Islam and Online Aid & Development Discourse

Recently, a Muslim reminded me of verse 49:11 from the Qu’ran. For most of you reading this, and most likely unfamiliar with that verse, here’s what it says:

O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.

The Qu’ran, for many Muslims, is considered to be the direct word of God. Not “divinely inspired” like the Bible – but the actual direct word-for-word message from God. As such, it’s considered perfect and constitutes a moral code by which all Muslims must adhere to.

As I’ve talked about before, there is a great deal of distrust and even hatred towards the aid industry and NGOs in Bangladesh (a country where the population is about 90% Muslim). I’ve also talked about how I’ve been trying to use my ethnicity and social media to bridge this gap. But part of this problem also stems from how those in the aid industry talk about aid.

Even in an open and democratic platform like the internet, aid discussions tend to suffer from groupthink and exclude minority voices. This exclusion can happen simply because of the snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks that are frequently thrown around in online aid conversations.

Blog post from a prominent aid blogger (working at a major International NGO). Post uses the word "douchenozzle" five times and ends the post with "Total. F-cking. Douche. Nozzle."

The definition of "douchenozzle" (as provided by UrbanDictionary.com)

I try to keep this blog G-rated, so I won’t provide more examples than what you can see in the above screenshots. But, comments like this are by no means an outlier. I have screenshots of aid bloggers using words and/or vulgar euphemisms for words like this, this and this on a myriad of topics, posts, and tweets. What makes it worse is that such words are actually condoned or, sometimes, applauded.

Comments left by other aid bloggers to the above cited blog post.

Complements were also sent via Twitter...

As the digital divide is being bridged, more of the world’s poor will be able to observe these online conversations. Unless organizations develop an internal professional code of conduct for their aid workers who use social media, this could be the next great liability for NGOs. Posting anonymously may not shield NGOs. Aid workers aren’t l33t haxxors and no one stays anonymous forever.

Many Bangladeshis already tell me that the aid industry and INGOs don’t reflect them, their values, or their way of doing things. If this tone is condoned and applauded by those working to help the poor…. then they may be right.

  • Tara S

    Wow, that’s pretty shocking.  Besides the fact that it’s rude and unprofessional, I think it shows a disconnect and a lack of willingness to engage on respectful equal footing with another culture.  

    I can attest that a woman in a culture which values personal restraint and modesty is not going to particularly like having her private bodily functions reduced to a grotesque caricature and used as a public insult.  Based on the above, I don’t know that I would trust this aid worker to have my best interests, as a woman in (hypothetically) vulnerable circumstances, at heart…

  • http://twitter.com/tareqismail Tareq Ismail

    Fantastic post, Shawn. Thanks so much for sharing, couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Alanna Shaikh

    Not trying to be difficult, but I don’t understand your logic chain. Are you saying that when aid workers are mean to each other, it keeps the communities who receive aid from speaking up?

  • http://bottomupthinking.wordpress.com/ MJ

    Culture clash! But letting off steam is also important. Unfortunately western openness in all things make such steam-blowing public to those who want to find out. Conversely, however, I think most aid workers at least try and mostly succeed in being more professional in carrying out their day jobs. However, I presume not many Bangladeshi aid recipients are reading these blogs – as you say groupthink is a significant problem in the blogosphere – so if that separation can be maintained then there is no big deal. The problem comes, I guess, when privately held views and attitudes spill over into the professional realm.

  • http://twitter.com/intldogooder How Matters

    I often have the same reactions to the snark of the aid blogosphere, but I try to balance this with the fact that we all need and deserve time and space to blow off some steam. The technical and bureaucratic rigidities of day-to-day aid work can extremely frustrating and disappointing. 
    Yet online or in person, aid workers must recognize that much of our work is about creating a friendly, open, affirming climate where real listening and dialogue can occur among partners. The language we use either closes down or opens up dialogue, as well as our own thinking, about relief and development work. 

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Alanna – this may sound silly, but I am kind of honored that you thought to post a comment. I look up to you and your work a lot. Plus congratulations on being a TED fellow!

