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At our April Technology Salon we discussed the evidence and good practice base for blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) in the humanitarian sector. Our discussants were Larissa Fast (co-author with Giulio Coppi of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation/GAHI’s report on Humanitarian Blockchain, Senior Lecturer at HCRI, University of Manchester and Research Associate at the Humanitarian Policy Group) and Ariana Fowler (UNICEF Blockchain Strategist).

Though blockchain fans suggest DLTs can address common problems of humanitarian organizations, the extreme hype cycle has many skeptics who believe that blockchain and DLTs are simply overblown and for the most part useless for the sector. Until recently, evidence on the utility of blockchain/DLTs in the humanitarian sector has been slim to none, with some calling for the sector to step back and establish a measured approach and a learning agenda in order to determine if blockchain is worth spending time on. Others argue that evaluators misunderstand what to evaluate and how.

The GAHI report provides an excellent overview of blockchain and DLTs in the sector along with recommendations at the project, policy and system levels to address the challenges that would need to be overcome before DLTs can be ethically, safely, appropriately and effectively scaled in humanitarian contexts.

What’s blockchain? What’s a DLT?

We started with a basic explanation of DLTs and Blockchain and how they work. (See page 5 of the GAHI report for more detail).

The GAHI report aimed to get beyond the potential of Blockchain and DLTs to actual use cases — however, in the humanitarian sector there is still more potential than evidence. Although there were multiple use cases to choose from, the report authors chose to go in-depth on five, selected to provide a sense of the different ways that blockchain is specifically being used in the sector.

These use cases all currently have limited “nodes” (e.g., places where the data is stored) and only a few “controlling entities” (that determine what information is stored or put on the chain). They are all “private“ (as opposed to public) blockchains, meaning they are not taking advantage of DLT potential for dispersed information, and they end up being more like “a very expensive database.”

What’s the deal with private vs public blockchains?

Private versus public blockchains are an ideological sticking point in “deep blockchain culture,” noted one Salon participant. “’Cryptobros’ and blockchain fundamentalists think private blockchains are the Antichrist.” Private blockchains are considered an oxymoron and completely antithetical to the idea of blockchain.

So why are humanitarian organizations creating private blockchains? “They are being cautious about protecting data as they test out blockchain and DLTs. It’s a conscious choice to proceed in a controlled way, because once information is on the blockchain, it’s immutable — it cannot be removed.” When first trying out a DLT or blockchain, “Humanitarians tend to be cautious. They don’t want to play with the permanency of a public blockchain since they are working with vulnerable populations.”

Because of the blockchain hype cycle, however, there is some skepticism about organizations using private blockchains. “Are they setting up a private blockchain with one node so that they can say that they’re using blockchain just to get funding?”

An issue with private blockchains is that they are not open and transparent. The code is developed behind closed doors, meaning that it’s difficult to make it interoperable, whereas “with a public chain, you can check the code and interact with it.”

Does the humanitarian sector have the capacity to use blockchain?

As one person pointed out, knowledge and capacity around blockchain in the humanitarian sector is very low. There are currently very few people who understand both humanitarian work and the private sector/technology side of blockchain. “We desperately need intermediaries because people in the two sectors talk past each other. They use the same words to mean very different things, and this leads to misunderstandings.” This is a perpetual issue in the “humanitarian tech” space, and it often leads to applications that are not in the best interest of those on the receiving end of humanitarian work.

Capacity challenges also come up with regard to managing partnerships that involve intellectual properly. When cooperating with the private sector, organizations are normally required to sign an MOU that gives rights to the company. Often humanitarian agencies do not fully understand what they are signing up for. This can mean that the company uses the humanitarian collaboration to develop technologies that are later used in ways that the humanitarian agency considers unethical or disturbing. Having technology or blockchain expertise within an organization makes it possible to better negotiate those types of situations, but often only the larger INGOs can afford that type of expertise. Similarly, organizations lack expertise in the legal and regulatory space with regard to blockchain.

How will blockchain become locally owned? Should we wait for a user-friendly version?

Technology moves extremely fast, and organizations need a certain level of capacity to create it and maintain it. “I’m an engineer working in the humanitarian space,” said one Salon participant. “Blockchain is such a complex software solution that I’m very skeptical it will ever be at a stage where it could be locally owned and managed. Even with super basic SMS-based services we have maintenance issues and challenges handing off the tech. If in this room we are struggling to understand blockchain, how will this ever work in lower tech and lower resource areas?” Another participant asked a similar question with regard to handing off a blockchain solution to a local government.

