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Posts Tagged ‘social’

New technologies are opening up all kinds of possibilities for improving monitoring and evaluation. From on-going feedback and crowd-sourced input to more structured digital data collection, to access to large data sets and improved data visualization, the field is changing quickly.

On August 7, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Community Systems Foundation (CSF) joined up with the Technology Salon NYC for the first in a series of 3 Salons on the use of ICTs in monitoring and evaluating development outcomes. Our lead discussants were: Erica Kochi from UNICEF Innovations; Steven Davenport from Development Gateway and John Toner from CSF.

This particular Salon focused on the use of ICTs for social monitoring (a.k.a. ‘beneficiary feedback loops’) and accountability. Below is a summary of the key points that emerged at the Salon.

1) Monitoring and evaluation is changing

M&E is not only about formal data collection and indicators anymore, one discussant commented, “It’s free form, it contains sentiment.” New ICT tools can help donors and governments plan better. SMS and other social monitoring tools provide an additional element to more formal information sources and can help capture the pulse of the population. Combinations of official data sets with SMS data provide new ways of looking at cross-sections of information. Visualizations and trend analysis can offer combinations of information for decision making. Social monitoring, however, can be a scary thing for large institutions. It can seem too uncontrolled or potentially conflictive. One way to ease into it is through “bounded” crowd-sourcing (eg., working with a defined and more ‘trusted’ subset of the public) until there is comfort with these kinds of feedback mechanisms.

2) People need to be motivated to participate in social monitoring efforts

Building a platform or establishing an SMS response tool is not enough. One key to a successful social monitoring effort is working with existing networks, groups and organizations and doing well-planned and executed outreach, for example, in the newspaper, on the radio and on television. Social monitoring can and should go beyond producing information for a particular project or program. It should create an ongoing dialogue between and among people and institutions, expanding on traditional monitoring efforts and becoming a catalyst for organizations or government to better communicate and engage with the community. SMS feedback loops need to be thought of in terms of a dialogue or a series of questions rather than a one-question survey. “People get really engaged when they are involved in back and forth conversation.” Offering prizes or other kinds of external motivation can spike participation rates but also can create expectations that affect or skew programs in the long run. Sustainable approaches need to be identified early on. Rewards can also lead to false reports and re-registering, and need to be carefully managed.

3) Responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is critical

One way to help motivate individuals to participate in social monitoring is for governments or institutions to show that citizen/participant feedback elicits a response (eg., better delivery of public services).  “Incentives are good,” said one discussant, “But at the core, if you get interactive with users, you will start to see the responses. Then you’ll have a targeted group that you can turn to.” Responsiveness can be an issue, however if there is limited government or institutional interest, resourcing or capacity, so it’s important to work on both sides of the equation so that demand does not outstrip response capacity. Monitoring the responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is also important. “Was there a response promised? Did it happen? Has it been verified? What was the quality of it?”

4) Privacy and protection are always a concern

Salon participants brought up concerns about privacy and protection, especially for more sensitive issues that can put those who provide feedback at risk. There are a number of good practices in the IT world for keeping data itself private, for example presenting it in aggregate form, only releasing certain data, and setting up controls over who can access different levels of data. However with crowd-sourcing or incident mapping there can be serious concerns for those who report or provide feedback. Program managers need to have a very good handle on the potential risks involved or they can cause unintended harm to participants. Consulting with participants to better understand the context is a good idea.

5) Inclusion needs to be purposeful

Getting a representative response via SMS-based feedback or other social monitoring tools is not always easy. Mandatory ratios of male and female, age groups or other aspects can help ensure better representation. Different districts can be sampled in an effort to ensure overall response is representative. “If not,” commented one presenter, “you’ll just get data from urban males.” Barriers to participation also need consideration, such as language; however, working in multiple languages becomes very complicated very quickly. One participant noted that it is important to monitor whether people from different groups or geographic areas understand survey questions in the same way, and to be able to fine-tune the system as it goes along. A key concern is reaching and including the most vulnerable with these new technologies. “Donors want new technology as a default, but I cannot reach the most excluded with technology right now,” commented a participant.

6) Information should be useful to and used by the community

In addition to ensuring inclusion of individuals and groups, communities need to be involved in the entire process. “We need to be sure we are not just extracting information,” mentioned one participant. Organizations should be asking: What information does the community want? How can they get it themselves or from us? How can we help communities to collect the information they need on their own or provide them with local, sustainable support to do so?

7) Be sure to use the right tools for the job

Character limitation can be an issue with SMS. Decision tree models, where one question prompts another question that takes the user down a variety of paths, are one way around the character limit. SMS is not good for incredibly in-depth surveys however; it is good for breadth not depth. It’s important to use SMS and other digital tools for what they are good for. Paper can often be a better tool, and there is no shame in using it. Discussants emphasized that one shouldn’t underestimate the challenges in working with Telco operators and making short codes. Building the SMS network infrastructure takes months. Social media is on the rise, so how do you channel that into the M&E conversation?

8) Broader evaluative questions need to be established for these initiatives

The purpose of including ICT in different initiatives needs to be clear. Goals and evaluative questions need to be established. Teams need to work together because no one person is likely to have the programmatic, ICT and evaluation skills needed for a successfully implemented and well-documented project. Programs that include ICTs need better documentation and evaluation overall, including cost-benefit analyses and comparative analyses with other potential tools that could be used for these and similar processes.

