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There’s a great, ongoing discussion happening around aid and development and the ethics of using photographs and other media and stories about people INGOs and NGOs are working with (a.k.a beneficiaries, clients, participants). The discussions are organized by CORE Group in DC. I also participated in the first meeting of the group in April (see this post: On the ethics of photos in aid and development work).

Today’s meeting focused on consent and informed consent for photographs.
Jim Stipe was the key speaker. He shared Catholic Relief Services‘ experiences with developing a process that allows for informed consent in a variety of situations.
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Future discussions will cover related topics such as what happens with social media sites and consent and copyright? What about fair use of images and stories? I’m quite looking forward to continuing the discussions and learning!

Check out the compilation of tweets here on Storify – be sure to read from bottom to top!

Also see this old post: Child protection, the media and youth media programs.

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  1. Share
    Looking forward to group conf call with CORE today ref: Photos, ethics, values and INGO/NGO work.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 06:55:44
  2. This morning I participated in a massive conference call about photography in aid and development, and the ethics and values that surround photos taken and used by NGOs. The call was organized by CORE Group (@coregroupdc). Now maybe I’m exaggerating here, but the call organizer, Ann Hendrix-Jenkins, read off a list of participants that went on forever. I’m estimating that there were something like 40 or 50 people listening in from as many organizations. This topic has always been important for a strong segment of NGO staff and it seems to be gaining steam again.

