Digital Media Worse Than Traditional On Talking About Africa

A fascinating set of highlights over a recent report ‘Mapping the global Twitter heartbeat: The geography of Twitter’. Perhaps the brave new world of online media isn’t quite as fair and international as we might like to think.

Other than that revealed in the tweet that lured me in, there’s a bunch of very interesting info on how to get proper geographical data from Twitter. Where people tweet from, apparently, has little influence on, well, their online influence (square brackets my own):

Kalet et al. [the authors] also carried out a comprehensive analysis of geo-tagged retweets. They find that “geography plays little role in the location of influential users, with the volume of retweets instead simply being a factor of the total population of tweets originating from that city.” They also calculated that the average geographical distance between two Twitter users “connected” by retweets (RTs) and who geotag their tweets is about 750 miles or 1,200 kilometers. When a Twitter user references another (@), the average geographical distance between the two is 744 miles. This means that RTs and @’s cannot be used for geo-referencing Twitter data, even when coupling this information with time zone data.

Read the full report here


Why The Development Community Must Choose Transparency

Some pretty big news has been rocking Washington in the last few weeks. First, there was the long awaited release of the post Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agenda. This, as far as I can tell, has been pretty well received, particularly in its focus on sustainability and accountability. Despite being annoyingly jargonised in recent years, most people would agree that these two things are damned useful and strongly interlinked – a good way to ensure sustainability is to create systems that can hold people to account. It is all seems rather obvious.

The next  bit of Big News has been the Guardian’s dissemination of a series of National Security Agency (NSA) leaks (the British media isn’t so tawdry and celebrity obsessed after all) revealing that, yes, this enormous spy agency is wantonly collecting a mind-boggling amount of data on, well, just about everybody. This has hit Obama pretty hard – the cool, liberal face of change is now linked with potentially the biggest breach of US citizens’ 4th Amendment rights ever. Pretty bad image-wise. He was in China when the thing was announced – talk about bad timing.

A few people seem to regard this furore as a real turning point, perhaps as big as 9/11 was, in the debate between civil liberties and national interests. After 9/11, Americans were happy to give up some of their rights in exchange for increased security from external threats. With the NSA, it seems they have given away too much – the threat to them is perhaps internal now. The worst part was that nobody in the public even knew about the monitoring. Surely they should have been told, consulted over whether this was a step too far?

Development bloggers and agencies have been, I think, strangely quiet on this issue. With the MDG 2015 outline in place, accountability must now take centre stage. It underpins good governance, it feeds into rights-based programming and it allows for better oversight of the mis/management of development projects en masse. As a sector, we should be striving to be open, transparent and accountable: it combats the persistent charges of paternalism, it allows for more powerful feedback loops and, importantly, it puts us on one side of a historical debate that nobody is likely to ignore any more.

Open versus closed society has been the concern of many governments for the past ten years or so. It has also been a concern of civil society – see the Open Government Partnership for more on this intersection. Closed societies understandably benefit governments or ruling bodies as open ones breed debate, instability and de-centralisation of power. It is very hard to dominate the public sphere when that public sphere widens enormously – one of the reasons traditional media organisations have struggled to adapt to the internet age. I understand why some groups want to limit this. I cannot understand why development organisations are not fighting to achieve it.

As anyone who has spent much time doing development work (or research for that matter) will tell you, inscrutable organisations – companies, NGOs, governmental bodies etc. – can be just about the biggest block to getting your work done. Everything from not being able to trust the mail system and thus having to hand deliver important documents to trying to get access to official documentation only to be faced with inefficient bureaucrats. It’s a nightmare. Thankfully, we should all be trying to make such institutions better, according to the UN post MDG report (page 9):

Without sound institutions, there can be no chance of sustainable development…

Societies organise their dialogues through institutions. In order to play a substantive role, citizens need a legal environment which enables them to form and join CSOs, to protest and express opinions peacefully, and which protects their right to due process.

Internationally, too, institutions are important channels of dialogue and cooperation. Working together, in and through domestic and international institutions, governments could bring about a swift reduction in corruption, money laundering, tax evasion and aggressive avoidance, hidden ownership of assets, and the illicit trade in drugs and arms. They must commit themselves to doing so.

