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Posts Tagged ‘panel’

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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Does ‘openness’ enhance development?

This was the question explored in a packed Room 3 (and via livestream and Twitter) on the last day of the ICTD2012 Conference in Atlanta, GA.

Panelists included Matthew Smith from the International Development Research Center (IDRC), Soren Gigler from the World Bank, Varun Arora from the Open Curriculum Project and Ineke Buskens from Gender Research in Africa into ICTs for Empowerment (GRACE). The panel was organized by Tony Roberts and Caitlin Bentley, both pursuing PhD’s at ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London. I was involved as moderator.

As background for the session, Caitlin set up a wiki where we all contributed thoughts and ideas on the general topic.

“Open development” (sometimes referred to as “Open ICT4D“) is defined as:

“an emerging area of knowledge and practice that has converged around the idea that the opening up of information (e.g. open data), processes (e.g. crowdsourcing) and intellectual property (e.g. open source) has the potential to enhance development.”

Tony started off the session explaining that we’d come together as people interested in exploring the theoretical concepts and the realities of open development and probing some of the tensions therein. The wiki does a good job of outlining the different areas and tension points, and giving some background, additional links and resources.

[If you’re too short on time or attention to read this post, see the Storify version here.]

Matthew opened the panel giving an overview of ‘open development,’ including 3 key areas: open government, open access and open means of production. He noted that ICTs can be enablers of these and that within the concept of ‘openness’ we also can find a tendency towards sharing and collaborating. Matthew’s aspiration for open development is to see more experimentation and institutional incentives towards openness. Openness is not an end unto itself, but an element leading to better development outcomes.

Soren spoke second, noting that development is broken, there is a role for innovation in fixing it, and ‘open’ can contribute to that. Open is about people, not ICTs, he emphasized. It’s about inclusion, results and development outcomes. To help ensure that what is open is also inclusive, civil society can play an ‘infomediary‘ role between open data and citizens. Collaboration is important in open development, including co-creation and partnership with a variety of stakeholders. Soren gave examples of open development efforts including Open Aid Partnership; Open Data Initiative; and Kenya Open Government Portal.

Varun followed, with a focus on open educational resources (OER), asking how ordinary people benefit from “open”. He noted that more OER does not necessarily lead to better educational outcomes. Open resources produced in, say, the US are not necessarily culturally appropriate for use in other places. Open does not mean unbiased. Open can also mean that locally produced educational resources do not flourish. Varun noted that creative commons licenses that restrict to “non-commercial” use can demotivate local entrepreneurship. He also commented that resources like those from Khan Academy assume that end users have a computer in their home and a broadband connection.

Ineke spoke next, noting that ‘open’ doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sometimes power relations become more apparent when things become open. She gave the example of a project that offered free computer use in a community, yet men dominated the computers, computers were available during hours when women could not take advantage of them, and women were physically pushed away from using the computers. ‘This only has to happen once or twice before all the women in the community get the message,’ she noted. The intent behind ‘open’ is important, and it’s difficult to equalize the playing field in one small area when working within a broader context that is not open and equalized. She spoke of openness as performance, and emphasized the importance of thinking through the questions: openness for whom? openness for what?

[Each of the presenters holds a wealth of knowledge on this topic and I’d encourage you to explore their work in more detail!]

Following the short comments from panelists, the room split into several groups for about 15 minutes to discuss points, tensions, and questions on the concept of open development. (See the bottom of the wiki page for the full list of questions.)

We came back together in plenary to discuss points from the room and those coming in from Twitter, including:

  • Should any research done with public funds be publicly open and available? This was a fundamental values question for some.
  • Can something be open and not public? Some said that no, if it’s open it needs to be public. Others countered that there is some information that should not be public because it can put people at risk or invade privacy. Others discussed that open goods are not necessarily public goods, rather they are “club” goods that are only open to certain members of society, in this case, those of a certain economic and education level. It was noted that public access does not equal universal availability, and we need to go beyond access in this discussion.
  • Is openness fundamentally decentralizing or does it lead to centralization? Some commented that the World Bank, for example, by making itself “open” it can dominate the development debate and silence voices that are not within that domain. Others felt that power inequalities exist whether there is open data or not. Another point of view was that the use of a particular technique can change people without it being the express intent. For example, some academic journals may have been opening up their articles from the beginning. This is probably not because they want to be ‘nice’ but because they want to keep their powerful position, however the net effect can still be positive.
  • How to ensure it’s not data for data’s sake? How do we broker it? How do we translate it into knowledge? How does it lead to change? ‘A farmer in Niger doesn’t care about the country’s GDP,’ commented one participant. It’s important to hold development principles true when looking at ‘openness’. Power relations, gender inequities, local ownership, all these aspects are still something to think about and look at in the context of ‘openness’.

The general consensus was that it is important to fight the good fight, yes, but don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal. Open for whom? Open for what?

As organizers of the session, we were all quite pleased at the turnout and the animated debate and high level of interest in the topic of ‘open development’. A huge thanks to the panelists and the participants. We are hoping to continue the discussions throughout the coming months and to secure a longer session (and a larger room) for the next ICTD conference!

Note: New Tactics is discussing “Strengthening Citizen Participation in Local Governance” this week. There are some great resources there that could help to ground the discussion on ‘open development’.

Visit the ‘does openness enhance development’ wiki for a ton of resources and background on ‘open development’!

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