    After I started tweeting about it, a couple of people asked if I’d be writing a blog post. So here it is. I’ve ‘Storified’ it since I was tweeting instead of taking notes, and because there was a nice side conversation happening with folks on Twitter too. (See the Storify here – it looks a little bit nicer there than it does here.)
  3. Share
    “Humanitarian photography is a hot button issue.Touches on dignity, how we do our jobs, & our ideas about ourselves, others & our work.”
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:08:52
  4. The call organizers had earlier conducted a survey about NGO images, policies, consent, and operational processes around photographers and photography and shared it with participants ahead of the call. The organizers also suggested a couple of links to check out beforehand, including an Aid Watch post (“Adorable child in NGO fund-raising photo sues for royalties“) and a link to a photo  that appeared in the New York Times. These two links and other similar “poverty porn images” had sparked the discussions that led to the decision to organize today’s call. [update: here is the original discussion thread on Linked In]
  5. Share
    Jeez – like 50 orgs on this CORE call re: photography, ethics and values. Discussing: @aidwatch post ht.ly/a3gYA & more
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:06:19
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    I’m reminded that these discussions happen all the time among INGOs, even when they are not documented on Twitter or a blog.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:10:46
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    Second photo touching off this conversation is NYT image from last year re Somalia famine. ht.ly/a3i0s #povertyporn
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:13:32
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    Also reminded that blogs can and do touch off broader and wider discussions that often we never know are happening….
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:14:45
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    @meowtree I think too many people online forget that about a lot of issues. Not all discussions are necessarily open for outside viewing.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:16:09
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    @meowtree Shoot, I forgot about the call! Are you going to write a post about it?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:28:06
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    @meowtree Would have loved to be there but couldn’t… Will you report?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:36:40
  12. Laura Pohl (@lauraepohl) from Bread for the World gave a short introduction to the topic along with some points to think about.
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    What considerations do NGOs (and journos/freelancers) need to go through before publishing a photo? Appropriate use? Consent? What else?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:16:15
  14. After this introduction, Jim Stipe from Catholic Relief Services gave a quick summary of the survey highlights, and we had a group discussion around some of the key issues detected in the survey and additional ones sourced from the participants on the call. 
  15. Heartening to know most INGOs have photo policies saying images must show dignity, & image usage is restricted/protected to some staff.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:21:54
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    Hearing: INGOs don’t seem to have policies stating photo must match/relate to/be part of story or have policies re: copyright of photos.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:23:38
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    Hearing: often pgm staff are taking photos, but many INGOs don’t train staff on policies or good techs for photos or on photo ethics.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:25:47
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    Hearing: What about consent for photos? We need to discuss this much more. It’s key to a good photo policy.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:26:57
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    @meowtree Unable to keep up today, busy. But have you asked @irinnews input? I use their photo service. Will catch up soon. Thanks for topic
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:28:38
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    My question: what is ‘informed consent’? what are different ways to get it? how to ensure ppl rlly understand use of their image and story?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:37:41
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    @meowtree you can’t ensure that ppl understand use of their image unless they know context in which it will be used & understand its nuances
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:40:12
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    Re: informed consent – how not to intimidate ppl with consent forms? Also – shd we be applying US consent laws to local settings? or not?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:39:02
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    @meowtree @jcdonner thanks brilliant, parallel questions for researchers being encouraged in IDRC SIRCAII programme, spread it
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:40:34
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    Also: how does consent differ when children/under 18s are involved? what about difference btwn traditional and social media use of images?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:40:32
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    @meowtree What I learned from ethnography: entirely contextual and subjective. Even when you’ve succeeded, you’ve failed. But you must try
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:41:52
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    @meowtree When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:42:32
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    Someone asks: What about before and after pictures in the case of malnutrition? is it better to show the “after” picture to show progress?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:42:41
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    Another Q: what about when working with images of people in conflict settings? where use of their images may endanger them?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:43:25
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    Comment: Takes a lot more ppl, resources and planning than we think to do this right. We seldom put enough emphasis on ethical image/video.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:44:51
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    @meowtree In the West we focus on “informed consent” re: the individual–but in other cultures, the community consent is more important
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:40:28
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    .@meowtree good discussion of photos in #ict4d vs journalism here is.gd/G4oGsC
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:20:44
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    Comment: Need to work with US media also to help have more ethical use of images.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:46:26
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    Re. #povertyporn conversation @meowtree is tweeting: all humanitarian/devt agencies should have comms ombudspersons to defend those depicted
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:47:19
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    @meowtree I’ve always found Photovoice UK’s ethical guidelines useful in regard to some the issues at your discussion photovoice.org/images/uplo…
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:47:47
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    [ 1] MT @meowtree Comment: Takes a lot more ppl, resources, planning than we think… We seldom put enough emphasis on ethical image/video
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:48:29
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    Interesting commentary on INGO photo policies & the ethics of humanitarian photography by @meowtree.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:48:35
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    @meowtree @giantpandinha I really like the ombudspersons idea but they would need to be local?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:49:28
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    @miskellaneous @meowtree Anybody with an empathetic impulse would be a good start. But yes, eventually, why not local?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:50:32
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    @meowtree photos and ethics such a big topic. I find the whole issue of people coming back from mission trips and volunteering with these
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:49:52
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    @meowtree photos equally disturbing. Take a snap of a poor kid and then put on facebook – where’s the dignity and ethics in that? Volunteer
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:50:36
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    @meowtree eduction is equally important, but so hard!! At the very least, if you wouldnt want a similar image of your mum/child/bro etc to
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:51:35
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    @meowtree be shown are the world or usesd in the same way, then think twice. (this concept doesnt go down well when I mention it to people).
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:52:16
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    .@meowtree One challenge – a Western audience that is eager to consume #povertyporn. Many INGOs seek to reach out to that audience.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:51:08
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    Comment: tension btwn fundraising people, program people. What is the concept of what the org is doing? Charity? solidarity?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:55:08
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    @meowtree @miskellaneous I find the “golden rule” goes a long way. Would I want my child, my niece/nephew depicted this way? Ever?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:54:02
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    @giantpandinha @meowtree yes it’s my golden rule too though there are somethings it misses like cultural understandings of modesty
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:57:06
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    @miskellaneous @meowtree I remember a moment with my agency’s graphic designers when we cropped a woman’s belly peaking out from her t-shirt
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:58:00
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    @miskellaneous @meowtree Again, the golden rule worked there. (But you are right @miskellaneous, might not work in every situation.)
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:59:46
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    Comment: can we look at studies on the use of photos and impact on donors & learn. Also look at ethics vs what works w fundraising?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:07:06
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    Comment (mine) and what about participatory media? How often do we promote people’s own photos/videos of themselves/their communities?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:07:55
To finalize the call, we heard a summary from Jim of some of the areas that the group could consider forming smaller groups to dig into and work on further, including: 
  • Issues around consent, alternative ways to obtain consent, release forms, and how to get truly informed consent.
  • Ethics of both taking photos and ethics of using photos – these are related yet separate issues.
  • What makes for a good NGO photo? What’s a good vs bad photo? What works and what doesn’t?
  • How do you grow your options for getting more high quality photos? How to train your staff on good photography? How to find and work with good freelance photographers? How to plan out a shoot and put the right amount of time into it? How to ensure photos are taken ethically?
  • Creating a photo policy, what does a good photo policy look like? what should it contain?
  • How to tell better stories? You can document your programs with photos and you can tell visual stories – these are 2 different things….
  • Getting good photo captions. If you don’t have good captions, photos are less useful.
  • Other places to source photos; eg., if you don’t have the photos you need, where can you go to get them?
  • Photo journalism vs NGO photography – similar yet different, different approaches and goals. Let’s discuss this.
  • Vocabulary for talking about photos in order to articulate to staff why one photo better than another. Turning gut sense into language and tools.
  • Looking at studies on the use of photos and their impact on donors, what can we learn from that? How to reconcile the different set of ethics that we may find in terms of ‘what works’ for fundraising and what is ethical?
  • What about participatory media and people portraying themselves and their own images
  • An Ombudsperson within INGOs who can defend the rights of those being photographed
  • The question of how people perceive you when you go from doing program work to becoming a photographer in the same afternoon. 
  • The related question about what happens when your organization makes you do both things? Who owns the photos? Do you get paid if your organization uses them? What if you are using your own equipment? How is your organization using you if that’s not your job in the first place? What are you expected to do and how much of this should you actually be doing?
  • Budgeting. We need to begin inserting budget into the conversation. How much can we pay photographers, or do we invest in training our own staff?
  1. Share
    Well pointed out by @miskellaneous: our “golden rule” re. depiction of “the Other” sometimes “misses cultural understandings of modesty”.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:08:55
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    However, I still believe some “golden rule” is better than none, and the bottom line should be: err on the side of caution.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:10:15
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    Comment: What about when you’re asked to be both a “program” person and also take comms/PR photos? How does community view you?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:08:59
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    Comment: what are the rules when your focus is pgm, but ‘photographer’ is added to your task list before you go out to ‘the field’?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:10:10
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    @meowtree @julienne_l I work with youth and struggle with this a lot. How do you keep integrity and get ppl to pay attention? #povertyporn
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:04:39
  6. I’m looking forward to continuing the discussions as this is an issue that constantly jumps out at me. It’s fantastic to know that there is such a strong contingent of NGO staff who are keen to address the issues around how we take and how we use photographs of the people that we work with.
  7. Share
    That’s it for tweets from @coregroupdc conversation on #povertyporn, photos, ethics and values. More later – discussions will continue.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:11:55