9) Technology is not automatically cheaper and easier

These processes remain very iterative; they are not ‘automated’ processes. Initial surveys can only show patterns. What is more interesting is back-and-forth dialogue with participants. As one discussant noted, staff still spend a lot of time combing through data and responses to find patterns and nuances within the details. There is still a cost to these projects. In one instance, the major project budget went into a communication campaign that was launched and the work with existing physical networks to get people to participate. Compared to traditional ways of doing things (face-to-face, for example) the cost of outreach is not so expensive, but integrating SMS and other technologies does not automatically mean that money will be saved. The cost of SMS is also large in these kinds of projects because in order to ensure participation, representation, and inclusion, SMS usually needs to be free for participants. Even with bulk rates, if the program is at massive scale, it’s quite expensive. When assuming that governments or local organizations will take over these projects at some point, this is a real consideration.

10) Solutions at huge scale are not feasible for most organizations 

Some participants commented that the UN and the Red Cross and similarly sized organizations are the only ones who can work at the level of scale discussed at the Salon. Not many agencies have the weight to influence governments or mobile service providers, and these negotiations are difficult even for large-scale organizations. It’s important to look at solutions that react and respond to what development organizations and local NGOs can do. “And what about localized tools that can be used at district level or village level? For example, localized tools for participatory budgeting?” asked a participant. “There are ways to link high tech and SMS with low tech, radio outreach, working with journalists, working with other tools,” commented others. “We need to talk more about these ways of reaching everyone. We need to think more about the role of intermediaries in building capacity for beneficiaries and development partners to do this better.

11) New technology is not M&E magic

Even if you include new technology, successful initiatives require a team of people and need to be managed. There is no magic to doing translations or understanding the data – people are needed to put all this together, to understand it, to make it work. In addition, the tools covered at the Salon only collect one piece of the necessary information. “We have to be careful how we say things,” commented a discussant. We call it M&E, but it’s really ‘M’. We get confused with ourselves sometimes. What we are talking about today is monitoring results. Evaluation is how to take all that information then, and make an informed decision. It involves specialists and more information on top of this…” Another participant emphasized that SMS feedback can get at the symptoms but doesn’t seem to get at the root causes. Data needs to be triangulated and efforts made to address root causes and end users need to be involved.

12) Donors need to support adaptive design

Participants emphasized that those developing these programs, tools and systems need to be given space to try and to iterate, to use a process of adaptive design. Donors shouldn’t lock implementers into unsuitable design processes. A focused ‘ICT and Evaluation Fail Faire’ was suggested as a space for improving sharing and learning around ICTs and M&E. There is also learning to be shared from people involved in ICT projects that have scaled up. “We need to know what evidence is needed to scale up. There is excitement and investment, but not enough evidence,” it was concluded.

Our next Salon

Our next Salon in the series will take place on August 30th. It will focus on the role of intermediaries in building capacity for communities and development partners to use new technologies for monitoring and evaluation. We’ll be looking to discover good practices for advancing the use of ICTs in M&E in sustainable ways. Sign up for the Technology Salon mailing list here. [Update: A summary of the August 30 Salon is here.]

Salons run by Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been made. 

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Where are the spaces for dialogue on good governance? (Image from a workshop on youth participatory governance, April 2011)

As I mentioned in my ‘governance is *so* not boring’ post, I am recently back from an internal workshop where some 20 colleagues from across the organization where I work (Plan) pulled together some basic elements for a global program strategy on Youth, Citizenship and Governance.

One of the key elements that we talked about was the importance of information literacy in citizenship and governance work, including at the level of governments, duty bearers and decision makers and of course at the level of citizens — in our case, especially children and young people. Information literacy is defined by the University of Idaho as “the ability to identify what information is needed, understand how the information is organized, identify the best sources of information for a given need, locate those sources, evaluate the sources critically, and share that information”. (I can hear my librarian friends cheering right now, as they’ve been working on this for years).

Openness as an attitude came up as something that’s important all around for good governance. This doesn’t only mean ‘open’ as a technological specification for data, but rather openness as an entire approach and attitude towards governance, citizen participation and the nature of relationships and interactions in the spaces where citizens and government overlap. We were able to link our work up very well with the concepts of open development, open government and open data; all of which can contribute to better transparency, accountability and governance and which require information literacy and a number of other skills and capacities in order to take advantage of.

My practitioner colleagues said over and over at the meeting ‘we don’t have access to the information we need to do better governance work.’ I was left wondering how those of us working at various levels, including the field of ICT4D and related, can do a better job of supporting access to information, and what are the technology and non-technology tools and approaches that work best. There is still a huge gap between the community- and district-level governance work that my colleagues are working on with children, youth and communities and the big on-line data sets that are part of open data and open government. Both very important, but there really needs to be a stronger link between the two so that they can feed into each other to achieve better governance. Once again – the questions ‘open for who? and open for what?‘ come in, as well as the need for a two-way (multi-way?) information flow.

We talked about how social accountability tools like community scorecards, social audits, budget tracking and monitoring, and participatory budgeting can be an important way for engaging marginalized and excluded populations in governance work outside of more formal channels (eg, elections, law courts, planning and auditing of public expenditure). Social accountability tools and processes allow people to more directly participate in the accountability process and make themselves heard rather than leaving accountability in the hands of the government or relying only on formal mechanisms. During our workshop, we watched the International Budget Partnership’s video ‘It’s our money, where has it gone‘ on using social accountability tools in Kenya. (Long, but very worth watching)

Following the video I explained open data in a nutshell by asking people to imagine that the budget information that the community had to get via their district officials was available online and could be accessed without going through the district officer. It was a good opportunity to think about the potential of open data and open government and how they can fit in with social accountability work.

