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Posts Tagged ‘communication’

This is a cross post from Heather Leson, Community Engagement Director at the Open Knowledge Foundation. The original post appeared here on the School of Data site.

by Heather Leson

What is the currency of change? What can coders (consumers) do with IATI data? How can suppliers deliver the data sets? Last week I had the honour of participating in the Open Data for Development Codeathon and the International Aid Transparency Initiative Technical Advisory Group meetings. IATI’s goal is to make information about aid spending easier to access, use, and understand. It was great that these events were back-to-back to push a big picture view.

My big takeaways included similar themes that I have learned on my open source journey:

You can talk about open data [insert tech or OS project] all you want, but if you don’t have an interactive community (including mentorship programmes), an education strategy, engagement/feedback loops plan, translation/localization plan and a process for people to learn how to contribute, then you build a double-edged barrier: barrier to entry and barrier for impact/contributor outputs.

Currency

About the Open Data in Development Codeathon

At the Codathon close, Mark Surman, Executive Director of Mozilla Foundation, gave us a call to action to make the web. Well, in order to create a world of data makers, I think we should run aid and development processes through this mindset. What is the currency of change? I hear many people talking about theory of change and impact, but I’d like to add ‘currency’. This is not only about money, this is about using the best brainpower and best energy sources to solve real world problems in smart ways. I think if we heed Mark’s call to action with a “yes, and”, then we can rethink how we approach complex change. Every single industry is suffering from the same issue: how to deal with the influx of supply and demand in information. We need to change how we approach the problem. Combined events like these give a window into tackling problems in a new format. It is not about the next greatest app, but more about asking: how can we learn from the Webmakers and build with each other in our respective fields and networks?

Ease of Delivery

The IATI community / network is very passionate about moving the ball forward on releasing data. During the sessions, it was clear that the attendees see some gaps and are already working to fill them. The new IATI website is set up to grow with a Community component. The feedback from each of the sessions was distilled by the IATI – TAG and Civil Society Guidance groups to share with the IATI Secretariat.

In the Open Data in Development, Impact of Open Data in Developing Countries, and CSO Guidance sessions, we discussed some key items about sharing, learning, and using IATI data. Farai Matsika, with International HIV/Aids Alliance, was particularly poignant reminding us of IATI’s CSO purpose – we need to share data with those we serve.

Country edits IATI

One of the biggest themes was data ethics. As we rush to ask NGOs and CSOs to release data, what are some of the data pitfalls? Anahi Ayala Iaccuci of Internews and Linda Raftree of Plan International USA both reminded participants that data needs to be anonymized to protect those at risk. Ms. Iaccuci asked that we consider the complex nature of sharing both sides of the open data story – successes and failures. As well, she advised: don’t create trust, but think about who people are trusting. Turning this model around is key to rethinking assumptions. I would add to her point: trust and sharing are currency and will add to the success measures of IATI. If people don’t trust the IATI data, they won’t share and use it.

Anne Crowe of Privacy International frequently asked attendees to consider the ramifications of opening data. It is clear that the IATI TAG does not curate the data that NGOS and CSOs share. Thus it falls on each of these organizations to learn how to be data makers in order to contribute data to IATI. Perhaps organizations need a lead educator and curator to ensure the future success of the IATI process, including quality data.

I think that School of Data and the Partnership for Open Data have a huge part to play with IATI. My colleague Zara Rahman is collecting user feedback for the Open Development Toolkit, and Katelyn Rogers is leading the Open Development mailing list. We collectively want to help people become data makers and consumers to effectively achieve their development goals using open data. This also means also tackling the ongoing questions about data quality and data ethics.


Here are some additional resources shared during the IATI meetings.

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Everybody loves memes and those who work in or care about international development are no exception. One meme that popped up early 2010, is the oft-quoted “there are more mobile phones than toilets.” Apparently, the origin of the phrase was the India census. Subsequently, the statistic was used to raise a point about water and sanitation in India by a UN institute. It was picked up in a New York Times article and became generalized to “more people have [access to] mobile phones than toilets” and “there are more mobile phones than toilets” and other variations.

This simple idea has captured the hearts and minds of many development and technology practitioners and theorists the world over. The phrase has become a staple illustration for those who are looking at the potential of mobiles to change the world. But there is more to it than simple ‘access.’ We need to think beyond access.

What is missed in this meme’s beautiful simplicity is that the mobile access/mobile phones referred to are not necessarily equally distributed. A recent blog post by Marc Bellemare refers to a study he worked on (with Ken Lee) called “Look Who’s Talking: The Impacts of the Intrahousehold Allocation of Mobile Phones on Agricultural Prices.”