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Whydev and Development Crossroads, are launching a peer coaching matching service. The idea is that young professionals, graduate students, and others starting out in international development could benefit from peer coaching. So the two organizations are collaborating to develop a matching service.

Why peer coaching? According to whydev, “If you have worked in international development, you have probably experienced isolation. It seems to be a fact of life in this industry. Field-based expat staff may be the only person at their level in their local office, or the only expat on the team (or one of very few), separated from their local staff counterparts by cultural, language, and organisational barriers. Even people working in the home office may feel isolated. Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable sharing their struggles with their boss.  Or maybe the boss him/herself is the problem.”

When you’re having work issues, you tend to unload them on those closest to you, and this can cause additional stress. Peer coaching offers a way to discuss and vent about these issues, taking some strain off of your close relationships.

“While not trained as a coach, [a peer coach] is willing to coach you according to a simple (yet effective) peer coaching model. This involves actively listening without judgment, reflecting back what he/she is hearing, asking probing questions, and helping you generate concrete action steps to move you forward.”

In order to design a peer coaching service that meets people’s needs, whydev and Development Crossroads are looking for some input.

“Would you want a peer coach? What would you like to get out of such a relationship? How often would you keep in touch? How much input and oversight would you want from us? These are the type of questions we would love to get your thoughts on.”

Head on over to whydev’s site to learn more about peer coaching and give your input through a quick survey!

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FMLN guerrilla with rifle poised in town of Chalatenango, El Salvador, 1988. This photo is from the article referred to below. Original at http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com, Winter 1994.

A version of this post was originally published on the Peace Dividend Trust blog.

I lived in El Salvador for about 6 months during the civil war and over 9 years post-conflict.  So I was quite interested in the Society for International Development (SID) Congress July 30th panel on the “Nexus of Conflict and Development.”

The panel was composed of a high-powered, high level group of men*, presided over with humor and grace by a woman of the same caliber, Tessie San Martin, President and CEO of Plan International USA, SID Board Member (and my boss!).

Arthur Keys, President and CEO of International Relief and Development introduced the panel, asking questions like:  Can development be done in a conflictive environment. Is settlement of conflict needed before development can take place? Can development assistance be used as a tool for peacemaking?

Keys noted the changing, fluid environments in conflict zones and their inherent complexities – the interconnectedness of many variables that cannot be addressed in isolation.

Within that context the panelists discussed a variety of issues, from the changing nature of conflict and violence, to the pillars of post-conflict reconstruction, to local ownership and local government credibility and legitimacy to the role of the military in ‘delivering’ development to front loading funds in conflict areas to USAID branding in conflict zones. Listening to the discussion, I realized many of the questions that we were asking ourselves 20 years ago in post-conflict El Salvador are still unresolved today.

One of the most interesting conversations of the panel was catalyzed by San Martin’s question on local ownership and legitimacy. “We’re talking about ownership and local voices, but one question is whose local voice? There are a number of vulnerable groups,” she said. “How do you deal with the question of ‘whose voice’?”

Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator of USAID, answered by telling the story of his experiences negotiating a peace agreement in Angola under Bill Clinton.