The video highlights the very real dangers that can be present when working on transparency and accountability. Since in our case we are working with children and youth, we need to be especially aware of potential risks involved in transparency, accountability and good governance work, because this kind of work raises questions and aims to shift power and politics and resources. We need to be very sure that we are not somehow pushing our own agenda through children and youth, or handing them a hot potato that we don’t want to take on as adults or organizations, or even unintentionally putting them at risk because we haven’t fully thought through a project or initiative. We need to be sure that we are conducting thorough, participatory and shared risk assessments together with children and youth and establishing mechanisms and ways of mitigating risks, or making decisions on what to pursue and what to leave for others. Child protection, our own responsibilities as duty bearers, and the notion of ‘do no harm’ are massively important to bring in here.

We spent time talking about what we need to do as an institution to support good governance, and emphasized that openness and good governance is a key element of institutions, INGOs, local NGOs and CBOs who want to be credible in this space.  Organizations that are working with communities to push for local and/or national government transparency and accountability should expect that these same demands will be turned around to them, and the same questions asked of government and decision-makers will be asked of them. Taking those steps internally towards openness, accountability and good governance is critical. When working with youth associations and children’s groups, this is also a point for strengthening so that openness, transparency, accountability, positive leadership and other capacities, capabilities and skills are enhanced. If local associations replicate the bad governance practices that they are trying to change, then things are really not advancing much.

Successful governance work addresses multiple sides of the governance issue. Working only with citizens can create a demand that outstrips government interest, capacity or responsiveness and lead to apathy, frustration and/or conflict. So it’s really important to work with duty bearers and decision makers as well as with children and youth and their communities, and with other non-state adult actors, such as parents, teachers, community leaders and the media; to help create an environment for better governance. In addition, it’s important to understand the  incentives and disincentives that shape the behaviors of different service providers, for example teachers and health care workers.

As my colleague Wale Osofisan from our UK office pointed out today after I shared these videos on governance work: “It is not enough to get the students and communities to monitor absenteeism without really examining the root causes of the problem from the point of view of the teachers and doctors. For example, in the DRC health care workers at PHCs particularly in the rural areas don’t get their salaries paid on time – sometimes for 6 months. Hence, they are forced to abandon their official duty posts and find alternative ways of earning an income either working informally for a private clinic which pays them or they engage in other economic activities. Same goes for the teachers. Thus, civil society interventions also need to focus on the problems encountered in the supply side of the equation… This is quite a challenge because it would require tackling the perverse politics of service delivery in many developing countries and NGOs always find it very uncomfortable to engage in such terrain.”

Good governance work uses existing spaces for collaboration and dialogue among the various actors or creates new space if none exists. It builds skills and capacities in both citizens and government officials. Children and youth, for example, need to have capacities to work effectively together, organize, prioritize, influence, use media and new communication technologies, access information and interpret/analyze it, and to develop partnerships and networks. Decision-makers need to strengthen capacities to engage with children and young people, to hear, respond, follow up and provide feedback. Government institutions need to have the attitudes as well as the resources to be more responsive to citizens’ needs and rights. Government employees, as mentioned above, need to also have the space to share what makes it difficult for them to do their jobs.

We did some group work around the 3 key actors in our citizenship and governance work: the State, children and young people, and other non-state adult actors. I participated in the group that looked at the changes that would need to happen at the level of the State and was again reminded how this work requires so much more than accountability mechanisms, new ICT tools and data. We talked about what would motivate a State to have an open information policy. What is in it for elected officials? How can State actors be motivated to change their attitudes to one of more openness and accountability? Can citizens push the State to be more open? Is international donor or political pressure the only motivator that has been successful so far in most countries? If a State is not governing well, what are the common root causes? If openness is an attitude, what motivates a State and its different bodies to be open? External pressure and citizen demand are one thing, but what about addressing other factors that prohibit good governance?

Linking and promoting collaboration between and among children’s and youth groups was noted as another key piece of citizenship and governance work with young people. This can be supported at a face-to-face level but also needs to happen from the local to the global level, so that young people can connect and share common agendas and experiences both ‘horizontally and vertically.’ The web is a key tool here for taking local issues to the global level and back down again to community level. A question in my mind here was how INGOs can do a better job of linking youth and governance work that they are supporting at local levels with the external social and political environment so that they are not happening in parallel or in a vacuum. Another was whether we are thinking enough about broader social and political movements as related to major events or changes happening in a country or globally (eg, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Rio+20) and our role and position and purpose there. And what about on-line organizing and activism and ‘direct democracy’ as more young people access on-line networks and activism happens in virtual spaces?

We discussed quite a lot about how supporting overall behavior changes and public opinion are critical to creating an environment that supports public accountability and openness and gets these on the agenda. It’s also important to change attitudes with relation to how children and young people are perceived so that adults and decision-makers will listen to them and take their opinions and claims into consideration. Programs that engage children and youth and showcase their capacities and abilities can help decision-makers and other non-state adults to see that the younger generation does have valid points, opinions and ideas for positive change.

And lastly, there is the importance of ensuring that staff are well versed in local political contexts and how government systems work. Without a strong and nuanced understanding of the local context, local power dynamics, local political and local cultural contexts, and how children and young people and other excluded groups are viewed, programs may be over ambitious, wrong-headed, create dangerous conflict, set back governance and accountability work, or put children and young people in harm’s way. The complexity of this kind of work combined with the complexity of the various settings mean that a clear theory of change is needed to guide efforts and expressly address the specific changes that are sought so that initiatives can be well-designed, implemented, monitored and evaluated, and so that there is a better chance of a good impact.

