Development Workers Are Foxes

I was getting up to date on WhyDev – an excellent forum for development discussion online – and came across the post ‘8 things I wish I knew before I started in development’ by Rachel Kurzyp.

This post makes a lot of valid points and is well worth the read. I must admit that I clicked on it with an expectation of banality – ever since the Huffington Post took the format of ‘X things to know about Y’ and flooded the internet with vapid articles such titles immediately provoke a sense of wariness – but was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I found one point, the second, stuck with me for several days:

2. It’s important to be a generalist

While it’s great to be an expert in a specific field it’s just as important to be a generalist. You need to be comfortable and able to take on general tasks when required such as basic admin, report writing and supply distribution. Humanitarian work is on-going, though there are periods of downtime, but you may be required to do dual roles in smaller programmes. You could also find yourself without work for short periods due to programme closures or waiting on grant approvals. This is when you can draw upon your past life’s skills and gain work in other departments or roles outside of the development sector.

I think this is sound advice. Trends and fashions change the prevailing winds in development at least as much as in any other sector. As nurses or teachers will tell you, any industry that politicians have direct and immediate access to is liable to get shaken up, oh, every four years or so. It would, therefore, be cruel to advise any wannabe development types (like myself) to specialise too soon. Besides, there are a lot of ‘basic’ skills and experiences you have to get under your belt before you can think about hunkering down into a speciality and living up to that possibly dubious ‘expert’ tag you’re itching to add to your Twitter bio.

This got me thinking about Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay The Hedgehog And The Fox which opens by examining the divide between specialists and generalists:

There is a line amongst the fragments of the Greek Poet Archilochus which says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”… Taken figuratively,  the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writer and thinkers and, it may be, human beings in general.

Source: Flickr

It would seem to me that development workers are foxes, or, at least, better off being foxes. These are not categorisations intended to be taken as gospel truth, of course. Berlin goes on to point out that these lines could be, very specifically, about actual hedgehogs and foxes – i.e. hedgehogs know one way to stop a fox from eating them and it is a successful one despite the different techniques of the fox. But, as a thought experiment, it is a nice way to start thinking about colleagues or thinkers or professors or writers or, if you’re feeling particularly  brave, even yourself. It is especially interesting to examine the industry in light of this artificial definition.

Is it useful for development workers to be foxes?

I agree with the WhyDev post in that it makes those workers more employable and probably easier to work with. But is that missing the bigger picture? Perhaps the generalist outlook of development is misguided. Perhaps it perpetuates a system that seems to be addicted to reinvention, to new bold narratives of change and progress. Such things fill the blogosphere with laments and generally the big guys get pointed out as culprits – donors, governments, the military. While the notion of the development worker as a fox opens up excellent opportunities in punning blog post headlines, this could well be scant reward for collusion in ineptitude.

Alternatively,  you could argue that the hedgehog is a disastrous profile for a development worker. It suggests inflexibility which makes team based projects a strained experience at best. Is there anyway a development project, let alone entire organisation, would work without an emphasis on teamwork? Sure, the fox might go low on details but at least it will try to innovate and attempt different options –  the notion of listening to stakeholders at beneficiary and benefactor level seems too sound to throw away to me. That might be worth defending the vulpine status quo on its own.

Once again, the model is something of a nonsense but, play along. Think about it in a context close to you and see if it doesn’t stick in your mind. It did for me. If you have thoughts, please post them below so readers can access more coherent thoughts than my own. If it doesn’t stick with you then… well, that’s just typical fox behaviour isn’t it?

What Richard Feynman Can Teach Development Practitioners

See his lecture of Quantum Mechanics for more of his awesomosity

Source: Hannah Wilson Illustration

This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China’s nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China’s nose is, and you average it. And that would be very “accurate” because you averaged so many people. But it’s no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don’t improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.

Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist and generally admired clever-man, wrote this paragraph in a fascinating essay about the problems he had found with both mathematics schoolbooks and the process by which they are assessed in California in the mid 1960s.