Does the sector needs to wait for a simplified and “user friendly” version of blockchain before humanitarians get into the space? Some said yes, but other participants said that the technology is moving quickly, and that it is critical for humanitarians to “get in there” to try to slow it down. “Sometimes blockchain is not the solution. Sometimes a database is just fine. We need people to pump the brakes before things get out of control.”

“How can people learn about blockchain? How could a grassroots organization begin to set one up?” asked one person. There is currently no “Square Space for Blockchain,” and the technology remains complicated, but those with a strong drive could learn, according to one person. But although “coders might be able to teach themselves ‘light blockchain,’ there is definitely a barrier to entry.” This is a challenge with the whole area of blockchain. “It skipped the education step. We need a ‘learning revolution ‘if we want people to actually use it.”

Enabling environments for learning to use blockchain don’t exist in conflict zones. The knowledge is held by a few individuals, and this makes long-term support and maintenance of DLT and blockchain systems very difficult. How to localize and own the knowledge? How to ensure sustainability? The sector needs to think about what the “Blockchain 101” is. There needs to be more accompaniment, investment and support for the enabling environment if blockchain is to be useful and sustainable in the sector.

Are there any examples of humanitarian blockchain that are working?

The GAHI report talks about five cases in particular. Disberse was highlighted by one Salon participant as an example that seems to be working. Disberse is a private fin-tech company that uses blockchain, but it was started by former humanitarians. “This example works in part because there is a sense of commitment to the humanitarian sector alongside the technical expertise.”

In general, in the humanitarian space, the place where blockchain/ DLTs appear to be the most effective is in back-end use cases. In other words, blockchain is helpful for making behind-the-scenes transactions in humanitarian assistance more efficient. It can eliminate bank transaction fees, and this leads to savings. Agencies can also use blockchain to create efficiencies and benefits for record keeping and auditability. This situation is not unique to blockchain. A recent DIAL baseline study of the global ICT4D ecosystem also found that in the social sector, the main benefits of ICTs were going to organizations, not to vulnerable populations.

“This is all fine,” according to one Salon participant, “but one must be clear that the benefits accrue to the agencies, not the ‘beneficiaries,’ who may not even know that DLTs are being used.” On the one hand, having a seamless backend built on blockchain where users don’t even know that blockchain is involved sounds ideal, However, this can be somewhat problematic. “Are agencies getting meaningful and responsible consent for using blockchain? If executives don’t even understand what the blockchain is, how do you explain that to people more generally?”

Because there is not a simple, accessible way of developing blockchain solutions and there are not a lot of user-friendly interfaces for the general population, for at least the next few years, humanitarian applications of blockchain will likely only be useful for back-office operations. This means that is is up to humanitarian organizations to re-invest any money saved by blockchain into program funding, so that “beneficiaries” are accruing the benefits.

What other “social” use cases are there for blockchain?

In the wider social sector and development sector, there are plenty of potential use cases, but again, very little documented evidence of their short- and long-term impacts. (Author’s note: I am not talking about financial and private sector use cases, I’m referring very specifically to social sectors and the international development and humanitarian sector). For example, Oxfam is tracing supply chains of rice, however this is a one-off pilot and it’s unclear whether it can scale. IBM has a variety of supply chain examples. Land registries and sustainable fishing are also being explored as are digital ID, birth registration and civil registries.

According to one Salon participant, “supply chain is the low-hanging fruit of blockchain – just recording something, tracking it, and referencing it. It’s all basically a ledger, a spreadsheet. Even digital ID – it’s a supply chain of movement. Provenance is a good way to use a blockchain solution.” Other areas where blockchain is said to have potential is in situations where election transparency is needed and also “smart contracts” where one needs complex contracts and there is a lack of trust amongst the parties. In general, where there is a recurring need for anonymized, disaggregated data, blockchain could be a solution.

The important thing, however, is having a very clear definition of the problem before deciding that blockchain is the solution. “A lot of times people don’t know what their problem is, and the problem is not one that can be fixed with blockchain.” Additionally, accuracy (”garbage in, garbage out”) remains a problem that blockchain on its own cannot solve. “If the off-chain process isn’t accurate, If you’re looking at human rights abuses of migrant workers, but everything is being fudged. If your supply chain is blurry, or if the information being put on the blockchain is not verified, then you have a separate problem to figure out before thinking about blockchain.”