Related posts:

Young citizens: youth, and participatory governance in Africa

A practitioner’s discussion on social accountability and youth participatory governance

Governance is *so* not boring

Does ‘openness’ enhance development?

New technology and good governance

ICTs, social media, local government and youth-led social audits

Digital mapping and governance: the stories behind the maps

What would an International CSO Governance revolution look like?

Resources:

IIED’s Participatory Learning and Action Journal: Young Citizens: Youth and participatory governance in Africa

Plan UK’s Governance Learning Guide

Technology for Transparency network

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This is a guest post from Jamie Lundine, who has been collaborating with Plan Kenya to support digital mapping and governance programming in Kwale and Mathare.

Throughout October and November 2011, Plan Kwale worked through Map Kibera Trust with Jamie Lundine and Primoz Kovacic, and 4 young people from Kibera and Mathare, to conduct digital mapping exercises to support ongoing youth-led development processes in Kwale county. One of the important lessons learned through the Trust’s work in Kibera and Mathare is that the stories behind the mapping work are important for understanding the processes that contribute to a situation as represented on a map. To tell these stories and to complement the data collection and mapping work done by the youth in Kwale, the Map Kibera Trust team worked with the Kwale youth to set up platforms to share this information nationally and internationally. Sharing the important work being done in Kwale will hopefully bring greater visibility to the issues which may in the longer term lead to greater impact.

Sharing stories of local governance

To support their work on social accountability, the Kwale Youth and Governance Consortium (KYGC) mapped over 100 publicly and privately funded community-based projects. The projects were supported by the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), Local Area Development Fund (LATF), NGOs and private donors. As one channel of sharing this information, the Consortium set up a blog called Nuru ya Kwale (Light of Kwale). According to KYGC the blog “features and addresses issues concerning promotion of demystified participatory community involvement in the governance processes towards sustainable development. We therefore expect interactivity on issues accruing around social accountability.” This involves sharing evidence about various projects and stories from the community.

One example is the documentation of the Jorori Water project in Kwale; through the mapping work, the Governance team collected details of the constituency development fund (CDF) project. The funding allocated to upgrade the water supply for the community was 6,182,960 ksh (approximately 73,000.00 USD). From their research the KYGC identified that the Kenya Open Data site reported that the full funding amount has been spent.

A field visit to the site however revealed that project was incomplete and the community is still without a stable water supply, despite the fact that the funding has been “spent.”

Jorori Water Project, built using approximately 6.2 million shillings (73, 000.00 USD)

Read more about the questions the team raised in terms of the governance of CDF projects, including the detailed the project implementation process and some reflections on why the project stalled. This is information on community experiences (tacit information) that is well-known in a localized context but has not been documented and shared widely. New media tools, a blog in this case, provide free (if you have access to a computer and the internet) platforms for sharing this information with national and international audiences.

Addressing violence against children and child protection

Another blog was set up by the Kwale Young Journalists. The Young Journalists, registered in 2009, have been working with Plan Kwale on various projects, including Violence against Children campaigns. The group has been working to set up a community radio station in Kwale to report on children’s issues. Thus far, their application for a community radio frequency has encountered several challenges. New media provides an interim solution and will allow the team to share their stories and network with partners on a national and internal stage.

The Kwale Young Journalists worked with Jeff Mohammed, a young award-winning filmmaker from Mathare Valley. The YETAM project not only equips young people with skills, but through peer-learning establishes connections between young people working on community issues throughout Kenya. The programme also provides young people with life skills through experiential learning – Jeff reflects on his experience in Kwale and says:

Jeff and the Kwale Young Journalists shooting a scene from “The Enemy Within”

“My knowledge didn’t come from books and lecturers it came from interest, determination and persistence to know about filmmaking and this is what I was seeing in these Kwale youths. They numbered 12 and they were me. They are all in their twenties and all looking very energetic, they had the same spirit as mine and it was like looking at a mirror. I had to do the best I could to make sure that they grasp whatever I taught.”

Jeff worked with the Young Journalists on a short film called “the Enemy Within.” The film, shot with flip-cameras, tells the story of 12-year-old girl who is sold into indentured labour by her parents to earn money for her family. During the time she spends working, the young girl “falls prey of her employer (Mr.Mtie) who impregnates her when she is only 12 years old.” Jeff reflects that “early pregnancies are a norm in the rural Kwale area and what the young filmmakers wanted to do is to raise awareness to the people that its morally unacceptable to impregnate a very young girl, in Enemy Within the case didn’t go as far because the village chairman was bribed into silence and didn’t report the matter to higher authorities.” This is a common scenario in Kwale, and the young journalists plan to use the film in public screenings and debates as part of their advocacy work in the coming months.

Jeff and the Kwale Young Journalists shot the film in four days – they travelled to Penzamwenye, Kikoneni and also to Shimba Hills national park to shoot 7 scenes for the movie. Read more about Jeff’s reflections on working with the Kwale Young Journalists on his blog.

Sharing ecotourism resources

The Dzilaz ecotourism team – a group that encourages eco-cultural tourism in Samburu region of Kwale county — also integrated social media into their work. During the last week (November 8th-12th) the group set up a blog to market the community resources, services and products. They also plan to document eco-culture sites and the impact that eco-tourism can have on the community. As of November 10th, 2011 the Dzilaz team had already directed potential clients to their website and thus secured a booking through the information they had posted.