Ok, so, that doesn’t sound terrifically interesting but, trust me, this is a man who could make almost anything brilliantly interesting while not dumbing it down so much as to be insulting. Seriously, take a read of it then tell me it’s boring.

The reason I picked out this particular segment was because it struck me as an excellent way of looking at the much discussed communications problem of the development world – do we condemn widely disseminated but flawed development related productions like Kony2012 or the Failed State Index or do we embrace the fact that lots of people are now engaged in a topic they otherwise would not have?

The latter. Misinforming lots of people doesn’t lead to a better outcome, it simply legitimizes ineffective techniques.

Another interesting thing about the essay is that Feynman identifies the roots of the problem:

  1. Most of the people doing the assessment work are too busy to actually read all of the information
  2. Before or during the assessment period, the people producing the assessed materials (in this case textbooks) meet with the assessors and explain the material to them. This is not a process that will be repeated with end users (in this case, schools and teachers)
  3. The materials often reflect a flawed understanding of the topic
  4. The assessment process was de-centralised and segmented, taken up by many people only a few of which were directly responsible for the actual findings

This is getting weirdly similar to pretty much all development now isn’t it?

What you have here covers most of the big narratives about problems in the global development industry: the unfairness of the ménage à trois, the lack of suitable structure to deal with both implementation and assessment at the same time, the lack of consultation with end user stakeholders, and, most importantly, the way corruption hinders all systems lacking counter-measures.

Now it is important, at this point, to point out ‘the problem’ as I called it a few paragraphs ago has not yet been explicitly mentioned in this article. Back to Mr Feynman,

Many [Americans] thought we were behind the Russians after Sputnik, and some mathematicians were asked to give advice on how to teach math by using some of the rather interesting modern concepts of mathematics. The purpose was to enhance mathematics for the children who found it dull.

The problem was that the overall knowledge of mathematics in the USA was perceived as having dropped below a certain standard. The ‘solution’ was to sex up mathematics. Obviously, there are some critical issues here already. Not only is the ‘problem’ based on non-testable perceptions, the solution is simplistic and narrow. Again, this could be someone writing about any number of development issues today.

As Feynman saw it, the central problem was corruption (just look at the title of the essay). The other issues were either caused or compounded by it. Many development professional feel the same way, of course, but it remains something of a wicked problem – one with no simple answer and no simple definition. He wrote of his solution for this particular case, or, at least, what his solution could have been,

It seems obvious now, but I didn’t know what was happening the time I got a package of dried fruit and whatnot delivered by Western Union with a message that read, “From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving — The Pamilios.”

It was from a family I had never heard of in Long Beach, obviously someone wanting to send this to his friend’s family who got the name and address wrong, so I thought I’d better straighten it out. I called up Western Union, got the telephone number of the people who sent the stuff, and I called them.

“Hello, my name is Mr. Feynman. I received a package . . .”

“Oh, hello, Mr. Feynman, this is Pete Pamilio” and he says it in such a friendly way that I think I’m supposed to know who he is! I’m normally such a dunce that I can’t remember who anyone is.

So I said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Pamilio, but I don’t quite remember who you are . . .”

It turned out he was a representative of one of the publishers whose books I had to judge on the curriculum commission.

“I see. But this could be misunderstood.”

“It’s only family to family.”

“Yes, but I’m judging a book that you’re publishing, and maybe someone might misinterpret your kindness!” I knew what was happening, but I made it sound like I was a complete idiot.

Another thing like this happened when one of the publishers sent me a leather briefcase with my name nicely written in gold on it. I gave them the same stuff: “I can’t accept it; I’m judging some of the books you’re publishing. I don’t think you understand that!”

One commissioner, who had been there for the greatest length of time, said, “I never accept the stuff; it makes me very upset. But it just goes on.”