“…mobile phones do not seem to be the household public good many development practitioners think they are. In other words, policies designed around the distribution of mobile phones to households (rather than individuals) might contain the seed of their own failure if the intrahousehold [use] of technology matters.

Moreover, after a referee asked us to look at whether major household surveys asked about mobile phone ownership at the household or individual level, I was surprised to find that many of those surveys only collect information on the former.

So if there is one thing I would like our article to change, it’s the kind of data that are collected: We should really collect information on individual rather than on household mobile phone ownership.”

The GSMA and Cheri Blair Foundation study on women and mobiles found that women lag behind in mobile phone ownership in many African, Latin American, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Women are even further behind in terms of access and use of the Internet.

At the practitioner level, assuming women everywhere can access and use mobiles and Internet can make a project run into problems, as described in this quick video.

In some places where women’s literacy and numeracy skills are quite low, projects designed to share or collect information by mobile can run into additional challenges as related below.

Girls themselves in some places note that despite their interest, boys will physically fight them to access available computers or mock girls who want to learn.

The existence of open and available spaces and platforms (whether virtual or physical) doesn’t automatically mean they are  “accessible” to everyone, including in many cases, to women and girls.

As wonderful as the idea of ‘open’ is (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of ‘open’), ‘open’ can still exclude. Even in purposefully open spaces and frameworks like the Open Knowledge Festival, women lag behind in terms of papers submitted for presentation and women speaking on panels. We lag behind slightly less in terms of doing the legwork of organizing, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

At the Beyond Access Conference put on by IREX yesterday, I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion session on Women and ICTs where we got into some of these issues and talked about how libraries can help. The panelists included Thinley Choden from the READ Bhutan project, Danica MacAvoy from Clinton Global Initiative, and Marieme Jamme of Africa Gathering. The session space was filled with engaged and insightful folks who shared their valuable ideas and experiences as well, including:

  • Numbers that showed the big access gap between men and women.
  • Access is not the only measure, however – as the conference notes we need to go “Beyond Access” to look at use, purpose, and many other aspects.
  • Safety is the number one reason that girls and women give for not accessing ICTs.
  • Libraries are often seen as knowledge centers and conceived of as more reputable spaces than Internet cafes for girls and women to frequent.
  • Librarians and community facilitators at library spaces can serve as mediators to help ensure that access to equipment and other materials is equally open to all.
  • Women mentors and role models, eg., female librarians, are an important way to encourage girls and women to spend time at libraries or to be more confident in accessing information and communicating through technology.
  • One of the most important things a library can do is create safe space for girls and women to gather and discuss issues of importance to them.
  • Depending on context, in some places this needs to be a physical space; in others situations, a virtual space can work.
  • Men and boys play a big role in advocating and encouraging girls and women to access information, to communicate, and to come together and participate.
  • If offered space and opportunity, women and girls (and anyone else) can teach themselves to use new technologies.
  • Libraries will be most successful for women and girls if they facilitate access and sharing of information that is relevant and in demand by women and girls, not what outsiders think should be in demand.
  • Low information access is holding back girls and women from advancing in careers such as ICTs and coding, because up-to-date books are not accessible in many places.
  • Supporting people to ‘join the global network’ through uploading information about themselves and their lives can serve as a tool by which community and personal projects can be examined, discussed and shared.
  • What a library is and what one looks like will vary according to context and culture; the key is having a physical or virtual safe space where information and communication can take place.

So even if there are more mobile phones than toilets, the conversation can’t stop there. We still need to talk about access, and we need to go “beyond access” too, as this great gathering yesterday so aptly noted.

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The use of social media and new technologies in disaster and crisis situations will likely be framed forevermore as ‘Before Haiti’ (BH) and ‘After Haiti’ (AH). The terrible earthquakes that devastated the country and the resulting flood of humanitarian interventions that followed mark the moment that the world woke up to the role that new technology and new media can and do play in the immediate local response to a crisis as well as the ongoing emergency response once international volunteers and aid organizations arrive to the scene.

Still left in the dark? How people in emergencies use communication to survive — and how humanitarian agencies can help,’ is a new policy briefing by BBC Media Action. It does a fantastic job of highlighting the ways that new media is changing disaster response and the fact that the humanitarian industry is not doing enough to keep pace.

The briefing asks: ‘Are humanitarian agencies prepared to respond to, help and engage with those who are communicating with them and who demand better information?’ As the report shows, the answer is ‘not really’.