The importance of telling the stories behind the maps

One important component to mapping work is to tell the stories behind the map. The three groups in Kwale are working to build platforms to amplify their grassroots level work in order to share stories and lessons learned. The information documented on the various platforms will develop over time and contribute to a greater understanding of the processes at a local level where youth as young leaders can intervene to begin to change the dynamics of community development.

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Praia Vermelha, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

I’m on vacation for a week. In Rio de Janeiro. On a supposed social media break. But I’m on-line right now instead of on-thebeach; in stealth mode, secretly reading Tweets and Google Reader over morning coffee while my fellow vacationers sleep on and sun pours in the huge open window in the apartment we’re sharing in Copacabana.

I was supposed to quit social media and email for the week, but I’m at that point where I question whether I really wanted to go offline at all, and why…. being addicted to Twitter isn’t really a bad thing, is it? If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking or go on a diet and failed, you’ve been here.

I’m sneaking peaks, but not conversing and sharing. Pretending I’m not online, because supposedly I need a social media break (and because being addicted is somewhat embarrassing). But the truth is that my vacation is awesome and I enjoy being online, probably similar to how some people enjoy reading the Sunday paper.

Some highlights I discovered and didn’t share during last week’s feigned Twitter hiatus…

Aid and development

Loved @lrakoto’s great piece on some of the current big dilemmas/discussions in aid…. Aid is about the people, right?

Read @morealtitude’s intense and harrowing World Humanitarian Day series part 1part 2, and part 3. Wow. Watched OCHA’s beautifully done world humanitarian day video (and couldn’t help but wonder how much it cost to make it). Felt sad that humanitarian aid needs so much marketing lately to be seen as good. Went back and forth as usual, reading this week’s pros and cons of how humanitarian/international aid work needs a total overhaul and how it’s vital work in many places.

Saw Pakistan continue to get less attention than Haiti even as the situation gets worse and worse. Read an interesting piece from a colleague on how women and girls and culture are being impacted by the floods. Saw another colleague, @warisara, (experienced communicator who worked on the ground during the Asian tsunami and who’s now arrived to Pakistan) questioning why aid organizations have to keep showing graphic, horrifying visual images in order to draw any attention to a crisis, and wondering if each disaster has to be worse than the last in order to get the public to care. What an unfortunate dilemma — how to avoid undignified, disrespectful images and still manage to raise any funds.

Saw a sad exchange after my employer posted an appeal for Pakistan… Someone argued that we should not help Pakistanis because ‘they wish to see us dead’. They based their reasoning on ‘Christian principles’. What was heartening at least were all the other comments arguing against that view, arguing for helping Pakistan after the devastating floods, and seeing past religions and hatred and fundamentalist behavior.

Was flattered to get listed in the Activist Writer’s top 10 blogs along with aid bloggers I really admire. Discovered @aaronausland’s blog Staying for Tea.

ICT4D and m4D

Enjoyed the debate started by @Kiwanja on the need for an active mobile community for addressing fundamental, deep questions and thinking, and bridging the gap between development folks and technology folks. (Something I encounter and write about often, such as here and here). Liked this Venn Diagram on the intersection of m4D, apps4D and ICT4D.

Noticed that @mambenanje got himself a copy of an article about him in Brussels Airlines in-flight mag (also incuded Erik Hersman, Ethan Zuckerman). Remembered how cool it was being on that flight to Kenya, opening up the in-flight magazine, and seeing names of people I know.

Saw that @wayan_vota has a beautiful new baby girl.  And that miraculously he’s been able to re-follow me on Twitter after months of his account auto-unfollowing me time and time again (though he’s explained it also happens when he tries to follow @billeasterly…. weird – and really not sure what I have in common with the esteemed Professor that makes Wayan’s account consistently unfollow us both….).

Pakistan and the ‘Ground Zero mosque’

Due to my self-imposed Twitter ban and bet with @ernstsuur that I could really stay off Twitter for a week, I reverted to posting on Facebook and managed to upset the good folks back home in the heartland (Indiana) when I posted a link about the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’. Normally I don’t post political stuff on FB because of the variety of people that I’m connected to there — it’s hard to not offend at least someone. Facebook has become everything and nothing, pretty much.  I also re-posted an article on the ‘mosque’ and elitism (and thought it would be pretty fun to see Palin and @talesfromthhood debating elitism) and a link to the Daily Show giving it to Fox News. This provoked pretty emotional and strong comments (see below) from someone I was very good friends with in high school, but who’s gone down quite a different path than I have… eg, the military:

“So lets encourage all of our moderate Muslim friends to fulfill their religious duty. If they beleive (sic) that the extremist versions of Jihad and Sharia are incongruent with the teachings of Mohammed, then it is their responsibility to wage Jihad (lets let them pick the definition) against the extremists. When have created a predominantly tolerant Islam, I will finance a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia and will bless the establishment of a mosque anywhere in the U.S.

Until then, me and others like me will continue to spread AND DEFEND the basic rights that everyone in America, including the Muslim Americans who want to build this Mosque, enjoy. I invite all do-gooders everywhere to stand shoulder to should with me and my Soldiers in those countries where Muslims are not tolerant under Sharia……Saudi Arabi, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria (Muslim areas), Egypt, Buhrain, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Algeria, Mauritania, Somalia, etc., etc. “

Rather than get into a debate, I went with that whole “let’s agree to disagree” thing.  But seriously.  I can’t wait to get back to Twitter.

Pao de Azucar, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Rio de Janeiro

Luckily I’m not actually spending all my time in front of my computer. I’m mixing in a lot of other good stuff, like deep philosophical conversations with my 18 year old son, capoeira with him at Grupo Capoeira Senzala Cultural Center in Bairro Botafogo, naps, beach, pictures from the top of Pao de Azucar, and late night samba and caipirinhas at Rio Scenarium and other great places with good friends, old and new….

