Archive for the 'Technology' Category

We Speak For Ourselves

When it comes to international aid and development, we are all biased. It doesn’t matter if you’re a donor reading pamphlets, a celebrity or YouTuber endorsing your favorite NGO, a journalist interviewing villagers, an academic outside of the ivory tower, an experienced aid professional talking about “good aid”, or even a free agent trying to be a bridge-maker.

There is nothing nefarious about this fact. We as human beings, while capable of untold capacities for empathy, will never have a complete verstehen and fully imagine the complexity of others. This is important because the arbiters of what is and is not “good aid” and what does and does not “harm the poor” must be the ones whom international aid is meant to serve.

This latest video, which among other things shows a project I did in collaboration with Save the Children, is my attempt to bring the poor one step closer to being able to speak for themselves. This is by no means the pinnacle of the kind of global voice I think the poorest of the poor should have. Rather, I see this as merely Step 4 out of a 5 Step Program.

This video also connects with a lot of things I’ve talked about on this blog – from mistrust of NGOs in Bangladesh, to raising overhead separately, to Islamic POVs on aid (which partly influences why many Bangladeshis talk about overhead), to the need for the poor to be more digitally and globally connected, to explaining the significance of the woman (near the end of the video) blessing the donors.

If you’re new to my work then I should point out this isn’t about raising as much money as possible. If you want to donate, I strongly suggest you consider donating to Save the Children instead of me. My goal has always been just to change the conversation on global poverty – that means less guilt, pushing for diversity, and letting the poor speak for themselves.

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.

There Is No “Them”

I don’t know what this means but, despite being inspired by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs (author of “The End of Poverty”), I sometimes find myself also agreeing with Dr. William Easterly (author of the book critical of foreign aid called “The White Man’s Burden”).

Today was one of those days:

What Dr. Easterly is referring to is the fact that, even if you had the power to control billions of aid dollars, this really can’t be about what “we” (in the developed world) can do to help “them” (those in the developing world).

But here is where I believe we need to change the conversation – and the thinking – on global poverty. When it comes to humanity, there is no “them” there are only facets of “us”. So we don’t have to help “them”, we have to help “us”.

And we can only help “us” if we understand “us” and talk to “us” and not second guess what will help “us”. This, of course, is what any good charity or NGO says they are already doing. But I believe we can do much more on this front.

For example, take the very medium in which Dr. Easterly is espousing his views on aid. Even if “we” derive an online consensus on what is and isn’t “good aid”, it is a consensus made without the inclusion of the poorest of the poor.

If the poor don’t even have a say in a “free and open” platform like the internet, what chance do they have of having a strong say anywhere else? In the classrooms of Western universities? In NGO boardrooms? In government?

“What can we do?” is really the only question that needs to be asked – but only if “we” is redefined.

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 🙂

My #SocialGood Favorite of Day 1

Day One of the Social Good Summit was pretty awesome. From an awesome talk by Ted Turner which left the crowd laughing and nodding their heads, to thoughtful talks by people from USAID and the State Department.

But, I’d have to say my favorite was seeing Scott Harrison on stage. If you’ve been following my work for a while this probably comes as no surprise. I’ve been a fan of Charity: Water for a while now.

Charity: Water works on a very different model than most NGOs. They track where every dollar goes so you know exactly what you funded and, unless you specifically ask to do so, they will never use your donation to pay for their salaries or marketing overhead.

I had a chance to sit down with Scott 1-on-1 and ask him about his model, how they have quantitative data that shows their work has made an impact, and how raising overhead separately still means that good aid and development costs money to be done right.

Diversity Through Networking

Anytime I get a Skype Video Call, I kind of marvel at how the world has changed. Think about it: if you’re like me you grew up with Star Trek (for me, it was TNG), the idea of being able to have a video call with someone was really sci-fi. Now so many of us do it everyday.

Spock Video Call

The very first pilot of Star Trek (which didn

A few days back, I got a Skype Video Call from Sweden. It was from the head office of Ericsson – a global telecommunications company with over $30 billion dollars in revenue last year. By the time that call ended, I was left wondering at how the world has changed – but for different reasons.

Ericsson has given me a scholarship to come the United Nations Foundation’s Social Good Summit here in NYC. I’m here to attend the events as a VIP, listen to the speakers, and share my experiences as much as I can with you guys. Some of what I share will be posted on Ericsson’s official website.

Something like this would never have happened when my dad was my age. Back then, corporations (especially multi-billion dollar ones) would carefully craft, control, and curate their corporate message. Giving such control to a non-employee was corporate heresy back then. And, as you can see below, this kind of control didn’t always bring diversity into a corporation’s message:

But here I am. I wasn’t asked to tell you how great the company is – after all, they can’t fire me if they don’t like what I say. And they don’t care that I use an iPhone and that none of my friends own a Sony Ericsson phone – in fact, as I have learned, most of their business has nothing to do with making products for consumers like you and I to buy.

I’ve talked about how this is happening – albeit much more cautiously – in the non-profit world. Experts like Beth Kanter like to call this the “Networked Nonprofit”. But it turns out, for-profit corporations have been already doing this for a while. After all, with technology and social media, an individual’s voice can sometimes be louder than an institution’s.

I believe when it comes to solving some of the world’s most difficult problems – we need to imagine these problems complexly. And to imagine something complexly we need to have a diversity in conversation. That diversity means individuals, institutions (including NGOs), and international corporations have to work together, network together, and – hopefully – solve things together.

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’