What about ethics and consent and the Digital Principles?

Are the Digital Principles are being used as a way to guide ethical, responsible and sustainable blockchain use in the humanitarian space, asked one Salon participant. The general impression in the room was that no. “Deep crypto in the private sector is a black hole in the blockchain space,” according to one person, and the gap between the world of blockchain in the private sector and the world of blockchain in the humanitarian sector is huge. (See this write up, for a taste of one segment of the crypto-world.) “The majority of private sector blockchain enthusiasts who are working on humanitarian issues have not heard of any principles. They are operating with no principles, and sometimes it’s largely for PR because the blockchain hype cycle means they will get a lot of good press from it. You get someone who read an article in Vice about a problem in a place they’ve never heard of, and they decide that blockchain is the solution…. They are often re-inventing the wheel, and fire, and also electricity — they think that no one has ever thought about this problem before.”

Most in the room considered that this type of uninformed application of blockchain is irresponsible, and that these parallel worlds and conversations need to come together. “The humanitarian space has decades of experience with things that have been tried and haven’t worked – but people on the tech side think no one has ever tried solving these problems. We need to improve the dialogue and communication. There is a wealth of knowledge to share, and a huge learning curve on both sides.”

Additionally, one Salon participant pointed out the importance of bringing ethics into the discussion. “It’s not about just using a blockchain. It’s about what the problem is that you’re trying to solve, and does blockchain help address that problem? There are a lot of problems that blockchain is not appropriate for. Do you have the technical capacity or an accessible online environment? That’s important.”

On top of that, “it’s important for people to know that their information is being used in a particular way by a particular technology. We need to grapple with that, or we end up experimenting on people who are already marginalized or vulnerable to begin with. How do we do that? It’s like the Facebook moment. That same thing for blockchain – if you don’t know what’s going on and how your information is being used, it’s problematic.”

A third point is the massive environmental disadvantage in a public blockchain. Currently, the computing power used to verify and validate transactions that happen on public chains is immense. That is part of the ethical challenge related to blockchain. “You can’t get around the massive environmental aspect. And that makes it ironic for blockchain to be used to track carbon offsets.” (Note: there are blockchain companies who say they are working on reducing the environmental impact of blockchain with “pilots coming very soon” but it remains to be seen whether this is true or whether it’s another part of the hype cycle.)

What should donors be doing?

In addition to taking into consideration the ethical, intellectual property, environmental, sustainability, ownership, and consent aspects mentioned above and being guided by the Digital Principles, it was suggested that donors make sure they do their homework and conduct thorough due diligence on potential partners and grantees. “The vetting process needs to be heightened with blockchain because of all the hype around it. Companies come and go. They are here one day and disappear the next.” There was deep suspicion in the room because of the many blockchain outfits that are hyped up and do not actually have the staff to truly do blockchain for humanitarian purposes and use this angle just to get investments.

“Before investing, It would be important to talk with someone like Larissa [our lead discussant] who has done vetting,” said one Salon participant.  “Don’t fall for the marketing. Do a lot of due diligence and demand evidence. Show us the evidence or we’re not funding you. If you’re saying you want to work with a vulnerable or marginalized population, do you have contact with them right now? Do you know them right now? Or did you just read about them in Vice?”

Recommendations outlined in the GAHI report include providing multi-year financing to humanitarian organizations to allow for the possibility of scaling, and asking for interoperability requirements and guidelines around transparency to be met so that there are not multiple silos governing the sector.

So, are we there yet?

Nope. But at least we’re starting to talk about evidence and learning!

Resources

In addition to the GAHI report, the following resources may be useful:

Salons run under Chatham House Rule, so no attribution has been made in this post. Technology Salons happen in several cities around the world. If you’d like to join a discussion, sign up here. If you’d like to host a Salon, suggest a topic, or support us to keep doing Salons in NYC please get in touch with me! 🙂

 

 

 

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Karen Palmer is a digital filmmaker and storyteller from London who’s doing a dual residence at ThoughtWorks in Manhattan and TED New York to further develop a project called RIOT, described as an ‘emotionally responsive, live-action film with 3D sound.’ The film uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, various biometric readings, and facial recognition to take a person through a personalized journey during dangerous riot.