“When I was asked how this agreement benefits women, I answered that not a single part of this agreement discriminates against women,” he said. “But what I learned is that a peace agreement that calls itself gender neutral is actually working against women.”

The Angola agreement was based on 13 separate amnesties, he said.

I learned that ‘amnesty’ means ‘men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes committed against women.’”

Steinberg went on to comment that the closest woman to the peace process in Angola was a female interpreter, who would “raise her eyebrows when we men did something stupid.”

He described the peace agreement as being “come and hand in your weapons and you get benefits.” But most women involved in the conflict were not bearing arms, they were playing other roles. So when demobilization came, they got no benefits. On top of that, “we sent men back to communities where women had become very empowered in their absence,” he said. “The men returned and there was no role for them. Many drank off all their benefits. They started beating their wives. The incidence of sexual aggression rose. So you saw that the end of the one conflict brought about a new insidious form of violence against women.”

Another area where the peace agreements forgot about women was in de-mining activities. “We cleared the roads of mines,” said Steinberg. “But we didn’t clear the fields. The water points. Places where women gathered wood. As communities returned home, and women went back to collecting water and firewood, they were blowing their legs off with remarkable regularity.”

The peace process started to fall apart a couple of years later, he said, but by then it was too late to bring women’s organizations into the process. “We tried to work with women’s groups but they would say, ‘This isn’t about us, it was about the men with guns. It hasn’t involved us at all.’” The country erupted into war again.

Steinberg said he was happy that USAID is addressing these issues now. “The first thing I put into place was support to women’s participation in peace processes and to provide them with protection to do so, as it’s dangerous for women to be involved in this work. Nothing about them without them – this is our phrase,” he said, and cited UN Security Council Resolution 1325 as a strong influence on him:

“The Security Council adopted resolution (S/RES/1325) on women and peace and security on 31 October 2000. The resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Resolution 1325 urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts. It also calls on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict. The resolution provides a number of important operational mandates, with implications for Member States and the entities of the United Nations system.”

Ambassador Rick Barton, US Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the UN, agreed that the role of women is critical, and “it starts with who’s negotiating the peace process.” Barton noted that the percentage of women in peace negotiations is 5-7%, and that it’s a recurring concern. “If you are not there at the start of the race, it will be designed in a certain way and you will be disadvantaged. I’m hopeful that the UN Women’s Commission, led by Michelle Bachelet will bring attention and focus to this issue.”

“What about men and boys?” a woman in the audience asked. “It’s great to empower women, but what are you doing to change the attitudes and beliefs that men have? How can we get them to realize we are equal?”

Barton agreed that getting men’s attention is critical. “These are not women’s issues, they are society’s issues. Men and boys need to come a long way.”

“It’s easy to work on gender with this administration,” commented Steinberg, noting that USAID is trying to institutionalize it through the position of Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. “It’s not only about protecting women or about victimization,” he said. “It’s about changing attitudes and instilling into our DNA the notion that women are key to building stable societies, ensuring sustainable growth and recovering from conflict situations. We need to focus on gender in addition to women.”

Sitting, there, listening to the panel discussions, I kept thinking about a Salvadoran friend from some 20 years ago. She was from a ‘conflict zone’ but would have never called herself an ex-combatant. For several years, she had moved around with the guerrilla, cooking and supporting the cause, but didn’t carry a weapon. Post conflict, she had lingering health problems stemming from that period, when she had been chronically malnourished. During her time with the guerrilla, she had contracted glandular TB, a condition that embarrassed her. At 34 years of age then, she had the ruddy, freckled and fresh face of a young girl, but she wore dentures as she had lost all of her teeth. She worked cleaning an office and always struggled financially. I’m not sure she ever got any benefits from demobilization.

I’m also reminded of a rather large post-conflict program that I was responsible for monitoring at the time, together with a few other privately funded donor agencies. Aimed at providing community-based psycho-social support to returning ex-combatants in several zones formerly held by the guerrilla, the program ended up mostly supporting women and children who were suffering domestic violence at the hands of the demobilizing men. The male ex-combatants either didn’t feel they needed psycho-social support or didn’t want to face the stigma of seeking it out, but the women took advantage of it. Community psycho-social support agents fully recognized that they were treating a secondary effect and not addressing the real causes of the violence.

According to a 1994 article by Betsy Morgan in On the Issues Magazine, ”Nearly one third of the FMLN guerrilla forces, who fought for 12 harrowing years in the mountains, were women. But neither of the restructuring plans [that of the government or that of the rebels] directly addressed women’s issues: equality in education, health care, job opportunities, and legal justice in instances of rape and domestic abuse…. Two female commandantes from the FMLN were on the negotiating team. However, when the peace accords were signed on January 16, 1992, all the signatories were male. The subsequent reconstruction plans called for demilitarization, but neither the government nor the FMLN addressed the hidden violence – domestic abuse, rape and incest – that invariably accompanies a military climate of violence, and neither side made provisions for the fair treatment of female ex-combatants, particularly in terms of land tenure. It can only be concluded that for all of the women’s influence during the war, at the point of peace, the women’s movement was still seen as a thing apart from the arena where real decisions were made.”