Many humanitarian agencies continue to see ‘communication’ as something done to raise money or boost the profile of their own efforts, says the report. Yet the sector increasingly needs a clear, strategic focus that responds to the information and communication needs of disaster-affected populations. ‘While responders tend to see communication as a process either of delivering information (‘messaging’) or extracting it, disaster survivors seem to see the ability to communicate and the process of communication itself as every bit as important as the information delivered.’ Communicating with affected populations can improve programming and response, not to mention, as highlighted in the Listening Project and referred to in the BBC report, ‘Listening is seen as an act of respect.’

The briefing is not one-sided, however, and it does a good job of understanding some of the common perceptions around the use of new technologies. There is ICT and social media hype on the one hand (often the position of international ICT specialists, based on very little hard evidence). And there is strong questioning of the value of these tools at all on the other hand (often the position of aid workers who are turned off by the hype and want to see proven practice if they are to consider investing time and resources in new ICTs). The briefing paper provides examples that may serve to convince those who are still unconvinced or uninterested.

Many of us see the reality that social media tools are still quite out of reach of the poorest members of a community or country. But writing new media and technologies off entirely is ‘too crude an analysis,’ says the briefing paper, ‘and one that is being challenged by data from the field.’ In Thailand, for example, use of social media increased by 20 percent in both metropolitan and rural areas when the 2010 floods began. ‘Communities now expect — and demand — interaction,’ the paper emphasizes.

Throughout the paper there are good examples of ways that in the immediate aftermath of a disaster local individuals and companies are quickly creating and rolling out communication platforms that are more relevant, feasible and sustainable than some of the initiatives that have been led by international agencies.

An important point that the report makes is that the most successful use of new media in disaster response combines multiple communication channels — new and old — allowing information to flow in and out, to and from different populations with different media habits and levels of access. For example, local journalists and radio stations may pull information from Twitter and Facebook and broadcast it via the radio. They may also be broadcasting online, meaning that they not only reach their local population, but they also reach the diaspora community. ‘Good communication work,’ the paper notes, ‘is, by definition, multi-platform. It is about integrating media, non mass media and technology tools in a manner that is rooted firmly in an understanding of how communities approach information issues.’

So ‘while aid agencies hesitate, local communities are using communications technology to reshape the way they prepare for and respond to emergencies.’ This hesitation remains in the face of growing evidence, according to the paper, that agencies who invest in meaningful communication with disaster-affected communities garner a range of benefits. ‘The communication process becomes central to effective relationships, mitigating conflict and identifying and preventing rumours and misunderstandings.’ Doing it right, however requires good program design, which in turn, requires aid agencies to focus time and expertise on improving communications with affected populations, which, of course, requires budget allocated to these kinds of activities.

For those agencies that want to look more closely at integrating some of these tools and approaches, the report gives several great examples. The recommendations section is also very useful.

One of the recommendations I think it is especially good to highlight is ‘analyse the communications landscape’ (see InfoAsAid’s materials). I would, however, have liked to see mention of involving members of local communities in a participatory analysis of that landscape. In addition to the technical analysis, it’s important to know who trusts which information sources, and why. For example, the information sources trusted by men may be different than those that women trust. The same goes for children, youth and adolescents. Access is also a critical issue here, especially in terms of reaching more marginalized groups, as the population affected by a disaster is not homogeneous and there will be hierarchies and nuances that should be considered in order to avoid leaving certain people or groups out. I would have liked more mention of the need to take a specialized approach and make a focused effort regarding communication with children and adolescents, with women, with certain ethnic groups or persons with disability, as they may be left out if care is not taken to include them.

Another recommendation I found very useful was ‘think of the whole population, not just beneficiaries.’ The paper cautions that working only with the population that directly benefits from an individual agencies’ funding is a positive angle for transparency and accountability, but it ‘seems to have a profoundly limiting effect in practice.’ Beneficiaries need information about more than just one aid agency, and those who are not benefiting from a particular agency’s programs also have information needs.

The report mentions that sometimes in the aftermath of a disaster, when people use new media to communicate, confidentiality and privacy risks are not fully considered. I’d like to see this aspect addressed a bit more in the future as there is a lack of documented good practice around privacy and protection. (Note: I’ll be involved in some research on ICTs, migration and child protection over the next year, so watch this space if it’s a topic of interest.) Humanitarian agencies may have strong policies here, but this is an area that others may not consider in their rush to offer support following a disaster.

Overall the report is extremely useful for those considering how to improve two-way (or multi-way) communication in a post-disaster situation and I very much enjoyed reading it as it sparked learning and fresh ideas, and documented some good work being done by local as well as international groups.

I don’t have a lot of pity or patience for aid agencies who are ‘left behind’ because they refuse to move with the changing times or because their approaches are not effective or relevant. There are several forces that are ‘disrupting’ humanitarian work these days, and  the report does a great job of identifying some of them. It also highlights the importance of local actors, local private sector and diaspora communities who have always played an important role in aid and development but have only recently been given more recognition.