What better way is there to achieve this than through embracing and protecting the right to information? Or by encouraging whistle-blowers rather than prosecuting them? Condemning the treatment of such individuals in Africa or Asia isn’t enough – development organisations need to rally behind Edward Snowden and his ilk. This isn’t like the Manning case, this isn’t a young, confused, possibly ill man heedlessly releasing information. This was a guy who weighed up what he knew and what world he wanted to live in and realised he had to make a stand – he was careful to redact potentially harmful documents, for instance.

Isn’t that what development organisations should be all about? Improving the world, one person at a time. That doesn’t mean ramping up the number of vaccines given out, although it’s part of it. It also means taking a stand and pitching in whenever you can make a difference and not hiding from that responsibility. Transparency can help more people to make the right choice and I believe the way to achieve it falls partly to the development community. We certainly don’t want to look back and realise we ended up choosing closed societies.

Chilling Effect in Uganda?

Many of you have probably been following the ongoing issues between sections of the independent media and the government in Uganda (here is a terrific overview if not). Essentially, the government claims it has been searching for a letter/the source for that letter detailing an alleged succession plan for the son of the current president, Yoweri Museveni. This letter was published just before the closures began.

On social media today my Ugandan friends have been sharing the following letter, supposedly from Nation Media Group to Museveni.

(NOTE: It has not, at the time of writing, been verified as the real deal but is being fairly widely considered such See below for update)

The tone of this letter is pretty unsettling. If this truly represents the position of Nation then it seems as though we can expect to see some more conciliatory behaviour from them – it sounds to me like they’ve decided that opposing the regime isn’t worth the hassle (not to mention the loss of revenue). This could be the chilling effect breezing into town.

It’s worth noting that my casual chats with journalist friends in the country have indicated that many think the media house searches were not what it seemed – could the source of the Muhoozi letter be that valuable, post publication? The police searches were ordered stopped by Ugandan courts yet they carried on. The rumours floating around are vague: they were looking for something else. Whether any such details will emerge in the coming weeks remains to be seen but the feeling remains that it would seem like a strange series of actions on Museveni’s part simply to recover a letter which is, by now, common knowledge.

UPDATE (UTC 14.08, 06.06.13)

The Monitor have just released an article called ‘What we agreed with the Government‘.

A hopeful/deluded extract, depending on how cynical you are:

f)    At no time during the consultations did we make any concessions or sign any agreements. We reiterated our willingness to uphold the highest standards of journalism as per our policy.

g)  We did not promise not to cover any issues as demanded by the Government representatives. We consistently reiterated at the meetings that our editorial guidelines are very specific that any matters that touch on the public interest will be covered fully, fearlessly and independently subject to the values of truth, fair comment, attribution and factual accuracy.

It looks like the letter going around social media was authentic:

In deference to the person of the President and to reaffirm our commitment to uphold our editorial policy, the NMG Board did write to President Museveni reaffirming this position and regretting that the government had found it necessary to shut down our businesses because of what it considered to be unprofessionalism on the part of our journalists. And, to his credit, all President Museveni said was critical for moving forward was a need to reaffirm the principles of fair journalism, and he specifically agreed that there should be no sacred cows.

Two Criticisms of Human Rights Organisations

Written for Generation C Magazine

I have seen a couple of very different criticisms of Western human rights organisations online recently. First, I read this article by The Independent Editor-in-Chief (and, full disclosure, my former boss). Here is a telling extract [HT @DAWNSDigest]:

Two governments in contemporary Africa have been very successful at an autonomous state building and economic reconstruction project – Rwanda under Paul Kagame and Ethiopia under the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. They have equally been victims of a near-jihad by the human rights police claiming to represent the real interests of their citizens.  Two other countries have been unable to engineer an autonomous project of state and economic reconstruction.  They have instead remained under management by the United Nations – Liberia and Sierra Leone. These are the darlings of the human rights community.

Why are Africa’s most successful governments at state and economic reconstruction vilified while those managed by donors are praised and presented as model examples? The answer is that their leaders take orders from London, Paris and Washington DC. Perhaps I am overstating the case. However, there is reason to believe that some elements in Western society would like to create an Africa that in their own image. Anything that is not a reproduction of Western society is not only seen as abnormal but also a danger to be fought and annihilated.

