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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Leah Chung

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Leah Chung

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

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

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

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

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

Last Monday I attended Africa Gathering London. The topic was ‘Social Media Revolutionizing Africa: How is new media changing Africa, giving voices to the voiceless, improving governance and transparency, and changing narratives?’

The event stimulated thinking and brought up some hot discussions around technology, traditional and social media, aid and development, participation and governance. (Big congratulations to Marieme Jamme  for curating a great line up that brought in an interesting and engaged group of participants and to William Perrin of Indigo Trust for keeping things on track and generating good debate!) See the program, the speaker bios and some short video interviews.

Some quotes, thoughts and debates from the day:

  • If your purpose is to bring more people into discussions, remember that radio, Facebook, and Twitter audiences are distinct and be sure you are thinking differently about how to engage them all. Remember that many people in Africa prefer to talk not write.  (from BBC’s Africa Have Your Say – @bbcafricahys‘s presentation)
  • You can’t resolve all of Africa’s issues with one approach. The countries are very different and local context really matters. But you also can’t design something for every tiny demographic. Where is the sweet spot between localized and scale? (discussion after the morning workshop)
  • People should not sit in the UK deciding and develop things for Africans. Develop things with Africans, or support Africans to develop things themselves. This idea got retweeted a lot, with lots of agreement. But H Taylor – @HFTaylor88 also commented via Twitter that this rhetoric has been around for ages within NGOs…. (discussion after morning workshop)
  • It’s great that the market has been able to bring mobile phones to so many people in Africa, but the market can’t do it on its own as many are still left out. There needs to be more incentive to reach remote areas. There needs to be education, cash transfers, government regulation if we want to really realize the potential of mobiles. Mika Valitalo – @vatamik commented that in many African countries, mobiles are still taxed as luxury items, making them more expensive than they should be. (Clare Melamed -ODI – @claremelamed‘s “Is the Mobile Phone Revolution Really for Everyone”.)
  • Any big story today on CNN has a social media component, yet there is still the idea that social media only breaks news and ‘it won’t make the history books until CNN or BBC report on it’. If CNN is not planning to do a story but sees everyone is talking about it on Facebook and Twitter, they will cover may rethink covering it. CNN finds good opinions and stories on social media, but their primary news source will continue to be their correspondents. Emrys Schoemaker – @emrys_s however questioned whether mass media use of citizen journalism is a broadening of voices or if it’s cheap content for big media – or both. (Faith Karimi/CNN/@faithCNN’s presentation and resulting discussions.)
  • Social media gives African youth an uncensored worldwide platform, letting them feel included in shaping Africa’s image, but the youth using social media in Africa are still the middle class and the rich. We need to find ways to include other youth. (Faith Karimi – @faithCNN’s presentation and resulting discussions.)
  • The Guardian’s Global Development Site and Poverty Matters blog are trying to get away from the vision of ‘poor Africa’ and have only been accused of ‘poverty porn’ once in 9 months (which Liz said irritated her to no end as they really try to avoid it). (I remember the case…) They stay away from the typical ‘flies in the eyes’ photos, but sometimes there really is starvation in Africa, and in those cases, a photo of a starving child might actually represent reality. (Someone countered that African newspapers should use photos of drunk, vomiting Brits to illustrate stories about parliament).  (Liz Ford/deputy editor/@lizford‘s talk and discussion)
  • Is the Guardian’s Global Development site one-sided, taking the view that aid is good rather than other ideas on how to best achieve development? Development is much larger than ‘aid’ and when talking about development we need to remember the bigger picture and the alternative views that maybe aid is not the best (or only) way to ‘do development’. The Guardian is quite open to new thoughts and ideas and invites anyone with ideas for blogs or stories to be in touch with them. They consider their site a ‘work in progress’. (Note: I like the Guardian’s site very much as it is one of the few media sources that discusses and seems to really promote and engage in the ‘#smartaid / @smart_aid‘ discussion). (Liz Ford’s talk and discussion)
  • Many African leaders, not to mention the public and the media, will listen when high level people call their attention to something, but problems can’t be solved by the same people who created them, especially if those people are considered morally bankrupt. Karen Attiah – @karennattiah  commented in from Twitter that a big part of development work should focus on rebuilding the broken social contract between governments and citizens in Africa. So how can we connect policy makers with ordinary Africans? How to bridge the gap between policy makers and grassroots approaches and implementation. (Panel with Alex Reid/@alreidy and Carolina Rodriguez /@caro_silborn – media heads at Gates Foundation and at Africa Progress Panel)
  • Not all sources are created equal – this is true for traditional and for social media. Social media is not about the technology, it’s about the human need to communicate. You can make traditional media more social also. Even those without access to social media will get around harsh barriers to tell their stories because of the urge to communicate. So the best thing is to create a social experience, not to worry so much about getting ‘jiggy’ with the technology. (from Kevin Anderson/@KevGlobal‘s presentation. See Putting the social in media.)
  • New technologies can impact on public debate, people’s political capabilities, citizen-state relations, relationships with other government actors. Frontline SMS Radio, for example, could be a very useful tool for this because radio is still the main way to communicate with the majority of Africa. Using Frontline SMS Radio, stations can sort through messages they get, understand them better, and use the information to orient their radio programs as well as other things. Radio can play a very strong and useful role in governance. (from Sharath Srinivasan/ @sharath_sri‘s presentation. See FrontlineSMS at Africa Gathering.)
  • Youth can have a big impact on community development if given space to influence. There is money (eg., in Cameroon, at local government level) but it needs to be better spent. Informed and involved youth can hold government accountable for spending it better. Local level advocacy has a greater impact on youths’ lives than global level initiatives because you can make as many laws as you like, but unless people are putting them into place and practice at a local level they don’t matter. Organizations should listen to young people but not make them dependent on NGOs because the real duty-bearers are family, community, government. NGOs need to be models of their own methodologies; eg., if an NGO is encouraging people to criticize the government, the NGO should be ready to receive the same scrutiny around its own work and behaviors. Social media can play a role in this process by showing what is happening at the local level to a global audience. (from my presentation and the resulting discussions. See Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media)
Julia Chandler (@juliac2) did a great round-up of the day’s presentations and discussions on her blog: Part 1 and Part 2. The Guardian continues the discussion here and of course the Africa Gathering website is a great place for more information.
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Update – more posts about Africa Gathering:
Great perspective from Tony Burkson – @tonyballu – who I really enjoyed talking with at the post-event drinks: A Day at Africa Gathering.