International agencies still play a critical role in the humanitarian space, but they need to understand and adapt to the changes happening around them. This report can serve as a discussion piece and offer guidance for those agencies who want to use new media and technology to enable them to do a better job of listening to, working with and being accountable to disaster affected populations.

In summary, highly recommended reading!

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the road to Wa

I’m in Ghana this week for a workshop in Wa, the district capital of the Upper West Region.  I wasn’t too excited about the trip from Accra (the capital of Ghana) to Wa when I heard it was a 10-12 hour drive. I figured it took so long because the road was in bad condition, but I was wrong, it’s just a long trip and there is a lot of traffic. The road to Wa is paved.  Not with gold. Not with good intentions, just paved.  And what a difference that makes.

All kinds of vehicles and travelers use the road. Motorcycles, cars, taxis, 4x4s, Land Cruisers, big trucks, small trucks, semi trucks with trailers.  People walk and bike alongside the road.  I even saw an adolescent boy trying to rollerblade – he wasn’t getting too far in the gravel but was pretty determined regardless.

All kinds of people move in and about and around all the shops and businesses along the road… people making purchases, moving supplies, carrying firewood and water, socializing, flirting, arguing.  Vendors sell fruits, clothing, electronics, car parts, prepared food, plastics, new clothing, used t-shirts.  There are tons of stalls selling airtime  for mobile phones and entire buildings painted bright red with the white Vodafone logo on the side, not to mention doorways, sides and fronts of buildings, market stalls and taxis similarly painted.  Tigo, Glo and MTN also have their noses in the business with signs, billboards, stalls, buildings and such – obviously a lot of competition for mobile phone customers.

collision

The road holds both opportunities and dangers. Some people go very fast and others crawl along, creating accident potential as drivers try to pass them on curves and hills.  As in many countries, a good number of crashed vehicles dot the roadside; though unlike past road trips, this time I didn’t see anyone get hit or observe any bodies lying on the road after being hit, a small crowd around them, fresh blood pooling around their head and twisted frame.   Every so often on this road to Wa, there are toll booths and customs check points.  Speed bumps slow you down as you enter towns.  Police officers stop you for no reason wanting bribes. The road is really happening.

Aside from the rich and fertile rolling hills in between the towns as we got further north, the most striking thing to me was the image of the funeral crowds. You see large groups of people on both sides of the road dressed in very fine black West African clothing with accents of red: black for mourning and red if the person who passed away was strong and in their prime; sometimes white if the person was very old.  Stunning. My colleague Stephen said that funerals happen on Saturdays and that is partly why the road is so busy on weekends.  He also said that politics paved the road, because the current vice president lives in the north and made this road a priority, helping him win the elections.

While driving, we listened to a lot of political talk radio.  Obama’s honeymoon is definitely over if those who were talking are any indication. “We thought there would be a change with Obama, but his foreign policy continues along the lines of Bush.” The commentators argued for nationalization and control of Ghana and Ghana’s resources without foreign intervention and without selling off resources to foreigners, a shaking off of old colonialism.  They heavily criticized the US’s current strategy of opening military bases in West Africa and the US’s failed and reckless policies in the Middle East. References to Chile, Castro and the CIA reminded me of the kinds of conversations you hear in Latin America.  I need to read up more on this, and find out who Kosmos (Cosmos?) is, and what their relationship is with Bush, Exxon Mobile and Ghana’s oil.  [Update: here’s some background on that: Ghana blocks Exxon Oil-Field Deal.] I miss being in Central America where I knew the history of all the politicians and movements, and could read beyond fiery words to interpret motives; where I could read my own truth into things.

As we drove along I thought about the road, and all the activity that it enables. Before my flight to Accra, I visited the  Museum of Modern Art in New York with my brother who studies biology, and we saw an exhibit about Design through the Ages.  Some of the modern pieces showed graphics or moving visualizations of communication networks and systems.  One piece tracked and visualized the movement of taxis in New York City.  Another showed internet connections across the world.  My brother and I talked about our fascination with micro and macro networks and systems… synapses in the human brain, the flow of blood in the body, the New York subways, sewers.

dusk settles on the long drive north

Looking out the window of the car on our seemingly endless drive north, I thought about the similarities between this highway and the internet — road networks and communication networks.  All the people traveling down and alongside the road to Wa. The communication among and between them.  The small and large businesses that have sprung up and are prospering because the road is there allowing access.  The opportunities and dangers, the police and the periodic barriers to speed.