    I guess I should break my argument down into a few parts:

    1) A Preface: This is not me being holier-than-thou. One need only look at the archives of my blog or my own tweets to realize that I probably don’t live up to the moral standard of Qu’ran 49:11 anymore than the people I have cited and quoted. I am not a saint and, as such, I can’t expect anyone else to be.

    2) A second preface: If only based on my own experience, I am not expecting aid workers to be saints in real life who will always get along with everybody they met. That doesn’t happen in the corporate world (with office politics) nor in the academic world (with department politics). 

    3) The argument I am making is that the internet is part of the public sphere. It is not some private closed-door boardroom nor is it the water cooler tucked within the walls of the NGO.

    4) Not only is the internet part of the public sphere but, as the digital divide is being bridged, it is also a non-tiered or flat form of communication. That is, eventually, a Muslim villager in rural Bangladesh will sooner or later be able to read an aid worker’s tweets and blog posts as easily as you and I are having this conversation.

    5) When that flat access arrives, villagers who are religiously conservative and Muslim, may see the tone in which aid bloggers speak as not reflecting their values or representing their conception of morality. I, of course, make no claim as to whether their interpretation is “true” Islam or whether this interpretation would be accepted by the Western Muslim community. 

    If you look at previous blog posts, however, I have cited Western Imams whose rulings and interpretations are in line with this. 

    Example: 
    http://uncultured.com/2011/03/23/lying-in-aid-development/

    The above example shows a Western (not rural Bangladeshi) Imam speaking against even innocent sarcasm as being “haram” (impermissible)

    6) Qu’ran 49:11 needs also be factored in with the Hadith (or sayings of The Prophet). That is, The Prophet said, if you consider yourself friends with or colleagues with those who are spewing foul things, the stink of their deeds, work, and sayings will stick to you. The moral of this hadith being avoid associating with people who spew and do foul things. Again, I’ll leave it to you whether this is right or wrong – but the hadith exists and many conservatives Muslims follow it.

    So, yes, I am saying that in the social media space (as the digital divide is being bridged) that conservative villagers (especially Muslim conservative villagers) may see the snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks being spewn around and find it both morally offensive AND find themselves morally bound (by Hadith of The Prophet) to avoid conversing, engaging, or talking with such people. 

    For more info on negative attitudes towards NGOs and aid workers in Bangladesh, see this:

    http://uncultured.com/2011/02/27/negative-attitudes-to-ngos-in-bangladesh/

    Best,

    – Shawn

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hey MJ :) Well said. Basically, as the digital divide is being bridged, aid workers will need to be as polite online as they are “in the field”. 

    Afterall, take a look at Bangladesh. The company CityCell now offers access to Twitter WITHOUT a data plan. As this kind of access proliferates, what’s to stop a villager from “googling” an aid worker (or his/her NGO) and reading their (and their colleagues’) tweets and blog posts?

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Well said :D Basically, one wouldn’t blow off steam in front of beneficiaries in the middle of a village. So, as the digital divide is being bridged, aid workers should realize the blogosphere and twitterverse is becoming equally accessible to beneficiaries as they are to fellow aid workers and the Western public.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Just as a follow-up to my longer response below. I just noticed your tweet about this post where you wrote: “Not sure why mocking bad aid hurts aid recipients…” seen here:

    https://twitter.com/#!/alanna_shaikh/status/139279188015316992

    I’d like to briefly touch upon that as well:

    1) I am not saying that we can’t talk about good and bad aid. I myself, on this blog, have spoken up against “Hug an Orphan Charities” and “1 Million Shirts for Africa” – things which aid workers have spoken against countless times. The thing is, you could read my blog posts on those topics to any conservative Muslim villager in Bangladesh and it would not offend their moral or religious sensibilities. The same cannot be said for aid blogger posts which use “haram” (religiously impermissible) snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks.

    2) As aid bloggers, including yourself and others I have quoted above, like to point out: if you aren’t professional about aid and development – you can harm the poor. Accusing someone of masturbating too much, having sex with too many partners, being a “dumbass” or “ass clown”, or being compared to a part of a vaginal cleansing product is not professional. It “hurts aid recipients” in that, if they see these conversations, many of them (on religious grounds) will refuse to engage with such people. This is problematic when the people talking like this are the aid workers and NGOs entrusted to empower and listen to the poor. 