But I really missed one opportunity. If I had only thought fast enough, I could have had a very good time on that commission. I got to the hotel in San Francisco in the evening to attend my very first meeting the next day, and I decided to go out to wander in the town and eat something. I came out of the elevator, and sitting on a bench in the hotel lobby were two guys who jumped up and said, “Good evening, Mr. Feynman. Where are you going? Is there something we can show you in San Francisco?” They were from a publishing company, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

“I’m going out to eat.”

“We can take you out to dinner.”

“No, I want to be alone.”

“Well, whatever you want, we can help you.”

I couldn’t resist. I said, “Well, I’m going out to get myself in trouble.”

“I think we can help you in that, too.”

“No, I think I’ll take care of that myself.” Then I thought, “What an error! I should have let all that stuff operate and [kept] a diary, so the people of the state of California could find out how far the publishers will go!”. . . .

Seeing as this comes from ‘the last true genius‘ of the 20th Century it’s a pretty ringing endorsement for whistleblowers. Now we just have to work out a way to protect them effectively and we’ll be golden…

Ulterior Motives: Part 2

This is from my column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job. Find Part 1 here.

The commonwealth lecture is an annual event. Starting in 1997, a laudable and impressive speaker has been invited to address a crowd for 50 minutes or so on the chosen theme of the year. Amartya Sen was the first speaker and, for the most part, other older, male economists and political theorists have followed. This year the speaker was the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, whose youth and field of expertise is comparatively alternative. Her speech, while familiar to fans like myself, was intelligent, erudite and commandingly delivered – it is well worth a watch.

In Part 1, I explored how another writer, Philip Roth, had succeeded in engendering in me a deeper interest in polio, vaccination and epidemics than countless news reports or worthy academic papers. With the former particularly I believe there is an image problem. There is a brilliant piece of instructional writing by Gary Provost (quoted in Roy Peter Clark’s ‘Writing Tools’) that illustrates well a basic tenet of grabbing your audience’s attention.

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

News coverage can be extremely one note, particularly when it comes to ‘world news’ or development based stories. There is a degree to which wider cultural reasons are responsible for this – see ‘aid as entertainment’ on Aidspeak for more – but there is also an economic schema from within journalism: pushing unorthodox views and opinions does not sell; just look at the Daily Mail. These are the dying days of print news publications, now, more than ever, it is the commercial arm that exerts the greatest influence on those publications struggling to retain their positions.

Tales From The Hood once described the world of development as being based on a menage a trois (the original post is password protected, for some reason, but here’s another post focused on a sex based analogy of aid – the orgy): development agencies, donors and beneficiaries. The media is important – albeit for different reasons – to all three of those groups. As such, it exerts and influence on the relationship between them. Unfortunately, as it sees no way of monetising it’s involvement, it’s position of influence is poisonous*. The outlook is one of middle-of-the-road, conservative conventionality. That does not bode well for an industry like development: one that is often reactive and, by necessity, looking to adapt and improvise almost all the time.

What’s worse is that, if such papers represent the ‘prevailing mood’ of a nation, there is a degree of societal pressure placed on relevant decision makers to conform with these rather dull interpretations of the world of development. While highly influential papers like the mail continues to support columnists and editorial lines that publicly maul aid and aid agencies for being wasteful, donors are placed in a tricky situation. If I were in there shoes I would, by and large, be very much better disposed to safe, dependable projects – i.e ones that are unlikely to scandalise a seemingly hostile public.

The menage a trois is not as exciting as it sounds. Like going to the same great bar night after night, getting caught in a stifling coterie of people mostly interested in development, however forward thinking, can only do so much good.

Alanna Shaikh, the queen bee of the development blogosphere, posed a question a while back that has been niggling me ever since:

Where are all the interesting development thinkers?

I don’t know where they are or who they might be – and I’m sure they are out there – but I do want to suggest that the reason they’re so hidden is the insular, holier-than-thou and, sadly, sometimes condescending world of development workers is one that attracts only one type of person. Even more sadly, this seems to be a strange source of embattled pride. Don’t get me wrong – these are great people doing hard work and they are entitled to be annoyed by half-assed pretenders trying and failing to join in with them. It’s just, sometimes, it’s a sort of homogeneous club that turns away the kind of people that could help them to improve.

