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How Come the Poor Can’t Video Blog? Thoughts on the Digital Divide

This year I’ve been talking a lot about the “Digital Divide”. But what is that? And why does it matter?

The “Digital Divide” is basically a term to describe the technological gap which prevents the poorest of the world’s poor from participating in global online conversations that are occurring on the internet.

This is important because what we are doing on the internet is starting to have the power to shape our politics, our governments, our economies, and our own personal priorities, opinions, and tastes.

If the poorest of the poor are excluded from these global conversations, we can only use the internet to make a difference for the poor instead of using the internet to make a difference with the poor.

Aid bloggers sometimes deride photos like this one as "development and technology porn". From personal experience, villagers would rather you take their photos showing them fascinated at being connected than photos selected to show them crying, emaciated, and with flies on their faces. As I've written about before, what matters the most is making sure people are portrayed as they wish to be portrayed.

This is no more clear and apparent when it comes to international aid and development. Everyone from activists, aid professionals, and aid pundits are shaping how the poorest of the poor are served.

These aid discussions – ranging from polite and professional to snarky and snide – are shaping policies and practices on what is (and isn’t) “good aid”. But, due to the digital divide, the poor don’t have a say in this online discourse.

Although I’m no aid expert, I believe there are three things that are needed for the poorest of the poor to be brought into global conversations that directly affect them:

  1. Charity can’t solve this problem alone: The infrastructure needed to connect low income and remote communities must be laid by either governments or (more realistically) for-profit companies. Similarly, devices that can plug into this infrastructure (like cellphones and low cost PCs) need to be made more affordable. This isn’t about dumping stuff on the poor, but rather making it a viable consumer choice.
  2. There needs to be an incentive to get connected: Charities and NGOs will need to be a big part of this by giving developing communities a greater say and control in how they receive assistance. I believe using technology to connect donors and recipients together will go a long way to make this less about aid from an institution and more about people on opposite sides of the digital divide helping each other. Why does that even matter? As I’ve talked about before, the distinction between institutions and people can be important in many cultures and contexts.
  3. Giving an IP address isn’t enough: Just because someone can participate in a global online conversation, doesn’t mean they will. For example, I’ve already written about how conservative Muslims in developing countries will most likely avoid online aid blogger discussions. This is because the snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks occasionally thrown around in that space directly contradict some interpretations on Islamic Codes of Conduct. I believe digital intermediaries – or bridge-makers – can go a long way to foster conversations (and impacts) that are inclusive and free of unintentional ethnocentrism.

This is basically what talked about when I – thanks to you guys – got the opportunity to go to the World Economic Forum. It’s also something I continually talk about whenever I get the chance.

For example, with the United Nations running a contest to select a set of UN Citizen Ambassadors, I submitted this video talking about the need to bridge the digital divide:

And, while attending the United Nations Foundations’ Social Good Summit, I was asked by Ericsson to pose a question starting with “How Come?”. It was for this campaign they are running. I decided to ask “How Come the Poor Can’t Video Blog?”:

The bottom-line (and perhaps a plus): once the poor start speaking for themselves and we start using the internet to make a difference with them instead of for them, the sooner people like me will have to shut up 🙂

The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism

Hartel (Strike) in Bangladesh

With less than a month before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, violence, protests, and strikes have erupted in Bangladesh. Much of this is fueled by an Islamic political party called Jamaat-e-Islami. This is a political party that exists both in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Their goal? To advance the Islamization of Muslim countries (with the goal of ultimately ruling by Sharia Law).

When acts of violence and religious extremism occur in a far-away country, we usually don’t think of it as having anything to do with the charities we donate to, how NGOs operate in these countries, or how the attitudes and approaches of aid workers affect these issues. But the two are closely interlinked.

What surprises me the most is that aid workers are often the ones least willing to admit that such a connection exists at all. The impression I get from many of my friends and colleagues in the humanitarian sector, is that many see themselves as Starfleet officers operating on their own version of Gene Roddenberry’s Prime Directive.

Unfortunately, while there is a great deal of nobility, selflessness, and self-sacrifice in the aid industry, the notion that one can provide humanitarian aid and development while being impartial and above the fray of local conflicts is science fiction.