    3) As I have said before, while there is a consensus as to what is “bad aid” among aid bloggers, there isn’t a consensus on what is bad aid by aid recipients. The very definition of “bad aid” needs to be curbed by religious, cultural, and region-specific contexts. If aid bloggers are oblivious to how their PUBLIC (because the internet is public) snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks will be received in different cultures and communities, how can we expect aid bloggers to embrace the complexities of the term “bad aid”? My thoughts on aid blogger conceptions of “bad aid”: 

    http://uncultured.com/2011/07/14/the-nexus-of-aid-work-islamic-extremism/
    Best, 

    – Shawn

  • Alanna Shaikh

    That’s a very interesting point, and one I’d never thought of. I’ve written about the effect of social media on aid: http://bloodandmilk.org/2009/04/13/theyre-looking-right-back/ but I’d thought about it terms of what we say about programs and host countries, not each other…

    You should apply to be a TED fellow, they love efforts like yours!

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Your suggestion maybe the nicest complement I’ve ever received on this blog – thank you! 

    And it also means a lot since, as you’ve publicly stated, you don’t think that snark is a bad thing. Which you pointed out here:

    https://twitter.com/#!/alanna_shaikh/status/139300211091705856

    I also agree with you that aid workers have a right to be seen as “frustrated human beings”. Which is what you are suggesting here: 

    https://twitter.com/#!/alanna_shaikh/status/139324639762587648

    However, there is a difference between being seen as a “frustrated human being” and being a derogatory, insulting, and culturally insensitive aid professional.

    Basically, if a professional aid worker wouldn’t take that tone or use those words in front of an aid recipient, they shouldn’t be tweeting or blogging in that tone or with those words either. Because, it’s only a matter of time when a villager can pull out a phone and see an aid worker’s online conduct and behavior.

    And unlike the Western world, which tends to emphasize the individual, many cultures in the developing world emphasize the family, community, or village over the individual. This, for example, is why many Asian cultures put pressure on their children to succeed and do well for the family’s honor and reputation.

    The result is that when a single aid professional is being vulgar, snarky, and unprofessional, they are creating a tragedy of the commons. It tarnishes the trust, reputation, credibility, and assumed cultural sensitivities of the entire aid industry. Because, if Bangladesh is a good example, locals are more likely to blame the industry instead of the individual.

  • http://www.bdkeller.com Brett Keller

    Thanks for sharing this! In response, first, a disclaimer: while not the author of the ‘douchenozzle’ post, that post was written linking approvingly to something I wrote about Sam Childers (my piece was highly critical but had a different, non-vulgar tone). Now three points:

    1) I think your overall point of being careful about how vulgarity and/or tone will be perceived by folks outside your intended audience is important, and well-taken. To nitpick:

    2) Can we separate the “snark” from the vulgarity and/or other loaded 
    words? Yes there’s overlap, but it’s possible to be snarkily critical without calling someone an ass-clown, and I don’t think you’ve made a case against snark in general. For instance, Easterly is often snarky in tone, but the language on Aid Watch was more professional. And on the particular example you chose:

    3) [Squeamishness alert — don’t read further] When I first read the term “douchenozzle” I certainly didn’t think of it as a gendered term, and thus I assume that the others using the term weren’t using it that way either. My understanding is that douche, douchebag, and douchenozzle have become pretty well-separated from their origin and now just mean ‘obnoxious person’, to the extent that I didn’t think about what the origin at all until very recently. I think some of the disconnect comes from the fact that — at least amongst my generation — if we hear the word ‘douche’ used in a non-insulting term it’s generally about the back end, not the front, thus making it not gendered at all. Now that I realize it can be perceived this way I plan on avoiding using it (not that I was before) because I dislike gendered insults (as opposed to profanity, which I don’t mind). But, I think you should also consider that the author and commenters probably didn’t take it the same way you did (even if they should).

  • http://www.bdkeller.com Brett Keller

    Related to that (and coming out of how Greg Mortenson’s downfall came about) I proposed a “tea test” for aid marketing / fundraising a while back: http://www.bdkeller.com/resources/tea-test/ Could definitely be applied to blogging as well.