Karen Palmer, the future of immersive filmmaking, Future of Storytelling (FoST) 

Karen describes RIOT as ‘bespoke film that reflects your reality.’ As you watch the film, the film is also watching you and adapting to your experience of viewing it. Using a series of biometric readings (the team is experimenting with eye tracking, facial recognition, gait analysis, infrared to capture body temperature, and an emerging technology that tracks heart rate by monitoring the capillaries under a person’s eyes) the film shifts and changes. The biometrics and AI create a “choose your own adventure” type of immersive film experience, except that the choice is made by your body’s reactions to different scenarios. A unique aspect of Karen’s work is that the viewer doesn’t need to wear any type of gear for the experience. The idea is to make RIOT as seamless and immersive as possible. Read more about Karen’s ideas and how the film is shaping up in this Fast Company article and follow along with the project on the RIOT project blog.

When we talked about her project, the first thing I thought of was “The Feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic ‘Brave New World.’ Yet the feelies were pure escapism, and Karen’s work aims to draw people in to a challenging experience where they face their own emotions.

On Friday, December 15, I had the opportunity to facilitate a Salon discussion with a number of people from related disciplines who are intrigued by RIOT and the various boundaries it tests and explores. We had perspectives from people working in the areas of digital storytelling and narrative, surveillance and activism, media and entertainment, emotional intelligence, digital and immersive theater, brand experience, 3D sound and immersive audio, agency and representation, conflict mediation and non-state actors, film, artificial intelligence, and interactive design.

Karen has been busy over the past month as interest in the project begins to swell. In mid-November, at Montreal’s Phi Centre’s Lucid Realities exhibit, she spoke about how digital storytelling is involving more and more of our senses, bringing an extra layer of power to the experience. This means that artists and creatives have an added layer of responsibility. (Research suggests, for example, that the brain has trouble deciphering between virtual reality [VR] and actual reality, and children under the age of 8 have had problems differentiating between a VR experience and actual memory.)

At a recent TED Talk, Karen described the essence of her work as creating experiences where the participant becomes aware of how their emotions affect the narrative of the film while they are in it, and this helps them to see how their emotions affect the narrative of their life. Can this help to create new neural pathways in the brain, she asks. Can it help a person to see how their own emotions are impacting on them but also how others are reading their emotions and reacting to those emotions in real life?

Race and sexuality are at the forefront in the US – and the Trump elections further heightened the tensions. Karen believes it’s ever more important to explore different perspectives and fears in the current context where the potential for unrest is growing. Karen hopes that RIOT can be ‘your own personal riot training tool – a way to become aware of your own reactions and of moving through your fear.’

Core themes that we discussed on Friday include:

How can we harness the power of emotion? Despite our lives being emotionally hyper-charged, (especially right now in the US), we keep using facts and data to try to change hearts and minds. This approach is ineffective. In addition, people are less trusting of third-party sources because of the onslaught of misinformation, disinformation and false information. Can we use storytelling to help us get through this period? Can immersive storytelling and creative use of 3D sound help us to trust more, to engage and to witness? Can it help us to think about how we might react during certain events, like police violence? (See Tahera Aziz’ project [re]locate about the murder of Stephen Lawrence in South London in 1993). Can it help us to better understand various perspectives? The final version of RIOT aims to bring in footage from several angles, such as CCTV from a looted store, a police body cam, and someone’s mobile phone footage shot as they ran past, in an effort to show an array of perspectives that would help viewers see things in different lights.

How do we catch the questions that RIOT stirs up in people’s minds? As someone experiences RIOT, they will have all sorts of emotions and thoughts, and these will depend on a their identity and lived experiences. At one showing of RIOT, a young white boy said he learned that if he’s feeling scared he should try to stay calm. He also said that when the cop yelled at him in the film, he assumed that he must have done something wrong. A black teenager might have had an entirely different reaction to the police. RIOT is bringing in scent, haze, 3D sound, and other elements which have started to affect people more profoundly. Some have been moved to tears or said that the film triggered anger and other strong emotions for them.

Does the artist have a responsibility to accompany people through the full emotional experience? In traditional VR experiences, a person waits in line, puts on a VR headset, experiences something profound (and potentially something triggering), then takes off the headset and is rushed out so that the next person can try it. Creators of these new and immersive media experiences are just now becoming fully aware of how to manage the emotional side of the experiences and they don’t yet have a good handle on what their responsibilities are toward those who are going through them. How do we debrief people afterwards? How do we give them space to process what has been triggered? How do we bring people into the co-creation process so that we better understand what it means to tell or experience these stories? The Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab is working on gaining a better understanding of all this and the impact it can have on people.

