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Posts Tagged ‘smartaid’

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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I have issues with the word ‘charity.’ It makes me squirm and wrinkle my nose when I’m introduced or described as working for a ‘charity.’

‘Charity’ conjures up images of wealthy church ladies in Victorian times, assembling baskets of Christmas food for the poor that their husbands maintain working for miserable salaries the rest of the year. ‘Charity’ to me is working at a soup kitchen but never asking why people don’t have enough to eat, and who should be doing something about it and what needs to change. ‘Charity’ is the community members having to kowtow to the big man in the community for some of his left-overs in difficult times.

‘Charity’ is about power. ‘Charity’ is having pity for those that you are ‘helping’ and seeing ‘the poor’ as helpless victims. ‘Charity’ rests on foundations of guilt, privilege and the belief the ‘the poor will always be with us’.

Most everyone understands the act of ‘charity’. I have more than you do, so I give you some of what I have. You feel grateful for my generosity. I feel good about my generosity. Everyone’s momentarily happy. We do it again next season, nothing changes or gets better; and ‘the poor are always with us’ and kept in check by power imbalances.

‘Charity’ is related to a ‘needs-based’ approach, still used by some non-profit organizations, both large and small.

—–

There’s another approach that is referred to as social justice, related to the ‘rights-based’ approach. This type of approach is a little more complicated, but still not too hard to grasp on the surface.

Needs-based vs. Rights-based

However, social justice or rights-based approaches are not so easy to actually implement, because they imply shifting power, changing systems, demanding that governments and other authorities fulfill their obligations, pushing citizens to take on their civic responsibilities, and getting political. They require those who have power to question why they have it, and they require those who are claiming rights to be empowered and organized. They often require examining one’s own behavior on a broader level. These approaches are not so easy as giving someone some money or your old clothes or a turkey at Thanksgiving. Talk of justice and rights makes a lot of people afraid, both those who hold wealth and power and those that the wealthy and powerful manipulate through the media. However these approaches can lead to long-term and sustainable changes.

This blog post at the Episcopal Cafe (I recommend reading the whole post – it’s short) sums up the difference between charity and social justice quite well. It starts off with this quote:

“Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to eliminate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.” – The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., from his book Credo.

—–

When I read about some of the initiatives being promoted these days – the #SWEDOW projects of the world and the idea that ‘anyone can do aid or development’ – more than anything, what irks me is that many (not all) of them are coming from a charity mentality. Sure, if all you need to do is hand out some of your old stuff or build something, maybe anyone can do it. But that’s not really helping much in the long term.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a non-profit, a do-it-yourselfer, an innovator, a business person, a religious-based group, a social media guru, or a movie star who wants to help out. And it doesn’t matter if the person is from (or working in) the US or a ‘developing’ country. The first thing that I look at in an initiative is the approach — is it coming from a charity mentality (in which case I will groan and fume) or is it questioning why the problem is happening in the first place and does it work in a non-patronizing, non-romanticized, respectful way with the people who are affected by the issue in an effort to help resolve it? (In which case I’ll then look further to see if the person or organization initiating the project has done their research to find well-documented good practices and avoid repeating mistakes or potentially doing harm or doing something that’s totally unsustainable.)

I recognize that social justice is not nearly as easy to achieve as ‘charity’. And I recognize that sometimes people need to be fed so that they have the strength to question why they are hungry and so that they have the energy to do something about it. And I don’t want to give the impression that solutions come from the outside, because most of the time they don’t.

I also recognize that ‘people want to do something’. But if ‘doing something’ means ‘charity’ then I am not in favor. It’s important to address the causes, not just treat the symptoms.

Social enterprise with its triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) has come up heavily in the past few years as one way to address poverty. Social entrepreneurship is also a trend that allows people a way to ‘do something’. I’m not as familiar with these approaches as I am with the other approaches, and I admit that I get the two terms confused.