I’m sitting here, 12 hours north of the capital city, uploading this post, with photos even, using 3G wireless internet. Not long ago that wouldn’t have been within my capacity to imagine.

I know there is nothing new in comparing communications infrastructure and networks to a road system. But I am struck today, after the drive to Wa, with the similarities — and the vital need for both. I’m convinced that, just like the roads that provide a basis for connection, communication and commerce; Internet, via undersea cable or mobile or whatever, is essential infrastructure for development.

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As part of our ongoing work around using ICTs (information and communication technology) in our programs and general operations, 10 staff in Plan Uganda did a 2-day workshop in March, 2010.  The workshop was based on a distance learning pack that my colleague Mika Valitalo (Plan Finland), Hannah Beardon (Mobiles for Development report) and I put together. It includes some narrated slide shows, short videos, and a series of questions and exercises to guide discussion around strategically incorporating ICTs into our work where and when it is appropriate and feasible.  So far the workshops have been conducted in 6 countries with 2 still to come.

Anthony Makumbi, from our Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa, facilitated this Uganda workshop (and credit for the information below goes to him). Anthony is the Regional Community ICT Advisor and has a long experience working on ICTs and ICT4D in the region.  He’s also just written up a pretty impressive draft document which will guide Plan’s ICT strategies in Eastern and Southern Africa.

“We initially thought that when you talked about ICT you were referring to the computer guys, but our minds have now been opened further on the topic. We’ve learned that ‘ICT’ does not equal ‘computers’. Instead, the term ICT encompasses any technology tool that enables information flow and communication.”  (participant)

This always seems to come up in these trainings – people realize that thinking about and using ICTs is not something that is limited to technicians, geeks, network specialists, programmers, the IT Department, etc.  Demystifying this term is so important in order to get people interested and to open up to thinking about how ICTs can support their every day work.

Staff also said that they needed more exposure to new ICTs and innovations. “People need to be informed of something in order to be able to seek further information about it.  If we know about available technologies and what they can offer, we will further explore them.”

——————–

Below is a summary of the Uganda team’s general reflections from the workshop:

Multi stakeholder approaches are necessary to promote innovation and a favorable climate for integration of ICTs.  It is vital to work with governments as the main regulators, the private sector to effectively explore the use of technology, and civil society to ensure that the services are accessible to the population. (For example, the Seacom cable was meant to reduce the Internet costs yet there has not been a notable reduction in costs for the general population – what is the role of civil society in making sure this happens?)

Participatory community assessment around trusted information sources. Before embarking on a community ICT initiative, it’s critical to do a participatory assessment of what the trusted information sources are at the community level. This is important especially if you plan on building awareness on particular issues within a community and would like this information to reach as many people as possible.  A participatory assessment can help gain a better understanding of how people communicate and what communication tools  are most effective to reach a particular goal.

Access for women and girls. Cultural practices, the availability or cost of acquiring a tool, and access to that tool or source of information need to be taken into consideration.  Women in many areas are excluded from accessing ICT tools because they do not handle money. A key focus in ICT programs in Uganda should be to strengthen access to information sources, including programs that mitigate women’s and girls’ barriers to use and access. Another tactic might be programs that promote access to basic information for women so that they are also informed and able to utilize information for their own purposes: eg., nutritional information for their children, the need for girls to go to school or avoid early marriages; programs that share information from other sources that influence women’s decisions.

Building on what is available.  Organizations should look at what is around them and leverage available opportunities. In Plan Uganda’s case, for example, this could mean looking at mobile money transfer services linked to Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA); closed user group (CUG) services that define private networks and allow calls made within the private network at large discounts; and services such as the Pakalast promotion on Warid Telecom, which gives users access to each other on the same network for 24hrs for about 80 cents. Awareness should also be built about tools that can provide radio signals apart from a radio, such as a phone with radio access.

Literacy levels and local language. In Uganda, literacy levels are low.  Many people do not manage English. Technologies need to be made available in local languages. Fast track learning could also be considered, such as the development of an integrated education program to address technology and literacy. A close look at mobiles phones — which have taken off at their own pace with the existing literacy levels – could help us to think about how other technologies might fare similarly well.

Electricity.  Solar power should be built into all of our initiatives.

Mobile tools. Mobile data collection could be used instead of paper systems that are currently in place and very laborious. Services like use of SMS for accessing national exam results could serve as a stimulus to further expose communities on what these technologies can do for them.  SMS services could also be used to acquire basic quantitative data in, for example, VSLAs to collect information about group portfolios, or gender ratios or youth participation by age. This can then be vital for designing further programming.