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Where are the spaces for youth participatory governance?

‘People no longer rely on governments alone to improve governance. All over the world we are seeing experiments in ‘participatory governance’. People and organisations are grasping the opportunities offered by decentralisation and other reform processes to demand more of a say in the public policy and budget processes that affect them. These ways of holding the state to account are often called ‘social accountability’. Examples include participatory budgeting, monitoring electoral processes, using online and mobile technology, and citizen evaluation of public services. These forms of citizen engagement and social accountability are particularly promising for young people, who often face challenges in getting their voices heard in formal policy and governance processes.’

The ‘youth bulge‘ is impacting or will impact hugely in many countries in Africa, but there is limited documentation on youth involvement in social accountability processes in Sub-Saharan African countries. Youth and governance efforts have been ‘largely unsystematic and often constrained by the vague and paternalistic parameters of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (McGee, forthcoming 2010). However this is changing and there are calls for new models, tools and approaches that enable young people to take a more meaningful role in decision-making.’ (call for submissions for the upcoming Participatory Learning and Action Journal (PLA) special issue on Youth and Participatory Governance).

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In March I attended a “writeshop” put on by Plan UK, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) to share different youth participatory governance initiatives, reflect on challenges and successes therein, learn how to write better, and finalize articles on the above topic for a PLA Special Issue in December 2011. The special issue will highlight some of the different ways young people are engaging with government to participate in public policy, planning and budgeting processes at local, national, regional, and international levels. Practitioners, youth and government officials from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Lesotho, the US, the UK, Ghana, Germany and Liberia attended the writeshop. (The PLA will also have articles from Cameroon and Somalia).

The first day we did a cool exercise revolving around 4 statements on voice, youth, participation, and governance. I learned a lot from the discussion and I wanted to share it here.

So, what do you think? and why?

Statement 1. The author’s voice will always be louder than the voices of the people he/she is writing about.