Continue reading ‘The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism’

From Riots to Aid: The Impact of the Social Lens

Nathan Kotylak - Water Polo All Star

Meet Nathan Kotylak. A few weeks ago Nathan was a rising star. He was the best water polo player in his school, he was training with the Canadian national water polo team, he earned a scholarship to one of Canada’s best universities, and he was on track to be one of Canada’s Olympic athletes in a few years time.

But that all changed in about the time it takes to make a tweet.

Continue reading ‘From Riots to Aid: The Impact of the Social Lens’

Negative Attitudes to NGOs in Bangladesh

Earlier today, Shahnur Alom (a 25 year old Bangladeshi) wrote me this:

Fuck you Shawn, and fuck those chinky basterds you’ve come to help and molest during the night (that’s what aid workers do around the world in the name of charity). you dirty mother fucking Americans can fuck off from our land and suck some Jewish Israeli cocks.

To a Westerner, this guy is just a troll and a hater. However, to a Bangladeshi, this is an attitude which is sadly quite commonplace in Bangladesh. It’s attitudes like this which have made it difficult for NGOs to exist in Bangladesh, for aid workers to do work, and for potential donors to trust whom to give money to.

Anti-NGO attitudes are even worse if you're perceived as being a Christian NGO. Sadly, level of education does not change negative perceptions. The above comment was sent to me be a Bangladeshi whom I discovered had studied at the London School of Economics.

This is why I do things the way that I do. When I’m in Bangladesh, in virtually every village, I end up having to emphasize three things. And only by emphasizing these three things do I avoid sentiments and attitudes like those from people like Shahnur:

  • I have to emphasize that I am not an NGO. What I’m doing is as just a guy.
  • I have to emphasize that I have blood ties to Bangladesh.
  • I have to prove and emphasize that I respect Islam.

With a population of over 150 million people, Bangladesh is by no means a country of uniform consensus. But, prevalent negative attitudes and perceptions towards NGOs and aid workers is something I feel has been under-reported, insufficiently documented, and poorly-studied.

"Elite Perceptions on Poverty in Bangladesh" by Naomi Hossain is one of the few academic pieces that delve into Bangladeshi attitudes towards NGOs and poverty. However, it focuses primarily on Bangladesh elites. Many anti-NGO attitudes, I have discovered, are prevalent amongst all social classes in Bangladesh.

Granted, there has been one notable study on Bangladeshi elite perceptions on NGOs and poverty. And, on a rare occasion, a non-Bangladeshi aid blogger traveling in Bangladesh will encounter this and blog about it. But the majority of aid & development professionals and scholars don’t focus on this.

This is because, at least of late, there is a focus on quantitative data and a dismissal of anything else as “anecdotes”. But, as any anthropologist will tell you, not all knowledge and insight can be gained from a quantitative approach. Sometimes a small, individual, and ethnographic approach is needed.

A blogger interviews a director (pictured above) from "Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society (AMRF)" in Dhaka. In this interview the AMRF director says that "Aid is an industry... and it's not the poor people who profit.", "NGO is the main impediment to development", "NGO jobs depend on perpetuating poverty," and "When I see an NGO with very good paperwork about all the amazing work they are doing, I know they are a fraud." Not even including the years I've been doing this project, I can attest these are VERY common beliefs in Bangladesh.

I don’t believe the solution to this is for NGOs to go away and for aid and development to be done just by individuals. But I do believe that NGOs and charities can benefit from independent individuals who work alongside NGOs as “bridge-makers”. I’ve already talked about how I try and do this.

In fact, everything I’ve done: from not incorporating, to not using donations to give myself a salary to stipend, to raising funds for overhead separately, to saying no to lucrative job offers with UN agencies and NGOs, and to leveraging technology to directly connect donors and villagers has been with this goal in mind.