GPS. This could be a useful tool in a program like Community Lead Total Sanitation (CLTS). Latrine coverage could be mapped at the start of a CLTS project in a community and after the project has been implemented over time. This could be linked to health programs that could track a reduction in diarrhea cases in the community, and then this information could be linked to home improvement campaigns as evidence based approach.

ICTs in Governance. ICTs can give communities a platform to provide feedback on services rendered and also know of services available to them.

New ICTs or ICT applications that staff found most interesting:  SMS and mobile data gathering, platforms such as Village Diary for managing confidential legal services and potentially HIV/AIDs program information, blogging to open up channels for discussion on issues and bringing together social movements and organizations working on similar issues, wikis for writing reports, podcasting which could be used in capacity building interventions for multiple groups.

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Plan Uganda staff felt that this type of training on ICTs should be expanded to more people in the organization, and to partner organizations, to build more buy in. They recognized the importance of organizational commitment to moving forward in this area, and asked for continuous training on new ICT tools and innovations.  Ongoing evaluation was suggested to measure the value added by ICTs to program activities, and a follow-up workshop was requested to check progress on the ideas that were generated.

Related posts on Wait… What?

It’s all part of the ICT jigsaw: Plan Mozambique ICT4D workshop

I and C and then T

ICT4D Ideas from Plan Cameroon

Mambenanje and the Village Diary Project

ICT4D Kenya:  “ICT and community development is real”

Chickens and Eggs and ICTs

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There are surely enough travel blogs out there, but given how much travel I do and my recent hiccups getting home from Benin (eg., 5 day total delay), I thought I’d throw together some of the things that keep me sane and somewhat prepared when I’m on the road…. I normally travel to Africa and Latin America, so these ideas may not be useful to people traveling to other places.  I have geared them towards women, though they might be useful to men also…. Ladies, add your tips to the comments section!

Breasts, shoulders, thighs, knees and ankles. Do a little internet research before you leave.  Observe what local women where you will go are wearing in pictures or on other people’s blogs. Especially notice the attitude towards breasts, shoulders, thighs, knees and ankles. In many places, for example, breasts are not a big deal, but thighs are.  Keep that in mind when you pack and in your behavior when you arrive. Don’t wear tank tops/spaghetti straps if you don’t see local women wearing them.  Same goes for shorts and capris or tight clothing.  This may be different if you are a teenager and traveling with a group, but I still recommend against a lot of thigh action if you want to be taken seriously and to be respected.  There may be different dress codes depending on urban and rural, so observe that and be respectful, be smart.  And if you are not, don’t be surprised if you get unwanted attention.  Maybe not the most feminist thing to say here, just being realistic.  People will often cut you some slack knowing that you are foreign, but when I travel, I tend to go for respecting local customs over my right to self-expression in my attire.

Sweat – Not a nice topic for many of us, but if you are someone who sweats (I always envy those people who don’t) it’s a fact of life when traveling somewhere hot. You’ll often be advised to wear clothing made out of lightweight fabric, however this kind of fabric shows every drop of sweat. Skimpy underwear does not absorb sweat and that fact will express itself on your clothing, especially when you are forced to sit in a hot car, meeting or community for several hours.  Not attractive.  Cotton boy shorts are a good alternative to the sexier variety of under things, as is clothing made out of thicker fabrics.

And speaking of undergarments – I get really annoyed when I see young women who, in the name of modesty or fitting in with local culture or just being hippy backpackers wear long flowing skirts without realizing that they are completely see through when walking in the sun! Do us all a favor and invest in a slip.

Tattoos.  You may get stared at for having visible tattoos.  You’ll want to decide how you feel about that.  I normally keep mine covered until people get to know me a bit so that any judgment comes later in the relationship. Since a lot of Americans have them these days, it’s also kind of fun to explain that tattoos are part of our coming of age ritual.

Packing – If you’re a frequent traveler, keep a second set of travel stuff right in your suitcase.  I keep a plastic Ziploc bag with less than 3 oz. quantities toiletries in it and just refill them before I leave and stash them on the top of my carry on for easy removal at security check points.  I keep all my favorite warm weather travel clothes in my suitcase. I have a checklist that I run through before I go to add anything that’s missing.  Makes for much easier packing.

Luggage – Put some identifying marks on your luggage so you can spot it when you arrive.  Assume it might be delayed by a day or so, and be prepared in case it is.  I do this by always packing any equipment, a change of clothes, and any essentials in my carry on.  This includes a small quantity of any printed materials I need if I am presenting at a workshop, just so that I won’t be left hanging.  I always take my laptop.

Travel socks – They are dorky but they keep your ankles from swelling and you from looking like you have tree trunks for calves upon arrival.  They also help prevent a potentially fatal condition (deep vein thrombosis) where blood clots form due to long flights.