How do we create the grammar and frameworks for talking about this? The technologies and tactics for this type of digital immersive storytelling are entirely new and untested. Creators are only now becoming more aware of the consequences of the experiences that they are creating ‘What am I making? Why? How will people go through it? How will they leave? What are the structures and how do I make it safe for them?’ The artist can open someone up to an intense experience, but then they are often just ushered out, reeling, and someone else is rushed in. It’s critical to build time for debriefing into the experience and to have some capacity for managing the emotions and reactions that could be triggered.

SAFE Lab, for example, works with students and the community in Chicago, Harlem, and Brooklyn on youth-driven solutions to de-escalation of violence. The project development starts with the human experience and the tech comes in later. Youth are part of the solution space, but along the way they learn hard and soft skills related to emerging tech. The Lab is testing a debriefing process also. The challenge is that this is a new space for everyone; and creation, testing and documentation are happening simultaneously. Rather than just thinking about a ‘user journey,’ creators need to think about the emotionality of the full experience. This means that as opposed to just doing an immersive film – neuroscience, sociology, behavioral psychology, and lots of other fields and research are included in the dialogue. It’s a convergence of industries and sectors.

What about algorithmic bias? It’s not possible to create an unbiased algorithm, because humans all have bias. Even if you could create an unbiased algorithm, as soon as you started inputting human information into it, it would become biased. Also, as algorithms become more complex, it becomes more and more difficult to understand how they arrive to decisions. This results in black boxes that are putting out decisions that even the humans that build them can’t understand. The RIOT team is working with Dr. Hongying Meng of Brunel University London, an expert in the creation of facial and emotion detection algorithms, to develop an open source algorithm for RIOT. Even if the algorithm itself isn’t neutral, the process by which it computes will be transparent.

Most algorithms are not open. Because the majority of private companies have financial goals rather than social goals in using or creating algorithms, they have little incentive for being transparent about how an algorithm works or what biases are inherent. Ad agencies want to track how a customer reacts to a product. Facebook wants to generate more ad revenue so it adjusts what news you see on your feed. The justice system wants to save money and time by using sentencing algorithms. Yet the biases in their algorithms can cause serious harm in multiple ways. (See this 2016 report from ProPublica). The problem with these commercial algorithms is that they are opaque and the biases in them are not shared. This lack of transparency is considered by some to be more problematic than the bias itself.

Should there be a greater push for regulation of algorithms? People who work in surveillance are often ignored because they are perceived as paranoid. Yet fears that AI will be totally controlled by the military, the private sector and tech companies in ways that are hidden and opaque are real and it’s imperative to find ways to bring the actual dangers home to people. This could be partly accomplished through narrative and stories. (See John Oliver’s interview with Edward Snowden) Could artists create projects that drive conversations around algorithmic bias, help the public see the risks, and push for greater regulation? (Also of note: the New York City government recently announced that it will start a task force to look more deeply into algorithmic bias).

How is the RIOT team developing its emotion recognition algorithm? The RIOT team is collecting data to feed into the algorithm by capturing facial emotions and labeling them. The challenge is that one person may think someone looks calm, scared, or angry and another person may read it a different way. They are also testing self-reported emotions to reduce bias. The purpose of the RIOT facial detection algorithm is to measure what the person is actually feeling and how others perceive that the person is feeling. For example, how would a police officer read your face? How would a fellow protester see you? The team is developing the algorithm with the specific bias that is needed for the narrative itself. The process will be documented in a peer-reviewed research paper that considers these issues from the angle of state control of citizens. Other angles to explore would be how algorithms and biometrics are used by societies of control and/or by non-state actors such as militia in the Middle East or by right wing and/or white supremacist groups in the US. (See this article on facial recognition tools being used to identify sexual orientation)

Stay tuned to hear more…. We’ll be meeting again in the new year to go more in-depth on topics such as responsibly guiding people through VR experiences; exploring potential unintended consequences of these technologies and experiences, especially for certain racial groups; commercial applications for sensory storytelling and elements of scale; global applications of these technologies; practical development and testing of algorithms; prototyping, ideation and foundational knowledge for algorithm development.

Garry Haywood of Kinicho from also wrote his thoughts up from the day.

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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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