Strongly agree ___

Agree ___

Disagree ___

Strongly Disagree ___

Statement 2. Increased transparency leads to increased accountability.

Strongly agree ___

Agree ___

Disagree ___

Strongly disagree ___

Statement 3. It is possible to do governance work without engaging in politics.

Strongly agree ___

Agree ___

Disagree ___

Strongly disagree ___

Statement 4. Citizen led/social accountability processes offer more potential for youth than traditional accountability processes.

Strongly agree ___

Agree ___

Disagree ___

Strongly disagree ___

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Here’s what we discussed at the writeshop. I’d be interested in what you think about the statements too…

Statement 1. The author’s voice will always be louder than the voices of the people he/she is writing about:

Discussion: The group mostly concluded that it’s difficult for the author’s voice to stay in the background – it will inevitably jump out and become stronger than the voice of those he or she is writing about.

‘Regardless of that, the author has been given an opportunity to project the voices of those that don’t have a platform to speak for themselves, so he or she should take advantage of the opportunity.’

‘Just by choosing what goes into the piece, the writer is already showing some type of bias. One or the other idea or opinion will be louder than the others because it serves the author’s own purpose.’

‘Writers need to think carefully about their approaches as authors and be self-aware of what biases are coming through in their pieces. This is an issue of credibility.’

‘One thing to aim for in our work with youth is finding more opportunities for them to author their own stories, because they can speak louder and stay true to their own agendas.’

‘How many of us here sat down and wrote our submissions together with youth? What are some methodologies that we can use to ensure that youth are writing about their own work, rather than always being written about?’

Note: Some methods for involving youth in the writing process will be covered in the upcoming Special Issue, based on experiences from the group attending the writeshop.

Statement 2. Increased transparency leads to increased accountability.

Discussion: Most everyone disagreed with this statement, saying that there is no causal relationship between transparency and accountability.

‘Many civil society and faith-based organizations really engage citizens, but if you look deeply, that engagement hasn’t translated into accountability.’

‘Including people in governance and keeping them informed about what is happening can lead to accountability. People will start to take responsibility, report about actions. If they are involved, included and informed they will start to question things.’

‘There is not always a causal link between transparency and accountability.’

‘Having transparent information is one thing, but accountability is what you actually do with the information. Having the habit of discussion, questioning is one thing, but ensuring that feedback is actually taken into consideration is another.’

‘Often those in power say “we’ve heard” but they don’t do anything to change. Accountability isn’t only about voice, you need to have opportunities for redress.’

‘Without transparency there is no accountability. This can mean access to information. We need legislation to make access to information possible. It’s a pre-requisite for increased accountability.’

‘There are NGO and donor accountability issues also. Just because NGOs or donors put information on-line doesn’t mean that they are being accountable. There is the issue of literacy, of whether people seek out information, of access to the information in a variety of languages, of what format the information is shared in and the sheer quantity of information. Who really has access to the information they are sharing? Can those who are supposed to be benefiting from NGOs and donors programs access the information?’

‘Another thing is making people and institutions understand why they should be held to account, why they need to be accountable, changing mindsets about why leaders and power holders need to be accountable.’

‘Flooding people with information so that people don’t know where to look for what is relevant to them or posting the information on-line, in a language that isn’t useful to them, is not really being transparent. Often calls for transparency don’t really go far enough. Transparency is about making the information usable and about information demand.’

One of our facilitators (Rosemary McGee from IDS) pointed us to Jonathan Fox at UCLA who says:

‘Transparency can be ‘opaque’ (the dissemination of information that does not reveal how institutions actually behave) or ‘clear’ (access to reliable information about institutional behaviour). Accountability can be ‘soft’ (‘answerability’ – demanding answers from duty-bearers) or ‘hard’ (answers plus consequences). Information dissemination does not automatically lead to answerability, nor answerability to the possibility of sanctions. If access to information is to guarantee the sanctions that hard accountability requires, public sector as well as civil society actors must intervene.’

Statement 3. It is possible to do governance work without engaging in politics.

Discussion: The group was pretty evenly divided between strongly agree, agree, disagree and strongly disagree, so the discussion was really interesting.