Shoes – If the climate is hot your feet may swell and your shoes will be tight, especially if you are walking or standing a lot. This is most pronounced in the evenings.  Bring shoes that are a bit loose to be more comfortable.

Flip Flops – I wear them whenever I can get away with it, but sometimes they are seen as a sign of disrespect.  If you’re on any kind of trip where you need to do business or represent at any kind of function, or train a group, bring some sandals that don’t look like flip flops, at least for the first couple days. Do bring the flip flops for sketchy showers.

Sarong – Pick one up somewhere next time you see one.  They double as a scarf for freezing plane trips, and a skirt for when your luggage gets lost, you want to visit a pool or beach, or you need a cover up in a pinch, like if you have dinner in your room and want to throw something on to cover your shorts/your thighs when your meal or beer arrives.

Coffee press – If you are a coffee addict and are traveling to a country that produces wonderful coffee, rest assured that you will be served none of it.  You will get Nescafe.  I bring my own travel coffee press (pick one up for cheap at REI) and some ground coffee.  You can almost always get boiled/hot water.

Food – If you are vegetarian, pack granola bars, a jar of peanut butter, some chocolate, and some of those little cheese hunks wrapped in red wax… they last up to a week or 2 without refrigeration (if you’re not squeamish), and taste really good after a few days of full-on starch meals (eg., vegetarians often get a plate of bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and green plantains for lunch and dinner and some more bread for breakfast).  Try to make friends with your hotel or workshop venue cook and ask if they could make you some beans or cooked vegetables.  Make sure you don’t refer to yourself as a vegetarian without giving some suggestions of what you do eat, or you may get raw vegetables and salad which often lead to amoebas and giardia.  Buy some fruit when you see it. Bring a knife from home to cut it up and be sure to wash and dry it well before digging in.  Fancy hotels will often have no idea how to feed you so look forward to a lot of French fries and omelets.  Local hotels or hosts will usually make an effort using what they have available.  Don’t assume that your fancy hotel food is safer than other food.  Different bacteria is different bacteria and your system just may need to adjust.

Bottle opener – Light, easy to pack, and a life saver when you have to buy your beer in advance or want to drink it in your room on a hot evening.

Ziploc baggies –Freezer size zip lock baggies seem to always come in handy for something.

Flashlight.  A small flashlight is useful for frequent power cuts. Especially for visiting bathrooms outside your sleeping area at night.

Towel – Often small hotels will not provide towels, or will give you a non-absorbent hand towel.  If this is a problem for you, bring your own towel.

Mosquito net – You can never count on a mosquito net.  Do yourself a favor and purchase your own.  I bought my own self-standing mosquito net (a “travel tent”) which has been a life saver.  Light weight and convenient, it sets up on any single bed or even on the floor.  It means you get sleep without being woken up by mosquitoes buzzing in your ears, and you can avoid taking malaria pills (well, unless you’re working for an organization that makes them mandatory….)

Laundry soap/clothesline – I usually pack a clothes line to string up in my hotel room, and a baggie of powdered laundry soap.   You can also get these when you arrive. You can pack lighter if you wash things out in the evening. If you’re in a hot climate they will dry in less than 24 hours.  When Air France lost my bag in Togo, I made it through 9 days by washing in the evening and re-wearing in the morning.

Water – If you see a bucket in your room, it is a sign that the water goes off.  Keep it filled or you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when you go to take a shower.  There’s quite a talent in toilet flushing with buckets.  Experiment and soon you will learn how to economize on water use and keep the bathroom area clean as well. I got through each day in rural Rwanda on one jerry can by being smart about re-using my bathing water for the toilet, etc.  Get a plastic cup at the market to make it all easier.

Candles – Same as a bucket – candle in your hotel room means that the power goes off fairly often – be prepared.  Charge up all your stuff whenever there is available electricity.

Electricity adaptors – Often your room will have only 1 or 2 outlets, (if at all when you’re out somewhere really rural).  A 3-plug + an adaptor are handy for charging up 3 things at a time instead of juggling them one after the other.  Google “electricity converter” or “electricity adaptor” something like that before you leave and get some plug adaptors of your own. It gets annoying when people are always asking to borrow yours, and your hotel will not have them unless you’re traveling in high style.

Check in – Check in on-line if you can.  If not, get there early enough to get a window seat on long flights.  Don’t expect any special attention unless you are wearing a fancy suit and a big watch.

Airport pick up – Assume that no one will be there to pick you up from the airport.  Maybe this is just an issue with my organization, but it happens quite often.  Before you leave, be sure that you write down the address and phone numbers of your office, any contact persons, and your hotel.  (I once arrived in India without this information…. not wise).  This is also helpful to keep handy when filling out paperwork at the airport upon arrival.