I like that they move away from the charity mentality. But I’m not entirely sure that these approaches do enough on the side of changing power structures and ensuring that those who are marginalized can access their rights. I’m not convinced that the market takes care the people ‘at the bottom’, or balances out society. I’m also concerned that when push comes to shove, the profit motive will always win out over people and planet, and we are back to where we started perhaps… ‘the poor will always be with us’…. The jury is still out on that one for me.

I’m looking forward to seeing what hybrids develop over the next years, and if we will ever finally eliminate poverty and injustice. In any case, I feel pretty confident saying that it’s time to retire the charity mentality.

Some Resources:

Dochas Network’s simple overview of the Rights Based Approach

Bamboo Shoots – a tookit for facilitators working with children using a rights-based approach

Participatory Rural Appraisal (aka Participatory Research and Action) overview

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Anything by Robert Chambers (my development hero!)

Applying a Rights-Based Approach (.pdf)

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'Green bicycles' change students' lives

So I’m sitting at lunch today in Kwale, Kenya and one of my Kenyan colleagues is reading the newspaper. He comments, ‘You know, sometimes what is said to be green is not really green.’  He shows another colleague and me this article:  “‘Green bicycles’ change students’ lives.”

They begin discussing:  How are these bicycles really green? How much are they paying to ship them over to Kenya? This is not even the right model of bicycle. These are not the Black Mamba bicycles like we are used to — these bicycles will not stand up to Kenyan roads. And you won’t find the spare parts here either. We are not short of bicycles here in Kenya. Why not purchase them locally? Why are they shipping in refurbished bicycles?

I tell them about 1millionshirts (an idea to send a ton of used t-shirts to ‘Africa’ that was subsequently taken through the wringer) and SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want — a term made famous by @talesfromthhood to represent the idea of sending unwanted junk to ‘developing countries’ and feeling good about it).

We go back to the article to see what the details are, to see what exactly is it that makes the bicycles ‘green’?  After all, ‘green bicycle’ is in quotes in the headline, so maybe the article’s author is also questioning the real ‘greenness’ of these bicycles.

We read that the project is the brainchild of Kenyan Isaac Kalua, who runs the Green Africa Foundation. He visited Tokyo a few years ago and met Hiroshi Kurokawa, the Chairman of the Japan Bicycle Foundation, and the idea was born.

“The organisation [Japan Bicycle Foundation] receives bicycle donations from wealthy Japanese, refurbishes them and ships them to other Asian countries to help rural people reach school and healthcare centres…. On average, each refurbished bicycle costs Sh12,000, including the cost of shipment.” Kalua was able to convince Kurokawa to ship some to Kenya also.

So, if my calculation is correct, 12,000 Kenyan Shillings is around $150. (This June, 2009, blogpost called “Wanna buy a Kenyan bike” [complete with great photos] details the features that a good bike should have for the Kenyan context, and says that a new one can be purchased in Kenya for $75).

The article explains that in return for receiving a bicycle, “beneficiaries have to plant trees in their homes and schools and also encourage their communities to do so.”  The Japanese ambassador to Kenya says “this is an innovative way to get people to plant trees.” He also says that he looks forward to the day that there will be more Japanese bicycles than Japanese cars on the roads of Kenya.

Continuing on, we read that “…the project is facing challenges from Customs officials who take too long to clear the bicycles, making storage charges to soar. We were forced to pay Sh1.2 million for the storage of the latest batch of bicycles. We find that a big burden since this project is meant to be humanitarian.”  (That’s around $15,000 for storage.)

Handy SWEDOW flowchart

Now, I haven’t visited the project, spoken with project participants/ beneficiaries, nor have I done extensive research on the initiative, so I might be missing something here. But on the surface, using the handy SWEDOW flow chart, (created by Scott Gilmore at Peace Dividend Trust) it looks like the best thing to do with a bunch of used bicycles would be ‘sell them, send the cash to buy local’, or ‘throw them out.’

Greening Africa. Bike riding in Kenya. Tree planting. Recycling/re-using Japanese bicycles. Good ideas, but I bet there is a better, more sustainable, and more cost-effective way to achieve those aims than shipping refurbished bicycles from Japan to Kenya.

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