There were women involved in all aspects of the war, including negotiating the Peace Accords in El Salvador, but it didn’t guarantee that women’s needs were addressed during the negotiations.  It didn’t ensure that the post-conflict programs agreed to in the Accords were fully funded or that programs were designed and planned with participation of those they were meant to benefit or that women got fair treatment. It did not guarantee that the different efforts were non-politicized or that they were well-implemented. As Keys pointed out when introducing the panel: the nexus of conflict and development is a complex place, with every element impacting on every other, and as Steinberg and Barton pointed out, it’s not only about women, it’s about gender.

I’m glad to see the discussions taking place, and I hope that experiences, failures and successes from places like Angola, El Salvador, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan and so many others are fully examined and shared to see what more can be done to create environments where women are in decision-making roles before, during and after conflict; where the broader implications of gender and gender roles are considered; and where both women and men who achieve positions of power are really reaching out to, listening to and representing those who don’t have a seat at the table.

*Members of the panel:

Tessie San Martin, President and CEO, Plan International USA and SID Board Member (moderator)

Ambassador Rick Barton, US Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations

Alonzo L Fulgham, Vice President, IRD

Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, USAID

Tom Wheelock, Vice President and Sr Director, Communities in Transition, Creative Associates

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I got a great comment from Gareth on my last post Why aid and development workers should be reading blogs:

Do you know of any good blogs from local aid workers? I enjoy reading all these blogs from western-educated aid workers like myself, but we do tend to have a fairly similar way of looking at things, so it’d be great to read something from a different perspective. Any suggestions?

He’s right of course.  It would be nice to add some local perspectives to the lists of aid and development bloggers that float around.

Two well-known sites to find ‘local’ voices are Global Voices and Rising Voices. There is also Maneno which is (used to be?) a platform for bloggers in Africa, but it seems to be under maintenance while an open source platform is developed. I’m not sure how many of the bloggers on those platforms technically work at aid or development organizations, but regardless of that minor detail, you will get great local perspectives on aid and development issues there.

But the question stands – where can we find local aid and development worker blogs?

Suggestions please!

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Dave Algoso, a grad student at NYU, just published a great post called A Grad Student’s Guide to the International Development Blogosphere wherein he explains why grad students should be reading blogs. It struck me that many of the reasons he recommends students read blogs are similar to why I recommend that you, my dear colleagues and friends who are development or aid practitioners or who sit in headquarters or fundraising or regional offices, or who make policy decisions, read blogs.

I’m a bit hesitant to share these tips because then you will realize that I’m not really all that smart, I just read a lot of blogs and discuss them a lot on Twitter…. On the other hand, I’m fairly confident that no matter how much I recommend blogs and Twitter, most of you will say you don’t have time, and I’ll still come out looking like a genius for knowing what’s going to hit the New York Times 2-3 days ahead of when you read it and forward it to me asking me if I’ve seen it!

You can read Dave’s post here and I encourage you to do so – so that he will get additional hits to his site and because he deserves the credit for writing the original post.

Below, I’ve taken Dave’s post (note: with permission) and substituted “development and aid workers” for “grad student” and switched it up just a bit to make it fit that context.

Here’s Dave’s post with my changes in italics:

Several friends have recently asked me which blogs I read and how I manage my reading. This post is targeted at my fellow aid and development practitioners, but those of you who work on policy, advocacy, customer service, grant writing and technical support, communications, marketing, and anyone who wants to know what’s happening in aid and development should find it useful as well. Let’s start with why to read blogs, then move on to the how, and finally the what.

1. Why should I read blogs? I do plenty of reading for work already…

I’m a fan of reading blogs. No big surprise there. Reading blogs should be part of how you get smart about your field. You read the news, right? New York Times or the Economist or People Magazine (you know who you are!) or whatever? Well newspapers write for general audiences. They won’t get very far into the complexity and nuance. You read a bunch of internal reports for work too? Well most reports are written for donors. They generally won’t tell you about what the theories and the practical work have to do with the larger picture of development. They also won’t critique the way you do business or offer you a cross cutting picture of where development and aid are headed across sectors and across organizations.