Flight delays and ticketing – Be aware that once you purchase your ticket, Orbitz and the like won’t help you much as they transfer the ticket over to the airline systems.  I found out last week when stuck in Benin for 4 extra days that your ticket will not have a phone number on it, or it will be an 800 number, which only works in the US.  Try to get a non 800 number before you leave in case of anything.  When in a real pinch, send out pleas for help on Twitter and the community will get you the phone numbers you need.

Cash – Some places only change $20 bills or less.  Other places give a better rate for $100 bills.  Do some research.  Change money in the airport when you arrive if the agencies are still open. Assume you may not have access to an ATM when you arrive.  Assume your hotel may not have cash to change money for you when you need it.  Assume you will wait for 2 or 3 hours at a bank to change money, and will need ID to do it.  Know that every time you ask your organization’s driver to do these types of things for you, you are probably ensuring that his day is that much longer. (Drivers in my experience have the worst rap, always having to arrive before everyone and leave after everyone’s all taken care of, and they don’t get any recognition for their work).

Communications – Get an unlocked cheap phone and buy a local SIM card and some airtime on arrival.  Check before you go which network has 3G or Edge if you plan to use it for internet.  Download the software to connect your phone to 3G internet before leaving.  If you travel often, it can be worth the money to invest in a phone that connects to internet.  If you are a Twitter or Facebook freak, install Snaptu for Twitter/Facebook on your phone.  Outlook doesn’t work on all phones, so I do an out-of-office reply giving people my phone number for emergencies.  I create a rule to auto-forward my work email to my gmail.  If you use an i-phone and want to get some extra mileage out of it on the plane/before you jump into local phone/local SIM mode, Duracell makes a $17 charger that gives you an extra 3 hours.

Medications – I don’t like taking medicine.  I do however have a prescription for Ambien for sleeping on flights. That means I can sleep all night on a plane, get some coffee when I arrive, and get straight to work, and I can avoid arriving a day or so early to acclimate.  Never take a sleeping pill before your flight is in the air in case you have to deplane!  Get a prescription for Cipro before you go.  Take it if you have a bad stomach w/fever for a couple days. Then eat lots and lots of yogurt when you get back home as Cipro depletes your good stomach bacteria.  (*Note – I’m not a doctor and am not giving medical advice here, just telling it like I do it!).

Malaria – I never take malaria pills.  They make me tired and nauseous which means I can’t work, so what’s the point?  And the pills prescribed by your doctor at home may not be effective for the zone or area that you are traveling to because of how the disease evolves.  Decide for yourself, but if you are careful, you can get by without them.  (Again – I’m not taking responsibility for this if you follow my advice and you do get sick).  I prefer using my mosquito net, wearing long pants/long sleeve shirts in the evenings, and using hard core bug spray on exposed skin.  Beware that many bug sprays will eat through nail polish.  My toenails normally look like there is chewed up gum residue on them by the time I get home.  Dark clothing attracts mosquitoes so be aware of that.  Don’t be surprised if sometimes there is a cloud of them swarming over your head if you have dark hair…..  Never take Lariam.  I know of a couple cases where the side effects caused permanent psychological damage to colleagues.  I don’t really know why it’s still prescribed actually.

Marriage proposals and unwanted attention – I could write a whole book on this, but in an effort to be succinct….  Ladies, if you are under, say, 30, don’t be surprised if you get your fair share of suitors.  If you are over 30 and divorced or single, expect some attention from 20-something young men who imagine you to be desperate and lonely.  If you’re interested, by all means, go for it, but protect yourself just like you would when you’re at home. Don’t take any excuses.  Condoms are readily available just about anywhere, or better yet, always travel with some.  If you are American, you will likely have a reputation for being loose (thank you Hollywood and MTv) [note: adding “and all the ‘Western’ women who have helped confirm that stereotype“). If you are divorced, people may pity you.  If you are married or in a relationship, some men will still try to pick up on you.  (In El Salvador when I’d say I was married, men would often say “It’s ok, I’m not jealous”).   If you are not interested and the attention you are getting is not overly offensive, take it in stride.  Don’t be rude, but do be firm.  Deflect lightly when possible and move on, it’s OK to say no. Sometimes you may want to keep your phone out of sight so that you can pretend you don’t have one if you keep getting asked for your number.  If the attention is scary and threatening though, do whatever is necessary. As anyplace, be safe.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something…. Add your comments below.

Update:  Here’s a great post by Scarlett Lion:  What to bring and not bring when traveling to Africa.

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