These two village women have been trained by Save the Children to be village health workers. I, as an individual and not an NGO employee, collaborated with Save the Children to make sure these health workers have stipends. In addition to some paperwork, everything was captured on video and photos. Donors and villagers both know exactly where the money came from and exactly where it went. Save the Children also got double the administrative and overhead funds it requested thanks to donors who donated specifically for that (which was collected separately from donations designated to help the poor). By the end of 2011, these two women will have helped an estimated 300 to 400 kids - almost all of them Muslim. This was part of a larger project I did with Save the Children that will ultimately help over 10,000 children in Southern Bangladesh. Oh, and the specific donations helping these two village health workers came from the Jewish community in Haifa, Israel. If this causes cognitive dissonance for people like Shahnur Alom than everything is going according to plan.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

If you’re familiar with the YouTube community, you probably already know Craig (aka WheezyWaiter). If not, I strongly urge you to check out his channel and subscribe. Craig recently made a video talking about the difference between empathy and sympathy.

I’m mentioning this video on this blog because the difference between sympathy and empathy is something I’ve talked about a lot – albeit mostly offline with friends – when I talk about changing the conversation on global poverty.

You see, one of the things that inspired me to start this project is that I hated how charities were (and sometimes still are) talking about global poverty. You’ve probably all seen the ads: it usually features black and white images of emaciated crying children with an ominous voice saying how you can save their lives for just $2 a day.

Screenshot from a child-sponsorship charity TV advertisement that airs here in Canada. Ads like this are sympathy-based marketing. We're provoked into donating because we feel pity for what we see - not because we relate to what we see.

The problem with this kind of messaging is that it reduces the poor to a “them” or to objects which we pity. More importantly, as we become a more connected and globalized society, many of the poor are becoming aware of how their images are being used abroad and do not want to be portrayed in such a manner.

And bottom line, if we get inundated with guilt-based messaging, it only becomes a matter of time until we tune out the whole issue of global poverty. Guilt-based messaging does a disservice both to the individuals whose images they use and the overall goal of ending extreme global poverty.

Empathy-based messaging tries to portray the depth, complexity, and humanity of those in need. It often skews towards positive and happy imagery because, as a nature of the human condition, we are able to better empathize with someone's joy than someone's pain.

Moving to empathy-based messaging is the first step to trying to understand the complexity of ending extreme global poverty. But, to paraphrase John Green, we are limited by our own experiences and the lives we were born into. This limits how fully and how complexly we can imagine those who are different from us.

But just because we have limits to empathizing what it’s like to be from a different culture, ethnicity, or religion doesn’t mean we shouldn’t constantly be striving to imagine people complexly. And this is where I think the next step (beyond empathy-based messaging) comes in. There can be bridge-makers (or “free agents”) who can help foster greater mutual understanding and empathy.

But that’s a blog post for another day.

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.

How I Use Social Media & My Ethnicity to Help the Poor

Young Mother Stands with Her Child after Cyclone Aila Hit

Let me introduce you to this young mother I met in Galachipa, Bangladesh. This photo was taken just after Cyclone Aila – you can see that part of her house’s wall is missing. Trust me, I don’t bring this up as a downer.

After I met her, I explained to her what I was doing: that I’m not a charity official or employee – I’m just a guy. And, with my camera and camcorder, she could send a message to all my friends around the world.

I asked her: what does she want people outside of Bangladesh to know? What single message would be the most important to send? After I heard what she had to say, I knew I could never release the message.

She made a message with the names of specific individuals and groups who she felt were mishandling people’s donations. She urged people not to donate through these methods – because it would never reach her.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. And I mention this because of a blog post written by a friend and aid worker whom I have a great deal of respect for.

While I agree with much of what he said, this one passage sticks out the most:

I want to just remind folks of the risks of observer bias- that being that when you rock up to Village X with a notepad, or a camera, your very presence affects the answers that will be given. Community members may lack resources, and even education, but they’re not stupid. When a donor representative like myself or Shawn asks them a question, they will always give the answer that makes it most likely that they will receive more funds. If they turn around and complain about the quality of aid, they know there’s a risk that the donors in question may write off the village as a failed project and move on. Big smiles and thank-yous are far more likely to make a donor feel good and give more- and they know this.

I mention this because, for me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Click the jump to find out why.

Continue reading ‘How I Use Social Media & My Ethnicity to Help the Poor’