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What Coming to Davos Means to Me

In 2009, I had a frank talk with the Bangladesh Country Director of Save the Children. His name is Kelly Stevenson and I’ve often joked that “The Uncultured Project” should be renamed “The Kelly Stevenson Project” because much of what I’ve been able to do is because he has said yes to my ideas.

The problem facing Kelly, as he explained it, is that I lacked credibility. He liked what I’m doing but it was hard to make things happen because I lacked recognition. Unfortunately it didn’t matter how many subscribers I had or that I became a Webby Honoree – none of that counted as recognition in the aid system.

This small white badge I’m wearing on my neck changes that.

Those who know me well know that I’m not easily star-struck and don’t easily fangirl. I don’t drink – so I don’t give a damn how expensive the champagne is. And I’m a pretty cheap foodie – so it doesn’t matter how expensive the desert is, I go for quantity not quality.

The reason why coming to Davos means so much to me is that it gives me something that no amount of press coverage, no amount of subscribers on YouTube, and no amount of followers on Twitter can give me. In the eyes of the top in business, charity, and government – my registered status here is equal to them.

As staff at the World Economic Forum put it, just being here means that I’ve been “vetted and deemed a person of accomplishment […] and not crazy”. It may seem like the “not crazy” part is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but as many of you know that’s exactly the reaction I get from many aid professionals.

Holding a panel discussion alongside distinguished Harvard Professor Bloom. My contribution as a panelist was as respected and as equally applauded by World Bank officials, NGO leaders, and professors. No snark. No egos. Nothing but great discussion and great ideas.

Virtually every idea I’ve ever had has always been met with incredulity and resistance by at least some aid professionals. And, if you look at them, the ideas aren’t that crazy:

  • I believe the way charities shaped their messages around poverty did a disservice to the poor. Yet, the few aid experts I knew back when I started this project insisted I was crazy (or at worst dishonest) for talking about poverty in any other way. Now? Watch this ad and enjoy.
  • I believe charities don’t (or at least didn’t) understand the importance of YouTube. Yet, this idea didn’t get much traction at first. YouTube was a site for cat videos. Now? Find me a charity that doesn’t have a YouTube channel or a position dedicated to “social media”.
  • I believe ordinary citizens on YouTube have more potential to genuinely mobilize people than celebrities. Yet, even as late as 2009, I was getting lectured about how charities need to control their message and, somehow, celebs achieved this better than regular folks on YouTube. Now? Just ask World Vision how they have benefitted from working with YouTubers.

What coming to Davos does for me is it gives me the hope that I have a chance that someone will hear my ideas and actually consider it. Here are a few:

  • I believe charities need to become networked non-profits and move away from being silos that don’t work along with outsiders.
  • I believe YouTube and other “social media” is more than just a marketing & fundraising platform – but only if we unleash this potential.
  • I believe a truly post-colonial charity can’t just be okay with how it does things because it fits our values. It also must be okay to those who receive aid.
  • I believe, because of that, rethinking how to fund (much needed) overhead should not be vilified when it can be about the recipient.
  • I believe that there is too much of a skew on quantitative methodology in the aid system when in fact a qualitative, anthropological, and ethnographic approach can potentially yield equal (or greater) truths about how to pull people out of poverty.
  • I believe that, because there is a quantitative skew, people obsess too much about scalability. There is no shame in local solutions that just fit local problems – whether it is one village, one country, or one religious, ethnic, or cultural group.

What’s so great about this trip to Davos is that I don’t have to become Bono’s BFF for this to happen. I don’t have to woo a grant from Bill Gates – who, at least when first hearing about my work, met it with a bit of skepticism. I don’t even have to network with charities while I’m here. This is a credential that I can take back with me and build on even when Davos becomes a distant memory.

I’m sure Kelly will appreciate that.

The Anatomy of a Transnational Davos Campaign

Mindaugas Voldemaras

Meet Mindaugas Voldemaras. Mindaugas is one of the many people who submitted a video as part of the 2011 Davos Debates. Of all the efforts by applicants to get votes, Mindaugas was one of the more successful.

Mindaugas, a blogger from Lithuania, campaigned around the slogan: “Vote for Lithuania in Davos!”. He was appealing to his most salient constituency: Lithuanians.

Appealing for support from your constituency is really the best way to mobilize support on an issue. It’s a group that can be diverse but has a shared identity, kinship, and a sense of collective benefit.

From a "campaign poster" made for Mindaugas

Appealing to a salient constituency also makes it easier to find others who can help mobilize others. Mindaugas was able to find support from prominent Lithuanian tweeters, bloggers, and even Lithuanian sports fans.