*the Daily Wail and its ilk are not the only voices in journalism. They are, however, extremely influential and, as it has grown so exuberantly while many of its competitors have floundered or perished, is as good a model as any for the future of the industry.

Ulterior Motives: Part 1

This is from my column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job.

Photo from Polio Association

Polio victims in iron lungs. California, 1953.

As someone born and raised in London during the tail end of the 20th century, polio was something that, on the occasions when I was, briefly, conscious of it, I would undoubtedly relate to places and people far away. No one I knew had polio. I have since spent time in four different continents, sometimes in countries designated as LDCs, and have never, to my memory, really interacted with someone exhibiting the debilitating effects of what was once a terrifying summertime reality all over the world.

Were you to ask a group of average 9-12 year old denizens of New Jersey what next summer held for them, it is extremely unlikely that the word ‘polio’ would pass any of their lips. Philip Roth’s captivating 2010 novel, ‘Nemesis‘, details the terrifying spread of infection in a mostly affluent, lower middle class New Jersey city during the second world war. The disease was a normalised reality back then, coming annually and targeting mostly children. It was a mysterious disease, particularly before the licensing of the vaccine in 1962, and affected an enormously diverse range of people, from inner city youngsters of Roth’s novel all the way to the very top:

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt, polio’s most renowned victim, had contracted the disease as a vigorous man of thirty-nine and subsequently had to be supported when he walked and, even then, had to wear heavy steel-and-leather braces from his hips to his feet to enable him to stand.”

Since the 1960s the disease has been all but eradicated in the USA – not to mention Europe, South America, some of Africa and large parts of Asia – thanks to extensive vaccination programmes. Although vaccines were available from 1955, it was Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine, developed in 1961, that truly broke the back of the disease in places were large-scale immunisation pushes were enacted. The last naturally occurring cases in the USA were recorded in 1979 amongst an isolated Amish community in the mid-west.

Just two generations ago, the disease was at its height in the large cities of the global north, an affliction that seemed to come from nowhere and one that resisted medical treatment for many years. The US epidemic of 1952 was the largest, with 57,628 cases reported leading to 3,145 deaths and 21,269 people left with mild to disabling paralysis. Roth’s book details a lesser epidemic, of 1944, but it succeeds in capturing the uncertainty, the fear, the misinformation, and all those societal ills that surrounded the medical issues.

“What is the city doing to stop this? Nothing!” “There’s got to be something to do – but they’re not doing it!” “They should inspect the milk the kids drink – polio comes from dirty cows and their infected milk.” “No,” said someone else, “it isn’t the cows, it’s the bottles. They don’t sterilise those milk bottles right.” “Why don’t they fumigate?” another voice said. “Why don’t they use disinfectant? Disinfect everything.”

With a combination of well-funded scientific research and the pioneering social prevention scheme led by people like former Red Cross chairman, Basil O’Connor, these problems are more or less completely unknown for people like me. Reading this book was startling not only for its horrific subject matter but, personally, because of how little I knew about a disease that had been such a real and regular fact of life even during my own parents’ childhoods. I found myself asking the same questions as the scared parents in the narrative: where does polio come from? How does it spread? How can we avoid getting it? Is there a cure?

This research took place during my commutes which give me ample time for reading. Occasionally I would down my paperback and get out my smart phone – a tool that I take for granted and one my grandparents know almost nothing about – to explore the internet for information on this disease. When I asked my grandmother, great uncle and great aunt about polio they responded knowingly, remembering it as a great scourge of their childhoods, albeit one removed from the rural upbringing they had experienced in Paris, Illinois. My parents, too, remembered being vaccinated for it and were slightly amused by my sudden interest in such an out of date issue. After the conversation my generational ‘technical skills’ were called upon to configure my grandmother’s new phone.

