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.