The only hurdle in Mindaugas’s mobilization efforts was that everyone in Lithuania, being in the same time zone, went to sleep at more or less the same time and could only vote for him during waking hours.

When Mindaugas saw my efforts to get votes, he assumed I too was appealing to my constituency. He assumed my constituency was Canada. And, like him, he assumed I’d be limited to when Canadians were awake.

This assumption is why, thanks to you, we were able to take the #1 spot.

Click the jump to learn why.

Continue reading ‘The Anatomy of a Transnational Davos Campaign’

Why I Want to Go to Davos

I want to go to Davos. I’ve been trying for the past four years and, right now, I’m trying again.

I’m not trying to go to Davos because I’m the only one who can talk about global poverty. There are no shortage of celebrity spokespeople, professionals, and anti-poverty advocates there.

I’m not trying to go to Davos because I’m the most articulate, intelligent, and well-spoken person on YouTube. I know that’s not the case because, last time I checked, my name wasn’t John Green.

I’m not even asking to go to Davos because I’m the foremost authority on aid and development. I actually laughed when I typed that last sentence. I may have gained a few unique insights, but I’m no expert.

I’m asking to go because I believe that the poor don’t need an ambassador, an advocate, or a spokesperson. The people who can speak best for the poor are the poor themselves.

One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s extremely easy to demonstrate the power of social media to connect people. Once they get it, rich or poor, things take-off themselves.

Villagers watching a YouTube video which feature them.

When I met a group of village women who were health workers for their community, they didn’t need to know what Formspring was. What mattered to them was that people around the world could ask them what challenges they faced and they could answer them back right away.

When I joined a community meeting of village women in Bhola, I didn’t have to explain what Twitter was. What mattered to them was that it was essentially a “group SMS” service that allowed them to send out their concerns and get back and forth responses from people right away.

When I went to Barguna in rural Bangladesh, I didn’t have to explain what YouTube was. What mattered to them was that through this camera, they could bypass bureaucracy and directly tell people what they felt the pros and cons were of certain charity programs.

And, what I’ve learned through this, is that the poor like talking about their challenges to people instead of professionals or politicians. I’m not sure exactly why – I assume it’s probably the same reason we (rightly or wrongly) feel less stigmatized talking about our problems to a friend than a social worker.

My biggest fear for social media (whether it’s YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook) is that it becomes a mere marketing and fundraising platform. The real potential of social media in the fight against poverty is its capacity to foster truly empowered conversations between one community and another around the world.

But to achieve that doesn’t mean dumping technology on the poor. It requires charities, individuals, communities, and even corporations working together. The poor need bridgemakers – not spokespeople. If that isn’t a message worth bringing to Davos – I don’t know what is.

The World Economic Forum’s Official YouTube channel specifically encourages people to vote on the ideas submitted. If you’d like to vote on mine, here’s a video which explains how you can:

Popularity Contest? Yes & No.

Last year, I had expressed my disappointment with the Davos Debates. Not because I lost – but because of the manner in which the winner was selected. It seemed arbitrary, done behind closed doors, and completely undemocratic.

With this year’s winner being selected by popular vote, does this make this year’s Davos Debates nothing more than a mere popularity contest? Not at all – and I mean that even if I lose by a landslide.

The Davos Debates would have been a popularity contest if voting was the only method of selecting a candidate. In that case, it would make a lot of sense for any of those big YouTube mega-stars to submit a video (it could even be unrelated to Davos) and win by a landslide. Free trip to Davos!

But, what I like about this year is that it combines an evaluation of ideas and a way to prove a candidates campaign & rallying ability. The first round was all about ideas. The judges didn’t care if you have 1, 100, or 1 million YouTube subscribers.

How do I know this? Because the panel of judges were as independent as you can get. You have Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus, UN Peace Ambassador Paulo Coelho, and Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington.

Just to give you an idea of how impartial these panel of judges were: the head of a US-based charity that partners with the Professor Yunus’s Grameen Bank also submitted a video the Davos Debates. He was not selected as a finalist.

The second round, is all about a candidate’s ability to rally support for their cause. I like because it combines the best of last year’s contest (the search and selection of good ideas) with the idea of transparency and opening up the selection process to the people.

The way it is setup now, whoever gets to speak at Davos can say “I have an important message and I have a lot of people who want you to hear it”. It gives much needed weight that have been missing in previous iterations of the Davos Debates.

The only trouble now is getting there.

Within Reach of Davos

In January of 2007, I withdrew from grad school at the University of Notre Dame and began an unemployed, unplanned, and “uncultured” journey to help the poor.