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I’ve been following the debates surrounding professionalism, amateurism, innovation and good practice in aid and development work on the blogosphere and Twitter for awhile now.  In their most extreme and exaggerated form, they go something like this:

Extreme side 1: Amateurs are evil

Aid is about the poor.  Amateurs and would-be overseas volunteers should stay home, give money to experienced international organizations, volunteer locally, and stop getting in the way of professionals who are trying to get some serious work done. Aid and development are complicated and there is no silver bullet. They require experience and expertise. Amateurs, voluntourists and unskilled volunteers do more harm than good — they are clueless, showing up with no experience or concept of good aid or development processes. They bypass coordination structures, create confusion and duplication, repeat mistakes and don’t follow known best practices or proven ethical and industry guidelines. You may be a brilliant designer, marketer, manager or engineer but if you don’t have experience in aid and development, please use your skills elsewhere.

Amateurs make major mistakes and get themselves into trouble, and then professionals have to waste their time dealing with them instead of on the people in most need of help.  They parachute in ideas and technologies designed from afar that have no basis in reality because they don’t have any experience in aid, development or the developing world and they don’t listen to past experiences or lessons learned. They come up with stupid ideas, take away paid jobs from local people, create hand-out schemes and other unsustainable and inappropriate models of helping, and then leave. In no other field are amateurs allowed to go in and muck around in other people’s lives with no preparation or experience just because they have good intentions, so why are they allowed to barge into poor communities and bumble around just because they feel guilty about their own wealth and privilege or think it’s their right to help? The poor deserve better than that. Aid should be left to professionals who know what they are doing.

Extreme side 2: Aid and aid workers are evil

There’s no point in talking about professionalism because aid workers and aid and development in their totality have been an utter failure, regardless of how professional aid workers think they are.  Aid is aid, how hard can it be? We need to get things done! Everyone can and should get involved in helping, because it’s everyone’s right and responsibility to help. How will things advance if new ideas and innovations aren’t tested? And by the way, my latest product/ invention/ idea would easily solve that issue that aid workers have been struggling with for centuries…. I just need a place to test it out, got any communities? Volunteers and people with good intentions can do just as good a job as professional aid workers, who have made a total mess of everything anyway with their outdated models and bureaucratic, slow, top down procedures.

New ways of doing things and ideas brought in by youth, volunteers, design students and for-profit innovators from different sectors are beneficial to aid, which is currently stagnated and ineffective and needs an overhaul, or better yet, total annihilation. Aid workers drive around in giant SUVs and don’t have any commitment to local people because they live in fancy ex-pat houses with servants, getting rich off of the backs of the poor they profess to help. It’s just a big business that is perpetuating itself and preventing the poor from developing.  On top of that, the only way you can get into it is to start as a volunteer, but volunteering is discredited by those same aid workers. The dying field of aid and development is a closed and exclusive club. Aid should be abolished, and/or bypassed by small groups of dedicated, good-hearted, every-day individuals and/or social entrepreneurs and capitalists with good intentions who really care about people in the developing world, and can bring in new ways of working and innovations.

Hmmmm.

I’m finding the arguments really interesting.  A little mixed up and too generalized sometimes, but both sides resonate with me because I’ve seen concrete examples of a lot of the above.  (By the way, I hope no one takes offense at how I’ve portrayed the sides – this is just an exercise here – I love you all).  So I was trying to step back and look at the discussion.

It struck me that the arguments sound a lot like the old media – new media arguments.  New media is less professional, less rigorous, and sometimes unethical and low quality. But it often it brings innovations and truths that old media misses. It’s quick, accessible, open, less controlled and often pretty freaking amazing and right on.  Old media is solid and has a long history of quality and impact, but it’s also slow, unresponsive and conservative at times. Old media that’s not finding a way to integrate and learn from new media is dying.

So how might old aid, old development and new aid, new development work together? What can traditional non-profits learn from traditional media outlets that have embraced new media or morphed their old models into something that is still solid and proven, yet offers a space for participation and innovation by the public?

What general standards and knowledge need to be out in the public to help amateurs or people from non-aid and non-development backgrounds who want to engage avoid pitfalls and known errors, and avoid breaking laws or forging forward unethically or foolishly, and doing damage? Can old and new come to terms and work together? What examples are there of this already happening in a way that both old and new agree is working?  Or are these two sides totally incompatible and doomed to work against each other?

[Update] See Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges for a Part 2 to this post.

For more background….

Update:  Penelope has written a great post called “On Entrepreneurship and NGOs

Saundra over at Good Intentions are not Enough does a great job of sharing standards, practices and educating on how to select good charities/organizations, and has published a “Smart Aid Wish List” you can add to.

Check out this excellent chapter (.pdf) by ALNAP on Innovations in International Humanitarian Action (thanks to @talesfromthhood for sharing).

[update] Michael Keizer at A Humorless Lot wrote a great response post here:  The professional volunteer (impossible in aid?) and how about the salaried amateur?

Check out the #smartaid and the #1millionshirts hashtags on Twitter.

Follow some of the bloggers on my blogroll — they pretty much span the different sides of the issue in less extreme and more nuanced ways than I’ve done in my exaggerations above.

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People often ask me 2 questions.  How did I end up spending the 90s in El Salvador and how did I get into NGO work?  I usually give the 140 character verbal version. But the turning point was 20 years ago this week. So here is the longer story.