Blogs cover many of the same issues as both newspapers and journals and project reports, but with an eye toward what they mean for practitioners and policy makers. You’ll get stories from the field, scathing critiques of the latest development fads, and heated debates on everything from microfinance to conflict minerals. The blogosphere is the one place where geography is no barrier to the conversation. Academics, journalists, donors, Washington think tank-ers, UN or NGO staff — they all bounce ideas around here.

For a development worker, blogs also provide a check on what the experts, your bosses, top government officials, donors, advocates, marketers, policy-makers and celebrity spokespersons say. You’ll find out pretty quickly which issues are actually top-of-mind for practitioners and which issues only matter to the Ivory Tower types, those sitting in offices making policies, and those making things up. And if work, work meetings, conferences and discussions around the water cooler don’t allow you to delve far enough into an issue you care about, blogs can make up for that.

2. Blogs can be overwhelming. How do I manage the information flow?

First and foremost: You do not need to visit every blog’s website to check for new posts. In fact, you shouldn’t. You can subscribe by email if you like (most blogs have a button on the right hand side where you can subscribe by email) but even that can be overwhelming as blog posts mix with your normal emails.

There’s an easier way to read blogs. Instead of subscribing by email, you subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed. RSS means “really simple syndication.” You just subscribe to the RSS feed using a feed aggregator, and you’ll get all of your blogs in one place.

Some email programs (e.g. Outlook) can act as feed aggregators. I prefer to use Google Reader; if you have a Google Mail account, then you already have a Google Reader account. If you are on the road someplace with spotty internet connections, you can use a free program called FeedDemon; it’s a little clunkier than Google Reader, but it can download posts for viewing when you’re offline. On your iPhone, you can use another free program called MobileRSS. Both FeedDemon and MobileRSS sync with Google Reader, so your RSS subscriptions or starred items will always be the same in all three. (There are also many other options for feed aggregators.)

Once you have a feed aggregator, start subscribing. Most sites with feeds will have a link that looks like this orange square. Click on it to subscribe. Often you can just type the site’s URL into the feed aggregator, and it will figure out the rest.

The practical upshot of this feed aggregator stuff is that you can go to one place and see all of the new posts from all the blogs you follow. You can also “follow” your normal news (more on this below). This keeps you from being overwhelmed, so you’re more likely to keep up with them.

3. Okay, I’m sold. What should I be reading?

In my opinion, there are seven must-read blogs for any one working in the field of aid and development.

Following these seven will keep you up to speed with the debates of the day, and you’ll get links to the most interesting posts from other blogs. Seriously, if you read nothing else, at least subscribe to these seven.

4. C’mon. Only seven? I can handle a few more.

I hoped you’d say that. Here are some others that I highly recommend.

Most of the blogs above are pretty general, though everyone brings different perspectives and interests. There are also many issue/region-specific blogs you may want to check out. Here are a few that I recommend.

(Note from Linda here: I also have a list of blogs I read regularly – you can see it here on the right hand side bar under the title ‘blogroll’. Check some of them out when you have a chance. Or if you have a particular area of development or aid that you are interested in, let me know and I’m happy to give you some recommendations on specific blogs on that topic to get you started.)

I generally steer away from the blogs of NGOs and donor agencies. The content tends to be fluff. Of course, if you work for (or want to work for) a particular organization, it might be worth following them. There are two that I would recommend as generally thoughtful and interesting:

Finally, there’s news. Almost every news website does RSS feeds, so you can subscribe to them through Google Reader. I get the Economist, the New York Times Africa feed, the East AfricanForeign Policy, and others bundled together with my blogs. I also subscribe to TED talksxkcdGallup World polls, and more. If a site publishes regular content, it probably has an RSS feed. I barely even go to websites anymore.

5. But hey, you forgot about…

Am I missing anything? Feel free to fill the comments section here and on Dave’s post with suggestions.

Please don’t be offended if I failed to include you or your favorite blog above. This isn’t meant as a definitive list. Here are some more blogs I think are worthwhile. The full list of what I follow is longer still. The above is simply meant to get people started — and I don’t want to scare off the newcomers.

*****

Thanks to Dave for the great post, and hopefully some of you colleagues who haven’t caught the blog bug yet will get motivated!

Hopefully some more of you will start writing blogs too…. here are a couple links that talk about some of the reasons that blogging and other kinds of social media can be helpful in thinking about our program work:

Working and living out loud

Social media and humanitarian response

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Coming from the viewpoint that accountability and transparency, citizen engagement and public debate are critical for good development, I posted yesterday on 5 ways that ICTs can support the MDGs. I got to thinking I would be remiss not to also post something on ways that ICTs (information and communication technologies) and poor or questionable use of ICTs and social media can hinder development.