Almost exactly three years later, that journey has brought me to within grasp of being able to talk to world leaders about global poverty at one of the planet’s most important conferences. I can get there – but only with your help.

Out of 75 applications from around the world (and many more that didn’t make the deadline), I was selected as one of five potential candidates to go to Davos. The winner, is determined by you – because it’s your vote that determines the winner.

I won’t lie. I’m up against some brilliant people. I wish we could all go – because I’d love to meet them all and brainstorm. At the same time, I know that it’s not like global poverty can be solved with a one week trip to Switzerland.

But this could be big. It’s the biggest thing to ever happen in my life and it could be the biggest thing for the future of this project. So, if you’d like to help, here’s how you can do so:

Things you will need [REVISED as of Jan 11th, 2010]:

  1. A YouTube or Google account. Signing up for either is free. UPDATE: You don’t need to signup for anything to vote.
  2. An internet connection good enough to use YouTube.
  3. The ability to get online every 24 hours until January 15th.
  4. If Possible: Friends & family who might be interested in voting as well.

Here’s how you can vote:

1. Go to

2. On the top half of the page, you will see something about the Davos Debates. It will have three tabs. Click on “vote”.


3. You will see five videos from the five candidates. Select my video called “A Message to Davos” – the thumbnail is my picture.


Videos Are Randomly Sorted and May Not Appeared In This Order

4. Once the video starts playing, click the green thumbs-up button. Wait a few seconds. Your vote has been placed.


When The Red Thumbs Down Turns Grey, Your Vote Has Been Cast.

5. You can vote again everyday.

It may seem that, with so many followers on Twitter and so many subscribers, this is all but guaranteed. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Without getting too academic, it boils down to public vs. private networks. My support network is very public. And, like every network, not everyone following me or subscribed will be reading my tweets, watching the videos, or reading this blog.

It’s very possible (and very likely) that many of these candidates have a group of friends, family, and colleagues who will be diligently voting. This could be close.

Every. Vote. Counts.

(Photo Seen in Featured Content is from Flickr)

Disappointed with Davos?

I really thought I was going to be witnessing history with this YouTube/Davos partnership. What I feel we got instead was a missed opportunity.

I was kind expecting – or at least hoping – that when YouTube partnered with the World Economic Forum at Davos, they would be doing the same kind of thing that YouTube did with the Presidential debates. At the CNN YouTube Debates, the Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates were asked questions submitted by the YouTube community. The candidates would listen to the question and then respond. CNN even flew a few of those YouTubers down to the debates so that they would have an opportunity to make a follow-up question or comment. Even if the debate didn’t move beyond canned responses – at least there was citizen interaction.

That I believe was what was missing with YouTube and the Davos Question.

First, since those submitting videos were asked to keep their videos under 3 minutes, I kind of assumed that meant there would be a 10 to 30 minute screening of the best videos for world leaders to see. What happened instead, was that a handful of videos were cut into a two minute montage sequence. As you can see here, half of that montage sequence was devoted to restating the original Davos Question (“What can we do in 2008?”, “Hello Davos!”, “Wow, that’s a big question. Big big question”, etc.,.). The remaining minute was just a quick laundry list of requests and ideas (lower poverty! more renewable energy! invest in kids!). What could have been the opportunity for powerful ideas and discussions to emerge ended up looking more like a wish list to Santa Claus.

Second, just like regular YouTube users submitted their answer to the Davos Question, world leaders, celebrities, businessmen, and future youth leaders were able to record what they’re take was on the question. But, for the most part, this was nothing new. Bono, of course, asked us to support the Millennium Development Goals. The executive director for UNICEF made a similar plea. There were a few surprises of course. It was good to see youth leaders like Whitney and Juan there with some good ideas. I was a bit surprised that most important issue the Director of the American Center for Disease Control chose to raise was “Exercise!”. What was absent, however, was any evidence of interaction with the community.

I was really hoping that the world leaders at Davos would be watching some of the videos and then commenting and responding. Ideally, it would have been nice if these leaders would have gone back to YouTube later to check and see what the response to their videos were. They called this “The Davos Conversation” but it didn’t feel much different than watching an interview on TV. There were a few exceptions, the US Director of Education decided to voice her agreement to a video by a YouTuber pleading for greater investment in children. And Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, decided to respond to a question raised by a YouTuber about Google’s potential to help in electronic voting.

If The Uncultured Project has taught me anything it’s that, if you are not satisfied with the way things are being done – you have to offer your own solution instead of critiquing others. This is where the World Social Forum can come in….

Why can’t the World Social Forum take the same technology (YouTube) and use it to the full potential the the folks at Davos did not?