In February 2012, India was removed from the WHO polio endemic list. Although a new possible case has emerged in the last few weeks, only one has been confirmed in the last 2 years. In 1985, there were an estimated 150,000 cases. It is several decades later but it possible that, at the moment, we are living through what will be seen as a similar generational change.

The work has been done by an enormous coalition of local and international actors – it’s notable that the local press cites the activities of the local authorities, the international press much more likely to put attention on the INGOs involved. Even in the unprecedented success of this polio story more than the positive is revealed: the divisiveness of a single story, the ‘global north’ always seemingly at odds with the ‘global south’. What is interesting for me is that, as this story is one that I only really began to investigate when prompted by a piece of non-related American literature, I feel as though I am coming at it from a different angle – this isn’t, for once, a ‘news’ or ‘international affairs’ or ‘development’ narrative. As such, a whole variety of different questions and stimuli are feeding into it. Recently, I was sent this,

Usually, practitioners of sustainable development are proponents of an education first and foremost philosophy. In this case, the medical approach was one that might just go on to create a whole new generation of people like me; people accessing successful development narratives through literature, not the newspapers.

Part 2 will explore how different sources of development knowledge could help to shape the development policy of the future.

Would You Like To Know More?

TED is looking for young people to talk at an event in 2013.

Starship Troopers: Showing us what new media content producers can be

TED talks are intended to engage innovative, techno savvy audiences on the topics of technology, entertainment and design. Considering that their content is predominantly in the relatively staid format of filmed lectures, the videos featured on this site have surprisingly high viewing figures – the top ten having amassed over 50 million views between them.

TED have been one of the frontrunners in the move towards generating dedicated for-web content (as opposed to those naughty file sharing/streaming sites that have caused so much fuss by redistributing existing content via the web) and, as such, have relied in part on the freshness of their approach to attract viewers. They are one of the online faces of innovation, as such they need to keep pushing on before the weaknesses start catching up with them.

In recent months, the lecture given by Thomas Suarez, a 12 year old app developer created an awful lot of buzz. At least, on my various social media feeds it is one of the only TED videos that I have really noticed being the hot virtual watercooler topic of the day in the last year or so (other than the Steve Jobs one, which got hits for news reasons rather than simply the excitement surrounding its content). Many of the posts and comments to do with this lecture were, predictably, focused on Suarez’ youth and how that made his ideas seem more innovative and energetic.

“Nov 17 2011: This boy is remarkable! When I was his age I was only thinking about sports and games, not developing APPS, this is great! I am glad there are kids in America like this.. They are the future!”

As we all know, few things get more attention in webland than childish exuberance. Except possibly childish exuberance displayed by kittens. Or Charlie Sheen. Putting some combination of these things a 2 minute video would probably crash the internet. TED have also noticed the youth appeal and, realising they are well placed to deliver content that  are now looking for ‘The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered’.

“I can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk around with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can’t help it.”

Jerome K Jerome expressed this noble sentiment in his masterfully amusing 1889 tome, Three Men In A Boat, and, since reading it the other day, it has been bouncing around the inside of my skull. In response to this, I have decided to, if not actually plan a talk, then to suggest a few possibilities, a few miniature ideas that need only be expanded a little (lot) to be worth considering (or, more probably, not).

What do I want to hear people speak about?

  • False nostalgia and all its associated nonsense including (but not limited to) lack of progression and stifling of innovation.
No. Things were not better in the past, particularly things like measuring social indicators or collecting historical evidence from anyone other than  rich white men.

Obviously, there are lots of people who know lots about various important subjects including those that fall under ‘development’. However, almost none of them agree with each other, even on simple things, so calling yourself an ‘expert’ in development can mean a ridiculously large array of things. While a certain amount of debate in any sector is normal and healthy, the lack of unity means that far more dubious intellects can step up and claim expertise – how can you possibly say they aren’t?
The lack of cohesion from the good guys – the actual development people – means that the infuriatingly together bad guys – people who want to discredit the time, effort and MONEY (spot the focus of their arguments) that goes into aid/development – are doing rather well when it comes to grabbing public opinion. This is dangerous.
What do you want to hear people speak about?