‘I strongly disagree because government is about service delivery and politics is about the opinions of the people. Everyone is a political animal. There is a difference between politics and partisan politics, though.’

‘Every action has a vision and a political orientation. You can’t change a situation without being involved in politics.’

‘Governance has nothing to do with politics; the government can be left or right; but governance means the same thing. It’s being transparent and accountable to the people; and it’s also about including other stakeholders, NGOs, private sector and responding to the citizens needs. Governance is impartial and non political.’

‘Governance is about how power is exercised. It’s about certain practices and systems – in state, family, community, etc. If you are challenging power, whether policy change or change in practice, whether it’s gender or whatever, you want to address unjust power relations, so at some point you need to confront the polity of those structures. However being engaged in governance is not about partisan politics. There’s a difference between a political party and the issue of politics. If I say I’m in solidarity with children, I’ve taken a political position. Political parties are about obtaining power. But governance is about challenging power relationships.’

‘We need to distinguish “governance and politics” and “party politics.” It’s difficult to say that things will naturally happen based on a structure. But the structures will adjust, they will be used differently according to who is in power. You need to know politics and the opinions of political leaders in order to effectively get your agenda through. You need to understand the political dynamics in terms of what happens in the country, what is the ideology, what is their strategy and what are their plans. If you don’t understand that, you can’t address the issues that you are trying to resolve via governance.’

‘It’s not possible to work on governance and not engage in politics. I work in government. Our mandate ends after 5 yrs. We must go back to elections and the people must give us the mandate again to exercise power on their behalf. This is the only clear mechanism whereby the people can engage in politics. Politics is about opinions and perceptions. People have diverging opinions, those opinions will create debate and that leads to political actions. Whenever there is a debate involved about something, that is politics. It’s not easy to exercise power without debate. To give services to people, to exercise power on their behalf, it’s not easy if you don’t take into consideration the opinions coming from them, they need to debate and the debate then needs to be translated into policies.’

‘The people who are most engaged in governance should not be politically engaged. When you work from civil society on governance issues, you should not have a party affiliation. Because then you will carry a bias. To do good governance work you need to be impartial and unaffiliated with a party, or people will consider you to be biased.’

‘If we look at governance and politics, politics is just a subset of governance. There are actually lots of issues under governance. In governance we expect everyone to take part in how things are governed. We see different political actors. Governance encompasses more than politics, it’s above politics.’

Statement 4. Citizen led / social accountability processes offer more potential for youth than traditional accountability processes.

Discussion: Everyone sat on the strongly agree or agree side of this debate.

‘Citizen led processes offer much more openness to youth.’

‘We need to define citizen-led and traditional accountability processes. Citizen led, social accountability processes are where those spaces are claimed by citizens themselves. Secondly the citizen-led social accountability process tends to be less vertical. There is collectivization of the aspirations of the people who are supposed to benefit from a service or a process. The power relationships are much fairer in that situation. Traditional accountability is like something done within government, something led by World Bank or the IMF. In that case, the state creates space for citizens to participate, information is shared but there is actually not much action taking and questioning because it is the state itself running the accountability initiative on its own behalf. But with social accountability, it’s driven and led by people, by civil society, and there is more questioning and participation.’

‘I was being ethnocentric and thinking as a Westerner about “traditional” as meaning “government and voting,” but I’m realizing that there is a range of understandings of “traditional accountability” processes.’

‘If there is a mainstream more traditional accountability process vs a parallel citizen led process it can be confusing. Often youth are not clear how to link the parallel transparency and accountability that they are creating up to the official structures. There is a lack of connection there. Youth get a lot out of the processes individually, but are they also increasing state accountability?  There is also the concept of traditional accountability. Traditionally led accountability comes from many sides.’

‘There are formal and informal politics. What does it all mean? Based on all of your submissions, we would like to be able to start giving some definitions and an “OK” on all these terms and interpretations. There is a gap in understanding on social accountability, citizen-led accountability and the role of young people in these processes. That is why we wanted to do this PLA Journal.’

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Look for the PLA Special Edition coming out on paper and on-line in December 2011. In the meantime, check out the current editions here, including PLA 59: Change at Hand – Web 2.0 for Development and PLA 54: Mapping for Change – Practice, Technologies and Communication.

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