Notwithstanding the criticism levelled at Mwenda for his seemingly one-eyed defence of the Kagame regime, there are some points in this article that deserve attention. It is an oft-repeated argument that human rights is a distraction, rather than a focus, for developing countries. Here, Mwenda goes further than that, arguing that ‘single issue’ rights groups actively fight against the sovereignty of African governments by launching ‘jihad’ against leaders like Kagame because of relatively small abuses – one general, one opposition politician is arrested while 10 million others receive the benefits of this otherwise enlightened regime. Furthermore, the attacks on a country’s leader damages its image, reducing tourism, trade and ultimately, the lives of the majority who would benefit from such economic advance. Worse, these rights defenders aren’t elected. Worse still, they’re foreigners working in Paris,Washington and London.

Single-issue seems to be the operative term. I am going to breeze past the obvious inaccuracies – Rwandans have very much suffered for speaking out against Kagame, not just ‘Westerners’. Let’s get on to Mwenda’s essentially economic outlook, he is very much a believer in the power of free-markets and their use in Africa. He argues, eloquently and not unjustly, for African institutions to replace the international organisations that dominate the landscape:

…when you visit Africa today, our public policies are designed by the IMF and World Bank, the hungry are fed by World Food Program, the ill are treated by Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, refugees are cared for by UNHCR, those in conflict are “protected” by UN peacekeepers, our Malaria is fought by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, our story is told by The New York Times, our poverty is fought by Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, our crimes are tried by the ICC, our public serves are financed by a generous international aid community, our debts are cancelled, our press freedom is defended by Reporters without Borders and CPJ, our human rights are promoted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

This is a call for institutional growth, ultimately, which presumably comes from economic growth and stability. These are things that several East African governments have already: Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda look fairly set on all fronts. So what’s the hold up? Some, Mwenda included, might argue that aid dependency holds these countries back. This might be partially true. But can it be the whole story?

The is an extract from an article about a speech on poverty given by Lant Prtichett. This speech also focuses on the importance of institutions and the possible negative effects of Western interventions to those institutions:

The typical unskilled laborer in Haiti makes about 80 cents an hour. If that same person moves to the United States, studies show they will earn about $8.50 an hour. So why are Haitians poor? It is not because they are lazy or uneducated, Pritchett said. Haitians are poor because they live in a society that cannot make productive use of their labor.

Pritchett outlined four aspects of society that are different in developed countries. These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law. Digging wells in Haiti might provide a bit of relief to that country’s poor, but it isn’t going to change any of these four things, Pritchett said. In fact, many kinds of humanitarian aid may short-circuit the development, he said. Until a country develops institutions that make productive work possible, its people will remain poor, he added.

It seems to me that the similar worlds of aid, development, humanitarianism and human rights have become overly conflated. What attracted me to human rights work was a number of things: the desire to help the most unfortunate, people like IDP who have been mistreated by the institutions that are meant to protect them; the importance of speaking truth to power (something, amusingly, that made me want seek out work for Andrew Mwenda and The Independent before the more recent criticisms became obvious); and, most importantly, the idea that the power of rights based programming is that it seeks to establish a foundation on which more complex developments can be built. If a government can act with impunity, collecting bribes or mistreating their opposition, they are very unlikely to benefit their population. It is interesting to me that Mwenda would choose to use the word ‘tyranny’ in his title. Tyranny is just what human rights seek to abolish, to undermine for good; this is a historical movement born from WWII, after all.

There is a threat to human rights organisations, which leads me to the second criticism I have seen recently. Please watch the following video [HT @c_hargreaves]:

Here, Chris Hedges warns of the very real danger facing the human rights industry – it has become too popular. Previously, unmentioned in the MDGs, human rights have become huge business and, as such, other parts of the broad church of ‘international affairs workers’ – which I mean to encompass not only development but business, military and politics too – are moving to use the tag of ‘human rights’ to sugar an unpleasant pill – the post-colonial imperialism that Mwenda warns of.

