Development Intern

I started this blog back in 2011 as an outlet for what I was learning/getting frustrated with in my first full time NGO job. There is a huge amount to take in and, as a lowly intern, you end up doing a lot of jobs that nobody else wants to do. As a result of this combination, starting a career in development can be at times boring and lonely as well as confusing. Spewing out my thoughts onto the internet helped me deal with that.

Now I’m (hopefully) a little further in my career I’d like to provide a similar platform for other interns and new development workers.

I have created a new website for this called Development Intern. It will feature a small group of core writers, talented young people looking to get into the development world. Click here to read About it and here if you are interested in submitting your work.

I will no longer be updating on UpLook as I’ll be acting as editor for Development Intern and generally managing the site. In time, I will establish a new blog for my own thoughts. Until then, I will be blogging bits and pieces as a guest contributor whenever somebody else fancies publishing my articles.

Thanks to everyone who read this blog, it really was a great help to me. Please check out Development Intern.

Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk – The way we think about charity is dead wrong

He makes some great points here. Why do we think it is wrong for the charity’s to benefit the people working for them as well as those they seek to help?

People get very annoyed about how charity money is spent – it must go to sick children! – but, you know what, that charity needs to buy stuff. Like computers or pens or paper. Obviously they do. How can your donation actually help people if the staff who are supposed to enact change aren’t properly supplied or remunerated? This stuff seems so basic.

Now, obviously, there are some potential pitfalls and, in 2013, critics of this argument can simply turn around and say “Kony 2012” to make Pallotta’s argument seem spurious. Sure, there is a terrible examples of style over substance which drags down the idea of focusing on marketing and fundraising. But, for all of Invisible Children’s problems – largely highlighted by development industry people, by the way – they did show the way in terms of making money and raising awareness.

Those are both things that charities desperately need to do, regardless of how poorly planned or ideologically suspicious their eventual interventions are. It is the way that it is.

We spend a lot of time concerning ourselves with the end bit, on how to create positive change in better ways; it is probably the main focus of the academic wing of the world of international development. To do any of these innovative or amazingly planned projects, you still need money.

Well worth watching (HT @rebecca_stagg).

Tweeting Into Trouble (Part 1): How social media can land NGO staff in legal trouble

Originally written for WhyDev

Over the past year or so the UK, socialist hellhole that it is, has seen several high profile freedom of expression cases attached to Twitter and Facebook. There have been jokes on trial, ‘grossly offensive comments’ and racism generating miles of column inches. All have led to convictions*.

A lot of these high publicity cases have been pretty controversial, rights-wise, but they should be enough for most NGOs to really start thinking about how the organisation and the staff as individuals are using social media. Now, like the good student I am, I’ll give you some definitions:

Defamation – the big one, ‘the expression of an untrue insinuation against a person’s reputation’, regarded as one of the few legitimate restrctions on freedom of expression. There are two main sub-types of defamation:

Libel – ‘defamation of a person through a permanent form of communication, mostly the written word’

Slander – ‘defamation of a person through a transient form of communication, generally speech’

Social media is increasingly being treated as though it were a traditional publishing platform. Anyone creating publishable content for, say, a newspaper goes through significant training in libel and defamation and all the other frightening things they might be sued for. Most Twitter users do not. Editors and publishers scrutinise the content put out under their supervision, reprimanding, correcting or blocking the publication of anything that might cause legal difficulties (or, at least, preparing some sort of a defence). Bloggers are on their own. Even in most NGO offices, the person tasked with writing the press releases will probably have someone else signing off on what they release at the very least. A lot of NGOs will have a laborious and rigorous vetting process for all traditional publishing outputs. Not so when it comes to their personal blogs for the folks back home or their publicly available Facebook walls or Twitter feeds.

There has been some discussion in the development blogosphere regarding the perils of blogging in a semi professional manner (i.e where your blog directly correlates to your profession) but such conversations tend to get caught in the proverbial headlights of employment prospects – will my personal blog/twitter profile help or hinder my job search? This is a topic that is both easily diverted and, from the off, sidesteps a whole slew of very real risks online do-gooders should be aware of.

You might argue that such things aren’t an enormous issue and make it clear that your tweets in no way represent the views of your employer; make use of all thosetotally infallible Facebook privacy settings. Or you stop blogging and do some actual work. Bringing up potential issues regarding social media in a work setting can often provokes such responses.

But this cuts do-gooders off from the incredible opportunities of new media publishing. You can establish contacts and links with other professionals, experts, and you can utilise it to try to improve your actual work. The African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) recently utilised Pinterest for something so much more than it tends to get used for – giving the opportunity for a direct beneficiary to interact with donors and the general public without the filters of a press team or bored volunteer a thousand miles away.

(It really is a terrific project, take a look: Sihiba Yusufa’s story and the background infofor the scheme.)

Obviously, a lot of the cases I mentioned earlier are UK specific. As some of you may know, Blighty’s libel and defamation laws are by no means a benchmark for solid freedom of expression (check out ARTICLE 19 on comparative analyses of freedom of expression laws here[LINK]) but such decisions in a relatively open and liberal country indicate a wide-ish fearful perception of social media. This is pretty worrying, particularly for do-gooders operating in countries with fair less amenable governments.

Think of blogging and tweeting as being a part time columnist, even if your columns are limited to 140 characters. If you took on a monthly writing job for a local paper near your work, you would probably restrict some of what you wanted to write and be restricted – you certainly wouldn’t use it to publicise your ‘stress busting’ drinking habit or, say, make filthy jokes about a prominent news item.

Away from altering individuals’ behaviour, there are wider lessons for the industry as a whole to be learned from this. Here are some of the big ones off the top of my head.