  • http://twitter.com/bjrigby Brendan J Rigby

    Thank you for a very thoughtful post and much-needed reminder about online discourse in aid and development. I sometimes think that much of what is written in blogs, which you could define either as snarky or vulgar (per Brett Keller’s distinction), is done for effect. For readership. And, may lack real conviction. Particularly, once an author has established his or her voice in the blogosphere. Although, it helps when your identity is anonymous. This allows you more freedom in your discourse and vocabulary.

    On the other hand, if it has conviction, then posts which are particularly vulgar, should be kept private. Aid and development workers have many opportunities socially to vent and rant and rave. There is no need to bring that to the public forum unless there is some value in what is being critically reflected on (after Jennifer Lentfer’s comment). 

    Well said Shaun.

  • http://www.bdkeller.com Brett Keller

    Related: I’m sure you didn’t mean for your post “Why Save the Children Sucks” (http://uncultured.com/2011/04/01/why-save-the-children-sucks/) to be about fellatio. The douchenozzle post is definitely snarky, but you should judge word usage at least in part by its intent — otherwise you just said that an NGO does (or does not) perform oral sex on someone, using language that some Americans (including my parents) find offensive. Are you giving J from Tales From the Hood the same benefit of the doubt as others  give you, or did you assume the worst because you’ve disagreed with him on much in the past? 

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    The “tea test” – I like the sound of that! I actually proposed something similar to Alanna Shaikh in a comment on this blog post. Basically: if an aid professional would not use that tone, language, or set of words in front of an aid beneficiary then they have no right tweeting or blogging it. Because, as the digital divide is being bridged, it’s only a matter of time until a villager can pull out an inexpensive cellphone and see the professional online decorum and civility of the aid industry… or an individual aid worker.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Brendan,

    Shortly after I posted this article, the official Kenyan Police department (not a spoof account) posted this tweet: 

    https://twitter.com/#!/KenyaPolice/status/140036303457746944

    It reads: “In your daily use of Social Media, don’t slander anyone. It is a criminal offense to slander anyone online.”

    Whether it’s the conservative Islamic sensibilities of a rural villager in Bangladesh or the local laws in a developing country against slander, aid bloggers who talk in this tone and use this language risk jeopardizing their colleagues safety and well-being. 

    But, more realistically, if an NGO does not have an internal policy FORBIDDING their employees from such online conduct, they have nothing to defend themselves if someone tries to attribute an aid blogger’s snarky/vulgar comments to their organization. 

    Being anonymous only enhances the false sense of security in which one can be vulgar… it doesn’t actually protect (in practicality or in potential liability) the NGO. It’s a risk to the NGO that’s exogenous of the aid professional’s intent with those words. 

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hey Brett,

    I’ll answer your points in reverse order:

    3) Perhaps because we’re both guys and don’t need to use a vaginal cleansing product, we don’t associate that word as a gendered term. But, as you can see from the screenshot of the definition of that word (which indicates the fact that it was the #1 definition and the highest voted in agreement with the definition), the general public does associate that word to mean that function. Secondly, I also specifically included a screenshot of an aid blogger who even looked up and linked to said definition. So it’s not a stretch to say it’s proper and true definition was known, condoned, and applauded.

    2) No we can’t. Well, let me qualify that: you and I CAN. Because we’re progressive, probably pro-LGBT supporting, Western, and modern young guys. But in Islam – the kind of Islam as embraced and practiced in many of the communities aid professionals and NGO serve – there is a strict definition of what is a good and proper way to talk to people. Even insulting someone through sarcasm (which may not use a vulgar word) is “haram” (religiously forbidden). I’ve seen many Imams talk about this, but for brevity, here is one available on YouTube:

    http://uncultured.com/2011/03/23/lying-in-aid-development/

    1) Thanks :D I will now reply to your secondary comment below…

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hey again Brett, 

    I’m not a saint and I am sure you will find posts that are as equally “haram” (religiously impermissible) as some of the snark that aid bloggers have thrown around. However, this article is not one of them and it’s poor example on your part.

    “Sucks” is a known and established word in the English language. It’s most common dictionary definitions have little to no vulgar comment or quality to them (e.g. look “suck” up on your MacBook’s dictionary and the first reference is to “sucking mint juleps through a straw”).