Comment below or drop me a tweet.

Social Innovation & Identity Crisis

In an unassuming side street off Brixton High Road, up two flights of stairs and through a drab little landing I found myself in a room filled with strangers. I was greeted and given stickers with various descriptions on them – ‘troublemaker’, ‘designer’, ‘citizen’, ‘geek’ – before being told to meet these new people, chat with them and assign them a role.

The feeling that most often comes to mind when I reflect on my visit to a Social Innovation Camp meeting is that of feeling disarmed. The location, the participants, the topics of discussion, the ideas, the way of approaching problem solving – everything about it took me a step away from my comfort zone, the various ruts of how and why I work.

The meeting I attended was a small, short ideas workshop focused on health issues regarding young people. Attending with me were: some of the staff at LIVE magazine, a lady working in young people’s health, masters students, volunteers at a environmental awareness project, and a GCSE (high school) student. It was a little cagey but we were thrown into tasks quickly to help us get past that. First, we were asked to write down problems we had faced related to health services on post-it notes which were then stuck on the wall for all to see.

Complaining about the NHS (yes, it’s free; no, we’re not communists) is a British national past time but what thing do you think is a problem that could be solved with some hardwork, innovative thinking and £10,000? What do we actually want to do to make it better?

As far as I understand it, the modus operandi of SI Camp goes something like this:

Tech keeps changing the world – from publishing to education to banking to friendship – so why isn’t it combating global poverty issues? Answer: because the techies in charge of innovation don’t have the requisite skills or approaches to be effective in social issues. Solution: ally those techies with people who can fill those gaps.

On a much larger scale, it seems to me that Millennium Villages work on a similar sort of premise – one that assumes that holism is key to useful innovation and, therefore, effective problem solving. Millennium Villages bring together a vastly disparate selection of NGOs/development professionals that attempt to solve the problems or difficulties facing a community, all at the same time – there is no focus on, say, infrastructure over rights based approaches or other such arguments.

Of course, this plan has had its detractors. In fact, the debate surrounding Millennium Villages, their results and their funding might well be the biggest development blogosphere catfight of 2012 (I voted for it in the ABBAs an hour before I wrote this) – click on ‘blogosphere catfight’ as it contains a lot of the relevant posts and arguments if you’re interested. I’ll leave the fight to others. As Bob Dylan almost sang, don’t criticise what you haven’t read enough about to understand.

Regardless of the validity of the Millennium Villages vision, it is an approach that references a wider issue in the world of global development – what exactly is it? Given that being a ‘development worker’ can mean anything from designing emergency medical provision to building roads to controlling knowledge management systems, it seems to me that almost no one really knows quite what the industry actually is.

Consequently, trying to measure or rank between different bits of this vaguely unknown bloc of work is a difficult thing to do.  A more recent development blog furore surrounded this very issue as the excellent Dave Algoso took umbrage with an article by Global Journal entitled ‘2012 Top 100 Best NGOs‘,

“Ranking lists are great publicity for both the rankers and the ranked — but they usually involve bad analysis and mislead the audience.”

An awful lot of hyperbole was unleashed on what was, frankly, an extremely limited attempt at ranking NGOs.

A discussion ensued on Aidsource (the humanitarian social network that’ll make you fall out of love with Facebook) in which Algoso posited the following,

“Criticizing Global Journal’s list made me wonder whether there might be some categories where you actually can make a principled, evidence-based, and methodologically sound comparison between organizations. It certainly couldn’t be a comparison of something overarching like “impact” (because how would you ever compare, say, World Vision and Search for Common Ground? they do such different things) but maybe on something more narrow, you could make a comparison.”

This problem – perhaps the impossibility – of internal comparisons within the industry led me back to the question of what exactly ‘international development’ was. I don’t even know if we should call it ‘international development’ – is it global development? Are they the same thing? If not, what’s the difference? I might be completely wrong here – I am not an expert by any means, merely someone trying to feel their way into the sector – but I’ve looked for an explanation or definition and have failed to find it. So this is aimed at the pros:

Is international development suffering from an identity crisis?