Back in 1989, I was in my senior year of college, studying anthropology at the University of Southern California (USC) and living in the mid-Wilshire district, home of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang and one of the most violent sections of Los Angeles.  The 5th floor window of my 1920s apartment building overlooked a mini-mall where the “underground economy” (as my anthropology teacher liked to call it) took place.  (I suppose today you’d call them “anti-social entrepreneurs”? J) Stolen credit cards were used at the public phone on the corner to call El Salvador and Guatemala.  Newly initiated teenaged gang members stole handbags and necklaces.  Older, tattooed MS smoked cigarettes and observed their territory, or took out bags of brown marijuana at the outside picnic tables, rolling joints and smoking them in public. Throwing up the 18th St. hand sign would get you in big trouble as this was MS territory.

On the other side of the mini mall parking lot, gunshots would go off now and then on Normandie between 7th and 8th, where the MS ran crack.  Dealers and buyers used the apartment buildings there, gorgeous old style art deco places that had lost the battle, to hide from police.  One morning I was awakened by a crazed, dreadlocked squatter leaning out a window singing Sly Stone at the top of his lungs.  I was fascinated and decided to do my senior anthropology project about this ‘underground economy’. I didn’t imagine it would be dangerous since I was part of the neighborhood and no one ever bothered me, aside from saying “hola mamacita” when I passed through on my way to the mini-mart.

I first needed an informant who wouldn’t harass me, and I decided on one of the guys that I would see often in the parking lot, hanging around chatting people up.  He worked in the local video store.  He wasn’t tattooed and didn’t seem like a gang member, but he seemed to know everyone.  He didn’t call me mamacita or make kissing noises when I walked past; he’d just flash me a dazzling smile and say ‘hey-lo’.  So I started asking him about the neighborhood, the structure of the MS. Who did what and why.  Where people came from.  What the graffiti meant.. Though he wasn’t a gang member, he knew everyone.  (“That’s how you stay safe here. You has to know them so they protect you.”) His cousin was ‘in the business’ so I got the lowdown on the structure and business strategies of the drug trade in the neighborhood. My Spanish was virtually non-existent and his English was only about 2 steps above that, but we managed to communicate.

Guillermo, “Memo” for short , was 24 at the time.  He had come into the US via Mexico when he was 18, during the peak of the civil war, because he felt trapped by parental disputes and the bleak situation in El Salvador. He feared being recruited into one or the other side of the conflict raging in his country.  Despite horrific human rights abuses — massacres, death squads, tortures and many disappeared, the US was pouring billions of dollars into supporting the rightwing military government.  US policy was that El Salvador was a ‘democracy’ thus it was virtually impossible for Salvadorans to seek entry to the US legally or be granted refugee status.  Nicaragua and Cuba?  Quite another story.

Memo had grown up in the room of a meson (a U-shaped one-story building made of adobe and tin, with 8-10  rooms surrounding a central courtyard and shared latrine/bathing area/washing area) in one of the oldest barrios in the heart of San Salvador. Some people in the barrio sold tortillas or juice.  Some sold fruits and vegetables in the Central Market, shined shoes, or dealt in metal pieces dredged up from the bottom of the Rio Acelhuate, the river-turned-sewer running alongside the barrio, or stolen side view mirrors at the hardware market. There were impromptu car repair shops and tiendas. Some women in the barrio went door-to-door selling freshly made snacks, and some were sex workers in the red light district a couple blocks away. The local economy was mostly informal, supplemented in large part by money sent home from relatives in the US or Australia.

Memo was a handful as a child. His upbringing was difficult but upright, notable from his good manners and clean-cut appearance.  As a boy, he’d studied up to 9th grade. He had passed his afternoons locked in the small room at the meson, kicking a soccer ball around with his older brother while his parents worked. They did their best to keep their sons out of trouble. Memo’s mother was a seamstress and his father a hired driver in the Central Market. Memo had begun working as an apprentice in a mechanic shop at age 12.

His journey to the US took place over a period of about 4 and a half months in 1983, most of it spent in Mexico working to save up for the rest of the trip.  He arrived to Los Angeles where his cousin and brother already lived, moving into a one-bedroom apartment with 7 other guys.  He struggled to find work, losing 4 jobs due to lack of papers but finally found a job through the Salvadoran owner of the video store (who was also involved in the drug trade).

I was fascinated by the world I was getting a look into, and by Memo himself …and the feeling was mutual.  We started going out and on Thanksgiving in 1989 we decided to get married. I was only 21, and life was getting more interesting every day. (Credit to my parents for being highly concerned but reasonably hands-off. I only wonder how I’d feel if it was my daughter!) In 1991, we decided to move down to El Salvador, in spite of the fact that the civil war was still going on.

It was my first time traveling out of the States.  My new in-laws greeted me at the meson with a stilted welcome and a brand new toilet seat that I was supposed to carry to the latrine with me to place on top of the ‘stone chimney.’  They were embarrassed at the conditions they could offer to their son’s gringuita.  We set up house in the meson for about a year, and all eventually moved a half block down the alley way into 2 side-by-side apartments. We used our total savings to purchase our place for around $3,000.  (Photo above is the Barrio in 2009).