    Secondly, while I appreciate your comment about intent, this again is not an example about intent. Rather, this is about grammatical context. My inner English nerd is coming out here: when an English word has multiple definitions, you asses which definition is being used based on its use within a sentence, paragraph, and article.

    Based on context alone, there is no way one could ascribe the definition you are suggesting. The same is not true of the article I have cited. That word, in context, was meant to be derogatory. The comments applauding its use only amplify this. It was meant to be used as an insult – that’s its context. 

    Not only that, if the title of my blog post were to be used in the context you’re suggesting, it would not be grammatically correct. It would fail to conform to proper gramatical structures to form a complete thought. Finally, just to be safe, I ran that title through Google Translate back-and-forth through various South Asian language translations.

    So, even if the phrase were to be garbled through mis-translation, could that article’s context be construed in the sexual context you are suggesting? Thankfully, no. The grossest mistranslation I could generate is “Sucks to Save the Children” – which again, means it’s disagreeable or distasteful to “save the children”.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure you’ll find something closer to the “haram” language I’ve talked about on this blog – or my own Twitter feed – but you’re clearly reaching with that example. Try again and I’ll own up to it – or better yet – find a “haram” blog post and I’ll delete the post to make my blog more “halal”.

  • http://www.bdkeller.com Brett Keller

    I think you missed my point on 3 entirely. I’m saying that the primary use of douches today might not be vaginas at all, so you and I (being males, depending on our orientations) might be as likely to be referring to that — and it even makes it a greater insult, at least to some. (And there is no medical need for ‘vaginal cleansing’ in the first place.) Quoting a urban dictionary definition doesn’t prove your point; people vote up what they think is funny, not the most accurate definition. Also, many of the other definitions on that page do not reference the original use of the word douche. Obviously some folks see it as an insult disconnected from that. And you have a screenshot of one guy (with whom many of us disagree on a *lot*) who quotes that reference — but he’s not the one who originally wrote the post. Yes, the original post is profane, but you go too far in assuming that it was a gendered insult.
    Re #2 — I respect that some religious people follow that rule, but I don’t think can or should hold everyone to that standard. If someone is working in Bangladesh and discussing a project there, or noted that they work with organization X that also works there… maybe so. But why should an American aid worker writing a blog post about an American preacher/vigilante in Sudan follow that rule? Isn’t most of American political discourse haram by that standard?

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Great points Brett :) I think we’re more alike than not. A few thoughts:

    1) Whether that word is or is not a gendered insult is irrelevant. One person already has said they think it is in the comments here – but that’s beside the point. The point is it was meant, intended, and used as an insult. And whether you consider UrbanDictionary to be a valid source or not, the vulgarity and inappropriateness of the insult is not in question.

    2) If you believe this isn’t a vulgar insult, I propose the Brett Keller “Tea Test”. Would you feel comfortable using this word in front of aid recipients? Especially if – for full context – you must also provide access to, translation of, and an understanding of how some in the Western world use that word? 

    3) Again, GREAT point. Do we want to truly “Islamicize” aid professionals? Does an American, Western, non-Muslim aid professional owe anything to potentially conservative Muslim rural villagers? Especially when they aren’t talking about them?

    Well, shortly after I posted this tweet, the Kenyan Police department post a very interesting tweet. 

    Here’s the link:

    https://twitter.com/#!/KenyaPolice/status/140036303457746944

    And here’s what it says:

    “In your daily use of Social Media, don’t slander anyone. It is a criminal offense to slander anyone online.”

    I will agree, concede, and deem a non-sequitur that an aid professional in the Western world owes any gesture of respect to a rural Muslim conservative villager. It would certainly help foster trust if they did – but that’s beside the point.

    But I will point out that an aid professional has a fiduciary duty to protect the trust, reputation, and assumed cultural sensitivities of any and all organizations they are employed by, partnering with, and working alongside.

    Say some journalist in the developing world were to publish an article attributing a vulgar snarky aid blogger’s comments to a particular aid professional. It doesn’t even have to be factually correct – it could be “yellow journalism”. But regardless, automatically, this NGO and it’s aid workers are now at risk.