(Just to be clear – I don’t have an answer.)

Until the industry sorts out questions like these, organisations like SI Camp can fill some of the gaps. They are tackling problem solving in interesting, un-bureaucratic ways that invite input from a more diverse range of voices than usual. What’s more, being asked to work quickly and creatively on development-type issues is a far cry from the relatively dull, text bitch type work that takes up most of my time. In fact, the change in style of working was so refreshing that, even though health isn’t an area that I have had any experience in previously, I’m more than ready to jump into the next SI Camp event.

Interested? Click below.

How Much Do You Want to Know?

The the last episode of Charlie Brooker’s imperious mini-series Black Mirror aired on Sunday night. It was the culmination of a three episodes that examined the way society has integrated social media, technology and networking into the way we all function – it was a series that has made a hell of an impression. This final episode featured memory which was mechanical, a perfect and searchable recall of all your life, which meant that it was used as a weapon of relationship destruction.

It got me thinking about social media. I’m sure you will have seen the dire warnings regarding seemingly innocuous internet things – articles called ‘Your Facebook account may make you lose your job’ or blog posts about how your retweets can trigger a major political incident.

In the last week or so, the new Facebook profile has been getting a more widespread airing. It’s easily searchable so you can go back to what you first published on Facebook. Many people, understandably, are rather uncomfortable about this. I joined Facebook when I was 16 and my first status (apparently) was this witty little phrase:

[Rowan is] at home

Ah, the precociousness of youth. Unlike the people in Black Mirror, my search through my digital memory made me one thing and one thing only: bored.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who takes the time to trawl through my Facebook account (Timeline is not the fastest thing in the world) to find some embarassing status or picture from when I was a teenager needs more to do. It has very little to do with my professional abilities, it’s unrepresentative of what I’m actually like (online profiles necessitate a certain degree of brevity and tend to encourage people to crack open their dubiously labelled ‘joke’ vault) and, unless I need it for my actual job, it’s none of their business what I get up to in my personal life.

Of course, networking, and the integration of social media into that process, is a very useful thing to be good at. Taking multiple platforms and multiple accounts is vital for people who want to reach a larger audience for their blog or who are looking for a job or who are involved in online communications in some way. As I have written about before, being social media savvy is incredibly useful in all sorts of ways.

But what about for the third sector?

It has been noted that the British public is remarkably generous. What is also very interesting is that, despite the enormous amount of hand-wringing that goes on amongst international development professionals/observers/academics, no one is ever going to be as interested in knowing about what makes certain development projects good and others bad as they are. People who donate £2 a month don’t want to have to think about who the best person for the project might be they want to hear about a problem, look it up then donate money to people who can help to fix it. This is the overwhelming appeal of coalitions like the Disasters Emergency Committee: a disaster has happened –> here are all the people who want to help –> donate.

But, as Leigh Daynes of Plan UK said at an LSE panel discussion on this topic,

There is very little that is simple about aid and development.

The problem is that, as the world becomes more and more globalised, it, concurrently, becomes more complex. With this added complexity comes and increase in networks.

  1. You can only know and control a limited number of processes because the world is so large and complicated.
  2. Therefore, you need to know lots of other people so you can exercise a degree of control over the processes beyond your remit.

When you apply this to the third sector you see that, as time goes by, the engagement from donors seems likely to become less and less complex as they become increasingly alienated from an ever expanding network of processes which are, in turn, becoming more complex. It used to be that you could send money to the Red Cross or Oxfam and that was pretty much it. Before that, you only had to worry about these things if you were fabulously wealthy. Now, the whole ‘tax deductible charity organisations’ thing has become unfeasibly difficult to get your head around.

What I want to know are some answers to the following questions:

  • How much information do you really want?
  • Do you want to know about the inherent difficulties of development, about corruption, about sustainability?
  • Are these useful narratives for the third sector?