What is very interesting to note is how Hedges identifies this mission drift: it is the mark of “corrosive neo-liberal ideology”. It is this very same ideology that Kagame’s development project is founded on and one that Mwenda, at least in my reading, also embraces. For me, this is another mark of hypocrisy from a man once renowned as a fearless critic of corrupt and dangerous leaders. Conflict of interest and mission creep is something that human rights organisations must be increasingly vigilant against in the post MDG landscape. These two arguments are a useful precursor to this challenge.

Hedges warns of what human rights must not become; Mwenda is an example of the consequences of ignoring that warning.

Words, Damned Words And Terminology

I was reading an online debate –  ‘Assessing race and inequality in international development‘. Despite being a sometimes interesting debate, I was quite taken aback by the first two comments:

development terms

There is a lot of contested vocabulary in international development, I’m aware of that. Most people who have had to fill out a Log Frame cannot stand development buzzwords, even in pursuit of effective participatory innovation (sorry). J – who writes over at AidSpeak – loathes the term ‘do-gooder’ rather than aid/development-worker. It is the stuff of many blogpost and semi-drunken rant in the expat bar, I get that. I had never previously realised that the phrases ‘developing world’ or ‘global south’ were similarly aggravating. I had never thought of them as such – aren’t they both replacement terms, designed to be neutral and inoffensive?

It’s a bit like when I learned that vegans do not eat honey. Who could be offended by eating honey?

I sort of understand why they might be, I suppose (not honey, I’m still unable to wrap my head around that one). Any term like these ones could be seen to generate an ‘us v them’ sort of feeling. Everyone’s read Edward Said. I understand that language can reinforce the perception of otherness and how that can be incredibly harmful. But is anyone seriously suggesting that we cease using any terms like this?

It reminds me of the classic debate of politics students:

What is Europe? Discuss

Is it geographical? Is it cultural? Do we include Turkey and Israel like in Eurovision? Do you have to be in the EU to now be considered Europe? What about Scandinavia? Argumentum ad infinitum, argumentum ad nauseum.

This drives people crazy. It’s never ending. What happens is actual critical language breaks down into a series of discussions that circle the drain of semantics. That might sound fun if you’re studying linguistics; to the rest of us, it makes our reports or essays or articles much more vague and much less persuasive.

Difference isn’t something we can wish away

Donors and beneficiaries are an inextricable fact of the field of international development. As it happens, the global north (there, I said it) gives and the global south receives. That is a fact of the world at the moment. Trying to avoid the issue through skirting around particular phrasing seems nonsensical to me. Of course those phrases make us seem separate. We are. One part of the world has almost all the money and power – that’s something that international development sets out to rectify. The entire field is based on a recognition of inequality but, what, we can’t use phrases that remind anyone of that? Nonsense.

Rather than trying to torture language into a global division-less village, we should concentrate on actually getting some work done to combat inequality. Development doesn’t have to be international, of course, but some problems are too big for communities to effectively combat and lord knows national or governmental solutions are absolutely fraught with issues. Engaging with the people we want to help is a must, I think, be it in terms of racial issues (as the online debate was about) or in terms of gender, disability or, simply, differing cultures.

There will likely always be two groups: those who have and those who have not. Acknowledging this fact does not preclude either side from working together to improve things – Us AND Them, not Us vs Them.

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).

From Poverty To Power – in Bath

From Poverty To Power – in Bath

Via Flickr

Duncan Green – Oxfam strategic advisor and writer of the much read/linked/argued about FP2P blog – is coming to the University of Bath (where I study) very soon.

Date: Monday 4th of March.

Time: 18.15-20.05

Place: Lecture Theatre 5 West 2.3 (University of Bath campus)

Cost: Free!

I cannot make it as I will be in a meeting and then on air but I implore all the development types in the area to make it down there. Not only is FP2P an excellent discussion hub online but several Bath academics have contributed to the arguments on there – particularly those focused on the ‘evidence agenda‘ in aid and development.You never know, you might get to watch an  argument.

Also, there’s a wine reception afterwards. Everyone knows that wine + networking = a hilarious series of misadventures you can tell people about later. So go!

NB: The link to the event is in the title