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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:

How to Vote for Me in the Davos Debates

My friend Karen made this great video explaining how you can vote for me in the Davos Debates. There is less than 10 hours to go and I’m currently 70 votes behind the leader:

And my friend Reese made this great graphic showing how you can vote:

Just in-case the graphic is a bit confusing:

  1. Go to YouTube.com/Davos
  2. Make sure you are logged into YouTube. Created an account if you don’t already have one.
  3. Scroll down and look for my video. It looks like this. You may need to sort by popularity if it’s not already visible.
  4. Click the thumbs up.
  5. You’re done 🙂

As a few of you who have been following my journey for a while may know, this my fourth attempt in four years to have a presence at Davos. In the past I’ve been lucky to have the most vocal and most democratic support – though in the past the selection process hasn’t always been vote-based and/or voting specifically within the YouTube community.

Voting ends 6:01 pm EST today. I’m currently a few dozen votes behind the most voted candidate who is running on a “a vote for me is a vote for my homeland of Lithuania”-style campaign. It’s hard to compete with that so I’ll definitely be praying for a miracle and hope you consider casting a vote my way.

Revised Davos Voting Instructions

Davos vote arrows

Based upon popular request, here are the revised (and simpler) voting instructions on how to get me to Davos to talk to world leaders about global poverty:

  1. Go to YouTube.com/Davos
  2. Click the button you see that says “Vote”.
  3. Select my video called “A Message to Davos”.
  4. When the video starts playing and you see me talking, click the green thumbs-up button underneath the video.
  5. When the red thumbs down button turns grey, your vote has been recorded in the server.
  6. You can repeat this every single day until the 15th.

You do not need to sign-up for anything or give your personal information to YouTube or the World Economic Forum.

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.