Organisations and employers tend to offer training as part of their modus operandi – knowledge management, project management, learning languages, licensing people to drive heavy vehicles – but I’ve not heard of an NGO teaching its employees about libel. Obviously, there’s a fair amount to learn and I don’t think do-gooders need to be completely lawyered up but having a good awareness of the overall risks, particularly in a country specific context, can only be a good thing. People like INSI run much more sophisticated training, how hard could it be to start including this stuff as a segment of other trainings (communications team trainings seem like an ideal fit). Seriously, put in a request for this training or speak to your communications team (or legal team, if brevity isn’t your thing) for some pointers.

Heck, you could at least make sure each of your offices has a copy of McNae’s lying about for people to cross reference…

Social media is incredible, popular and, basically, terrifies the hell out of lawyers. At this point in time the legal landscape of what is and is not illegal online is about as ill-defined as it will ever be – it’s really quite new, remember. Get yourself some advice and, above all, try and be sensible with your very public online profiles.

Part 2 of this post will address the issues surrounding social media in hostile regimes.

* In the case of the Paul Chambers Twitter Joke Trial his conviction was later overturned[link]

3 Rules For Your First Overseas Posting

Just some things I wish I’d been told before my first trip to live and work overseas. Obviously, it’s fun to experience things and make your own mistakes, learning how not to be completely ripped off during every single monetary interaction is a particular joy that shouldn’t be denied by something as silly as being warned about it. The fact remains that some rules would have been useful.

1. Don’t wear a suit

It looks like you’re trying too hard. Plus everyone will assume you have a real job or hiring powers. We should really have an industry wide ban on formal attire outside of fancy events – people need to tell the difference between businessmen coming in to do business in the country and development types who want to mop up around the edges.

2. If someone says ‘I don’t hang out with expats’, 9 times out of 10, they are a-holes

These people are competitive integraters. Ignoring the obvious prejudice on display, it is generally the statement of someone desperate to prove a point. While they might seem, for a short time, to be cynical and deep and cool, after a while you realise that you’re avoiding their number when you’re looking to have a quiet drink or a spot of dinner of an evening. It’s just too exhausting to be impressed by someone all the time.

3. No one wins when you drink local brew

You’re trying to be polite. You hear that, actually, it’s not too alcoholic so you should be fine. If you don’t drink it you’ll be insulting people. Don’t worry. If you say no, it’s more for everyone else AND you won’t have to deal with your dodgy stomach for the next 4 days.

Any old hands out there with more for us? Stick ’em in the comments please.

Distractions, Choices, Questions

Source: birgerking (via flickr)

I’ve started a couple of posts in the last week only to find myself half way through with no obvious end point. I’ll have an idea but no follow through. My thought process goes something like this:

I should do a post about the triumphalist langauge used for Africa at the moment and compare it to similar American writing in the 19th century. Then I can say that this is an indicator of the 21st century being the ‘African’ century. But, no, wait, this is the Chinese century isn’t it? Ok, so maybe the 22nd century will be, but, then again, it would be a pretty ridiculous thing to try to say in less than 1000 words. Hmmm.

So I end up with a bunch of Walt Whitman quotes, vague notes and a missed deadline. Now, this happens to everyone and normally it passes by itself. I always find that reading something new and interesting, relevant or otherwise, can help me focus again. With this in mind, I headed down to the local Nakumatt (large chain supermarket) in search of a book. I didn’t want to go looking for one on my list, I wanted one to jump out at me and pique my interest.

Almost all of them did but for the wrong reason.

My local Nakumatt is a particularly big one. It fills three floors and offers practically everything: from food and drink to solar panels and industrial catering equipment. Next to the magazines and within sight of the music section, there are two rotating book stands – like something you’d get sunglasses on. There are probably more than 150 books there. When I looked, not a single one was by a non-Western writer, let alone a Kenyan author.

There were two auto-biographies of English cricketers on there. Two.

Most of the books were pulp thrillers and crime fiction, like a similar stand in an English supermarket. Exactly like that, in fact, filled with the same authors.

A couple of hours later I read a great post on Kariobangi about ‘African Readers’. It references a great article by Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu who writes about the issues facing African writers,

The truth is that western readers are crucial for any African writer who is looking for success today, and it is inevitable that the west will continue to determine the value and worth of literature from the African continent.

If a Kenyan company as large and successful as Nakumatt offers books in its stores it is not for charity. This must be a product worth carrying, something that benefits them to sell. Do they choose to sell Western writers to African audiences because African writing doesn’t sell? Does the auto-biography of Geoffrey Boycott genuinely make them more profit than, say, the recently released Binyavanga Wainaina memoir?

I should say that these are not the sum of books offered by my local Nakumatt – the second floor has a wider bookstore – but they are the most visible and accessible books, in prime location by the checkout counters. These were featured products.

I hope it was oversight, not business acumen, that filled those book stands.

Seeing them gave me another idea for a blog post but, once again, I find myself with no end result, just questions. Why were these decisions made? What do they mean? Does the source of available culture necessarily do any harm? Maybe Kenyan shoppers should be offered the latest Danielle Steel, not expected to embrace Kenyan writers because of their nationality?

But they are, at least, interesting questions I’d like to hear some response to. And that’ll do for now.

No Updates This Week

Quick note: I’m on holiday this week and won’t be updating for a little while. Until then, feel free to imagine how ridiculous I am going to look wearing shorts at the beach. Imagine a flamingo on the beach. Except minus the fun of it being a flamingo.

Flamingo on the beach

Image via Flickr – by Keith Roper

I do have some posts lined up for next week including an interview with one of the founders of UgandaSpeaks – a Ugandan initiative aimed at combating nonsense like Kony2012 in the future.