation of what is happening and where.  They are labeled as “verified” or “unverified”.  As data is triaged, the unverified reports are eventually verified.  Different layers of information can be viewed, and you can see an overview or zoom in for more detail on the map.  [Update:  These reports are being channeled now into Sahana’s system (read about it here) system, developed in Sri Lanka for the Asian Tsunami in 2004.]

To really understand how this works, the best thing is to just visit the site.

Crowdsourcing and Crowdfeeding

Two of the basic concepts behind Ushahidi are “crowd sourcing” and “crowd feeding”. Crowd sourcing means information is obtained from the “crowd”.  Crowd feeding means that the collected information is consolidated and fed back to that same “crowd” so that they are better able to make decisions.  People standing right there on the ground usually know what is happening right there on the ground better than people visiting periodically from centralized headquarters, and via Ushahidi, that information is pulled in from the sources on the ground in almost real-time.  Giving consolidated information back and/or responding to those who provided it completes the circle.

Trust the Public

With a large enough amount of information input, any bogus incident reports can be identified.  I won’t go into all the discussions around the validity of crowd-sourced information as it’s been a large debate, but seems to play out that yes, you can trust the information to the degree necessary to help make quick decisions in times of crisis or emergency — and this information is better than no information or information that comes too late.

In fact, in September, I participated in a meeting about geo-visualization at Google’s offices in Washington, DC (see my before lunch and after lunch posts) and heard presentations by both the American Red Cross (ARC) and the US Federal Environmental Management Association (FEMA). Both organizations talked about the need to trust citizens to report on what is happening right in front of them, and that these reports are every bit as reliable as reports by experts, and a whole lot quicker because people have mobile phones now.  Pulling in information from citizens and mapping out the situation visually can be a huge resource for those making decisions about response.

What’s needed now

What is needed now for Ushahidi in Haiti to work to its fullest potential is for people to share information about what is happening where they are.  The general public in Haiti can text a message into 4636 to submit a report giving their location and telling about their situation: missing persons, need for medical attention, supplies needed, help that has already arrived, changing priorities, etc. [Internationally use 44-76-280-2524, or report using the web form at the Ushahidi Haiti site].

Emergency Aid agencies too

Information sharing is not only something for the public.  In addition to input from the local population, it would be great if local organizations and international agencies would use Ushahidi to share information on what they are seeing as they work in and pass through different communities.  By being open and sharing this kind of information, maybe overall coordination can improve and precious time and resources won’t be wasted because of information challenges.  [Update:  Organizations on the ground can register at Sahana, and receive situation reports so that they can provide assistance.]

One aid agency can’t canvas the whole country alone, and Ushahidi offers a way to get real information from real people on the ground in near real-time. I think it would have much been easier in El Salvador in 2001 if we had the ICTs then that we have now.  I hope people and organizations take the best advantage of them in 2010, now that they are available.


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