It’s not really the fault of the technology. ICTs are tools, and the real issues lie behind the tools — they lie with people who create, market and use the tools. People cannot be separated from cultures and societies and power and money and politics. And those are the things that tend to hinder development, not really the ICTs themselves. However the combination of human tendencies and the possibilities ICTs and social media offer can can sometimes lead us down a shaky path to development or actually cause harm to the people that we are working with.

When do I start getting nervous about ICTs and social media for social good?

1) When the hype wins out over the real benefits of the technology. Sometimes the very idea of a cool and innovative technology wins out over an actual and realistic analysis of its impact and success. Here I pose the cases of the so-called Iran Twitter Revolution and One Laptop per Child (and I’ll throw in Play Pumps for good measure, though it’s not an ICT project, it’s an acknowledged hype and failure case). There are certainly other excellent examples. So many examples in fact that there are events called Fail Faires being organized to discuss these failures openly and learn how to avoid them in the future.

2) When it’s about the technology, not the information and communications needs.  When you hear someone say “We want to do an mHealth project” or “We need to have a Facebook page” or “We have a donor who wants to give us a bunch of mobile phones–do you know of something we can do with them?” you can be pretty sure that you have things backwards and are going to run into trouble down the road, wasting resources and energy on programs that are resting on weak foundations. Again, we can cite the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, where you have a tool, but the context for using it isn’t there (connectivity, power, teacher training and content). There is debate whether OLPC was a total failure or whether it paved the way for netbooks, cheap computers and other technologies that we use today. I’ll still say that the grand plan of OLPC:  a low-cost laptop for every child leading to development advances; had issues from the start because it was technology led.

3) When technology is designed from afar and parachuted in. If you don’t regularly involve people who will use your new technology, in the context where you’re planning for it to be used, you’re probably going to find yourself in a bind. True for ICTs and for a lot of other types of innovations out there. There’s a great conversation on Humanitarian Design vs. Design Imperialism that says it all. ICTs are no different. Designing information and communication systems in one place and imposing them on people in another place can hinder their uptake and/or waste time and money that could be spent in other ways that would better contribute to achieving development goals.

4) When the technology is part of a larger hidden agenda. I came across two very thought-provoking posts this week: one on the US Government’s Internet Freedom agenda and another from youth activists in the Middle East and North Africa region who criticize foundations and other donors for censoring their work when it doesn’t comply with US foreign policy messages. Clearly there are hidden political agendas at work which can derail the use of ICTs for human rights work and build mistrust instead of democracy. Another example of a potential hidden agenda is donation of proprietary hardware and software by large technology companies to NGOs and NGO consortia in order to lock in business (for example mHealth or eHealth) and prevent free and open source tools from being used, and which end up being costly to maintain, upgrade and license in the long-term.

5) When tech innovations put people and lives at risk. I’d encourage you to read this story about Haystack, a software hyped as a way to circumvent government censorship of social media tools that activists use to organize. After the US government fast-tracked it for use in Iran, huge security holes were found that could put activists in great danger. In our desire to see things as cool, cutting edge, and perhaps to be seen as cool and cutting edge ourselves, those of us suggesting and promoting ICTs for reporting human rights abuses or in other sensitive areas of work can cause more harm than we might imagine. It’s dangerous to push new technologies that haven’t been properly piloted and evaluated. It’s very easy to get caught up in coolness and forget the nuts and bolts and the time it takes to develop and test something new.

6) When technologists and humanitarians work in silos. A clear example of this might be the Crisis Camps that sprung up immediately after the Haiti Earthquakes in 2010. The outpouring of good will was phenomenal, and there were some positive results. The tech community got together to see how to help, which is a good thing. However the communication between the tech community and those working on the ground was not always conducive to developing tech solutions that were actually helpful. Here is an interesting overview by Ethan Zuckerman of some of the challenges the Crisis Commons faced. I remember attending a Crisis Camp and feeling confused about why one guy was building an iPhone application for local communities to gather data. Cool application for sure, but from what people I knew on the ground were saying, most people in local communities in Haiti don’t have iPhones. With better coordination among the sectors, people could put their talents and expertise to real use rather than busy work that makes them feel good.

7) When short attention spans give rise to vigilante development interventions. Because most of us in the West no longer have a full attention span (self included here), we want bite sized bits of information. But the reality of development is complicated, complex and deep. Social media has been heralded as a way to engage donors, supporters and youth; as a way to get people to help and to care. However the story being told has not gotten any deeper or more realistic in most cases than the 30 second television commercials or LiveAid concerts that shaped perceptions of the developing world 25 years ago. The myth of the simple story and simple solution propagates perhaps even further because of how quickly the message spreads. This gives rise to public perception that aid organizations are just giant bureaucracies (kind of true) and that a simple person with a simple idea could just go in and fix things without so much hullabaloo (not the case most of the time). The quick fix culture, supported and enhanced by social media, can be detrimental to the public’s patience with development, giving rise to apathy or what I might call vigilante development interventions — whereby people in the West (cough, cough, Sean Penn) parachute into a developing country or disaster scene to take development into their own hands because they can’t understand why it’s not happening as fast as the media tells them it should.