Memo picked his job back up as a mechanic in the local car shop and we lived on around $3/day for our first 3 years.  Barrio Candelaria was an amazing place.  My neighbors welcomed me with open arms and I easily became part of barrio life. Eventually we bought a refrigerator and some furniture. On weekends we’d walk a few blocks to downtown get ice cream cones or pizza as a treat. I learned to be a Salvadoran housewife. Niña Alicia, my mother-in-law, taught me to cook, clean, go to the market and small talk with the other women at the Sunday soccer games.  She also found Niña Lita, a warm and gentle midwife, to ‘sovarme’ (give me monthly belly massages) and to deliver my son Daniel at home in April 1992. I didn’t trust the conditions at the public hospital. Niña Lita was 70 years old and had been delivering babies since age 15, including her own 15 children, so I felt safe with her. I read voraciously on pregnancy and birth in order to be as prepared as possible.

Three months before Daniel was born, the war ended in Peace Accords and a huge celebration in the plaza a few blocks from our house. Memo enrolled in and completed high school in the evenings and graduated as Valedictorian, moving on to also complete his university degree. I got a job as an English teacher at a private school.  I also started a class at the National University.  It was the first time that 20th century history had ever been taught in El Salvador due to the conflict and government prohibitions to discuss certain events during that time.  A classmate was a Finnish girl, around my age.  Her father was the head of an NGO and they were looking for a translator.  I gave up my teaching job to take this one, and eventually moved into programs and communications. I’ve been in NGO work ever since.

Niña Lita attended me again in 1996 when my daughter Clare was born.  At 10 and a half pounds, it was a difficult birth, and she was so purple that at first I imagined she was dead…. but either Niña Lita was an expert or I got lucky, and we both survived.  The post-war violence and crime continued to worsen. People said that post-war was worse than during the war because it was now randomized violence, and you never knew where it would find you.  I witnessed several incidents on the bus and saw people stabbed downtown in broad daylight for a watch or wallet, but somehow came out untouched.

With my NGO job, our conditions improved over time and we were able to buy a car and send the kids to an affordable nearby private school – the level of education at the public schools near the barrio was very low.  Memo had also gotten a job at an NGO, doing HIV/AIDS prevention and rehabilitation work with inmates in the Salvadoran prison system.  We never considered moving out of the barrio since we felt safe there and Memo’s parents were next door. Every step outside the barrio though, and you knew you might not come home.  The very day I sat in my interview to start work with Plan, my second NGO job, Memo and his colleagues were assaulted on a rural road by 4 masked men with big guns and held for several hours on a plantation.  He came home stunned and depressed, missing his shoes and watch.  The elderly plantation guard, armed with only his machete, was killed in the incident.

Cultural differences and the fact that I worked and traveled a lot began to create friction. The palpable sense of random violence and crime everywhere outside the barrio added to the stress. I started to run up against limits on what I could do and achieve in El Salvador and felt trapped.  So for many of the same reasons that Memo fled from El Salvador in 1983, so did I in 2001. We parted ways and I moved back to the US with the kids. We have remained good friends and keep in touch, and we go to visit whenever we have enough money for tickets, which unfortunately is never often enough.

So, when people ask me what they should study in order to have a job like mine or how I ended up in El Salvador, I’m a bit hard pressed on what to answer. I usually give a short version that goes something like: “well, I got married to a Salvadoran and joined an NGO in El Salvador,” since the long one is pretty personal and my path to NGO work is not quite something you want to hear about at a job fair. What I do tell some people is that it’s really not what you study, it’s how you grab onto the opportunities that life offers to you and flow with them to see where you end up. It’s being willing to take risks, to follow your heart and do what you are passionate about. You don’t know where you may end up, in development or in something totally different.  But the trip will be well worth it.  20 years later… I look back and I wouldn’t change a thing.

—————

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The Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media project (YETAM) kicked off on Wednesday with a press event, and then a training of trainers until Friday. At the press launch, I had to give an overview of social media and the YETAM project. The focus was on how social media can serve as a tool for community development, social change and augmenting participation, because it is based on some of the same principles and approaches as good community development work: partnership, ownership, collaboration, sharing, openness, communication, voice, power sharing, accountability, transparency, and democratic processes. I was bit afraid to use any examples of human rights/election monitoring or mention how social media is forcing the media business to change and impacting on social ‘revolutions’, not knowing if it could be threatening to the government and media attending, so it seemed better not to bring it up! Photo: YETAM launch announcement hanging in the lobby at Plan Cameroon.

For me the most interesting part of the 3-day workshop was listening to the participants debate about whether arts/media are tools or products. People said that they really learned something from the debate, that it really sparked their thinking about what is art and what is media and what both are for. They concluded (as I had hoped) that arts and media can be tools that help youth (in our case) research and deepen their understanding of themselves and their communities during the creation process. Yet arts and media are also products that are ‘consumed’ afterwards, catalyzing more debate and dialogue (sometimes via more arts and media) and if successful, eventually lead to some kind of positive social change. And the cycle goes around and around. Photo: Press event for the closing of the training of trainers.

The idea of tool vs product can be a struggle sometimes when we start work on YETAM and the concept of participatory video or social media for social change and working with rural communities. Sometimes people think that we want fancy commercials or television spots or 30 minute professional documentaries or fiction films, or they don’t believe children/youth will have the capacity to make their own videos or edit their own films, or that people from rural communities can learn to use the equipment. It can be hard to explain that we don’t need to write long scripts and set up scenes with lights and big media teams with large expensive cameras, and that if we bring the technology down to simple language and hand over the camera, it’s very doable. We don’t need a week of theory before we allow the kids to touch the cameras or to paint something, that the media and the art are the means for having the discussions and theorizing about the issues as well as the end for continuing on with the discussions. And we don’t need to disrupt the community and or have ‘outsiders’ doing it for the media or art to matter. Local people can make their own media and it can be even more meaningful that way. Photo: Plan and partner staff working on the agenda for the youth training that starts on Monday.

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