    First and foremost, it may endenger hatred and distrust among communities where such tone is not tolerated. Many, on Islamic grounds (see my comment about a Hadith to Alanna Shaikh in the comments here) may refuse to engage with this NGO or it’s aid workers. Or, in places like Kenya where there are laws against slander and a stance against it on social media, it may put the NGO in an adverse legal position. 

    The tl;dr of this argument is that an aid professionals and potential aid professionals – more than any other profession in the world – needs to think more than just him or herself. They need to put the welfare of their beneficiaries, the trust and reputation of their NGO, and the general view of the entire aid industry into consideration. It is for that reason – not Islam – that an aid professional should avoid snark, vulgarity, and insulting sarcasm.

  • http://www.bdkeller.com Brett Keller

    Sorry, but I think you’re wrong regarding grammatical correctness. Sentence 1: “Save the Children sucks [mint julep or other object]” = one common usage in English, not related to oral sex. Sentence 2: “man, [xx] sucks” (in a ‘this is unfortunate’ sense) = not literally about sex, but definitely seen as a humorous reference to it by many. (Guess how urban dictionary defines sucks when used this way? http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=sucks) 
    Related story: a few years ago I was working (as a consultant to a nonprofit) on a website that used the word sucks in the exact way your blog post did, and guess what — we got emails from older Americans complaining about our reference to fellatio. Seriously. Did we change the site? Of course not, and you shouldn’t change yours. You kind of make my point in your defensiveness though; it’s ridiculous to assume the worst, most literal meaning for a phrase and not at least consider how the person who originally used it meant it. Of course douchebag is an insult (saying something ‘sucks’ is too), but it’s not necessarily a gendered one as you imply. Your criticism of the greater aid blogosphere (which you are a part of, whether you like it or not) being too snarky is one point which people can agree or disagree with, but I think you unfortunately tied this post to something that it wasn’t saying in the first place.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    haha – I clicked the link to the UrbanDictionary definition:

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=sucks

    And the #1 definition is “when something is a bit downheartening or lame”. That was EXACTLY how I meant to use that word :P

    In fact, the #2 definition isn’t using your definition of “sucks” either. Nor is the #3 or #4 definition. 

    Again, I get what you’re saying. And I concede you’ll find something on this blog that bolsters your point. But your specific example was just a really poor choice :)

  • Alanna Shaikh

    Here’s a question: I figured out a long time ago that as a Muslim woman I cannot and will not live by the rules of conservative Islam. Many of the village elders you’re citing would be offended by my lack of hijab and my participation in public life before they even got around to hearing my words. How does that affect things?

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    I was thinking about that Alanna as I was first typing this blog post. The honest response is I don’t have an answer. 

    Part of the reason I don’t have an answer is because I’ve seen many NGOs handle this problem differently. Some hire mostly men when dealing with Muslim communities. Others mandate their female employees and female visitors cover their head with a hijab-like scarf – even if they aren’t Muslim. Some don’t care.

    I think there is two separate issues. One is your choices as an individual and the other has implications for the community in terms of who they will engage with. That is if Muslim villagers see aid professionals tweeting from afar about eating (pork) bacon, hanging at the pub, or not wearing a hijab – that’s one thing. 

    That is, they may see it as sins… but it’s sins of the individual. Not that this is foolproof either. I’d cite the 2010 bombing of the World Vision HQ in Pakistan and murder of 6 World Vision employees (World Vision being an organization which went to court in America for the right to hire only Christians) as an example of some Muslims rejecting such non-Muslims presences… and some taking that rejection into terrorism.

    However, I believe that’s a small minority. I think the more practical “everyday Muslim” issue is that it boils down to sins of association. That is, per the Hadith I cited to you earlier, some villagers may not want to associate with an NGO whose employees use a snarky, vulgar, or personally attacking tone in the public sphere. Because this is one of the few cases where, Islamically, another individual’s sins can bleed onto someone else.

    Also keep in mind that we as human beings – and I’m just as guilty of this – hold other people to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. So it’s very very plausible that a village elder and/or anyMuslim villager might use these words or tone him or herself but then give an aid professional a hard time for doing the same. Such is the complexities and ironies of aid work :(

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    I had a chance to ponder your question some more these past couple of hours and I wanted to expand on what you asked.