8 ) When DIY disregards proven practice. In line with the above, there are serious concerns in the aid and development community about the ‘amateurization’ of humanitarian and development work. The Internet allows people to link and communicate globally very easily. Anyone can throw up a website or a Facebook page and start a non-profit that way, regardless of their understanding of the local dynamics or good development practices built through years of experience in this line of work. Many see criticism from development workers as a form of elitism rather than a call for caution when messing around in other people’s lives or trying to do work that you may not be prepared for or have enough understanding about. The greater awareness and desire to use ‘social media for social good’ may be a positive thing, but it may also lead to good intentions gone awry and again, a waste of time and resources for people in communities, or even harm. There’s probably no better example of this phenomenon than #1millionshirts, originally promoted by Mashable, and really a terrible idea. See Good Intents for discussion around this phenomenon and tools to help donors educate themselves.

9) When the goal is not development but brand building through social media. Cause campaigns have been all the rage for the past several years. They are seen as a way for for-profit companies and non-profits to join together for the greater good. Social media and new ICTs have helped this along by making cause campaigns cheap and easy to do. However many ‘social media for social good’ efforts are simply bad development and can end up actually doing ‘social harm’. Perhaps a main reason for some of the bad ideas is that most social media cause campaigns are not actually designed to do social good. As Mashable says, through this type of campaign, ‘small businesses can gain exposure without breaking the bank, and large companies can reach millions of consumers in a matter of hours.’ When ‘social good’ goals are secondary to the ‘exposure for my brand’ goals, I really question the benefits and contribution to development.

10) When new media increases voyeurism, sensationalism or risk. In their rush to be the most innovative or hard-hitting in the competition for scarce donor dollars, organizations sometimes expose communities to child protection risks or come up with cutesy or edgy social media ideas that invade and interrupt people’s lives; for example, ideas like putting a live web camera in a community so that donors can log on 24/7 and see what’s happening in a ‘real live community.’ (This reminds me a bit of the Procrastination Pit’s 8 Cutest and Weirdest Live Animal Cams). Or when opportunities for donors to chat with people in communities become gimmicks and interrupt people in communities from their daily lives and work. Even professional journalists sometimes engage in questionable new media practices that can endanger their sources or trivialize their stories. With the Internet, stories stick around a lot longer and travel a lot farther and reach their fingers back to where they started a lot more easily than they used to. Here I will suggest two cases: Nick Kristof’s naming and fully identifying a 9-year-old victim of rape in the DRC and @MacClelland’s ‘live tweeting’ for Mother Jones of a rape survivor’s visit to the doctor in Haiti.

Update: Feb 22, 2011 – adding a 10a!

10a) When new media and new technologies put human rights activists at risk of identification and persecution. New privacy and anonymity issues are coming up due to the increasing ubiquity of video for human rights documenting. This was clearly seen in the February 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere.  From Sam Gregory’s excellent piece on privacy and anonymity in the digital age: “In the case of video (or photos), a largely unaddressed question arises. What about the rights to anonymity and privacy for those people who appear, intentionally or not, in visual recordings originating in sites of individual or mass human rights violations? Consider the persecution later faced by bystanders and people who stepped in to film or assist Neda Agha-Soltan as she lay dying during the election protests in Iran in 2009. People in video can be identified by old-fashioned investigative techniques, by crowd-sourcing (as with the Iran example noted above…) or by face detection/recognition software. The latter is now even built into consumer products like the Facebook Photos, thus exposing activists using Facebook to a layer of risk largely beyond their control.”

11) When ICTs and new media turn activism to slacktivism. Quoting from Evgeny Morozov, “slacktivism” is the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation: why bother with sit-ins and the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture if one can be as loud campaigning in the virtual space? Given the media’s fixation on all things digital — from blogging to social networking to Twitter — every click of your mouse is almost guaranteed to receive immediate media attention, as long as it’s geared towards the noble causes. That media attention doesn’t always translate into campaign effectiveness is only of secondary importance.” Nuff said.

I’ll leave you with this kick-ass Le Tigre Video: Get off the Internet.… knowing full well that I’m probably the first one who needs to take that advice.

‘It feels so 80s… or early 90s…  to be political… where are my friends? GET OFF THE INTERNET, I’ll meet you in the streets….’


Related posts on Wait… What?

3 ways to integrate ICTs into development work

5 ways ICTs can support the MDGs

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Amateurs, professionals, innovations and smart aid

I and C, then T

MDGs through a child rights lens


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