    What if one of us (or more likely both of us) gets caught for tweeting or blogging about how bad female genital mutilation is? Won’t we offend the sensibilities of many of the more conservative aid recipients? Won’t being quiet be the best option?

    I pose this question because I just wanted to point out I’m not a moral relativist. I believe there are some absolute truths that we need to stand up for: that women are equal, that child marriage is wrong, that forced marriage is wrong, and that female genital mutilation should never be practiced. 

    These are universal moral stands. But, I think the idea of snark, vulgarity, and personal attacks is more ambiguous. It’s not just conservative Muslims who would have a problem with it. In some developing countries, there are laws against public slander and insult. Many devout Christians, Jews, and Buddhists would take issue to this as well.

    In this regard, and on these matters, I think we should defer to what fosters the greatest trust and rapport with aid recipients and what minimizes the potential liability for aid organizations.

  • http://twitter.com/cynan_sez Cynan Houghton

    Shawn, at first it seems that you are making quite a fair and reasonable point. But taken to the general case, your advice is that no aid worker should write anything in any online public forum that any current or future aid beneficiary may read and feel offended by. And that is any aid beneficiary in perhaps 100 countries, 1000 ethnic or cultural groupings. Can I suggest that would be an incredibly difficult task to understand, let alone carry out – whether for an individual blogger/tweeter or the person(s) in their org tasked with writing their social media usage code of conduct.
    I think your statement that this may be “the next great liability for NGOs” quite overstates the problem. I could come up with a list as long as my arm of great liabilities for NGOs. A coterie of a few dozen sharp-tongued online commentators, in the context of international aid’s institutionally warped and at often perversely incentivized $100bn/year exercise of money and power, is nowhere near the top of my list.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Cynan – Great to hear from you. I was able to meet Barbara Stocking at Davos earlier this year and have been getting to learn and network with Oxfam since then behind the scenes.

    I hear what you’re saying and respect that we don’t agree on this. But I do – humbly – believe that you’re exaggerating and misrepresenting what I’m stating.

    I’m not suggesting that an aid professional become The Delphic Oracle and have knowledge of all things and cultures before saying anything online. For all I know, there maybe a culture that hates the color orange – for whom I maybe offending with this blog’s color scheme.

    Rather, I am saying that every single aid professional needs to take a REASONABLE standard of care and duty in how they conduct themselves. This already exists in the offices and in the villages and communities that NGOs serve in. Now it needs to exist online as well.

    And a reasonable person would posit that using that tone (perhaps as you say – done by a small group) and condoning and applauding (observable and clearly not just a small group) that language, that vulgarity, and that abrasiveness damages the reputation and credibility of any NGO associated with those comments.

    I also agree that this isn’t on the top of your list. But neither is your priority fasting for Ramadan, praying to Mecca five times a day, or celebrating Eid. You come from a different religion and culture and there are 1.5 billion people on this planet to whom this stuff is important to.

    And I personally think this is important because I think aid professionals often don’t correlate latent distrust and hatred of NGOs in many countries and/or acts of violence against them as having anything to do with how aid professionals conduct themselves. 

    I need to emphasize what I just said. I’m not saying aid workers die in terrorists attacks (like the World Vision HQ bombing in Pakistan in 2010) because of a few tweets and blog posts. Rather, what I am saying is that those that embrace violence (or simply benign hatred) towards the aid industry, do so in part because they feel aid professionals do not reflect their values.

    By talking in such a tone, especially as the digital divide is being bridged, aid professionals risk indeed creating the next great liability for NGOs. And I’ll leave it to the passage of time to determine whether I’m chicken little (crying that the sky is falling) or whether there was substance to my caution. 

    I’d like to also share a few links to expand on what I just said:

    Negative Attitudes to NGOs among Bangladeshis:
    http://uncultured.com/2011/02/27/negative-attitudes-to-ngos-in-bangladesh/

    How Some Aid Professionals Ignore Their Role in Fueling Extremism:
    http://uncultured.com/2011/07/14/the-nexus-of-aid-work-islamic-extremism/

    Islamic Views on Proper Conduct and Communication:
    http://uncultured.com/2011/03/23/lying-in-aid-development/

    Cheers,

    – Shawn