Rewriting the script for aid and development

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“Are aid workers living a lie?” asks Duncan Green over at Oxfam in a provocative blog post. Summarising the points from a paper in the European Journal of Development Research (gated), he hones in on “the dissonance” between what aid workers actually do and what they report they do. The Soviet-style idealism of strategic plans on the one hand, and the messy reality of development work, on the other:

At their best, aid workers surf the unpredictable realities of national politics, spotting opportunities, supporting interesting new initiatives, acting like entrepreneurs or searchers, rather than planners. But when they report back to their bosses, out come the logframes and strategic plans, as messy reality is shoehorned back into the substantialist fantasies of the machine.

Does this “cognitive dissonance” matter? The machine doesn’t seem to think so. “No official aid agency has been prepared to undertake a study that aims to learn about their staff’s everyday practices – what they are doing, as distinct from what they report they are doing – and their effects."

And here comes the money quote:

"What would happen if the aid industry...binned its logframes?

Just as glasnost brought about the fall of the Soviet Union, so might an admission of what is really happening in international aid result in its dismantlement with Northern taxpayers refusing to buy into such a contingent and messy process.”

Let’s dwell on this scenario for a moment. I would argue that the potential threat of exposing “what is really happening” is actually a major opportunity for forward-thinking development organizations to use social media to rewrite the “script” for development and engage with their constituencies in a much more mature dialogue about the nature of development work. Out with the pictures of cute animals to support fundraising campaigns, in with real-time online diaries from the field talking about the challenges of providing poachers with alternative sources of income – warts and all.

Below are 3 areas where I think social media can play a major role in addressing the “dissonance” between idealism and practice in development:

  1. Document the messiness of the daily reality of development work and, most importantly, help make sense of its complexity. The disaster response to Haiti has already become a textbook example in this respect. SMS, blog posts, sensors, GIS data – all of these tools (and more) are dramatically reducing the transaction costs of documenting development work and its “information shadow”. Coupled with data processing and pattern analysis capabilities, the potential is enormous. Think about projects as diverse as MapKibera’s slum mapping, the Guardian’s Katine,  FINO’s solution for banking agents management or the African Soil Information System. And isn’t it only a matter of time before we get the development equivalent of the SenseCam project?.
  2. Move away from the pretence of having a monolithic voice and open up the internal debate that is bound to surround complex issues such as, say, demographics control or corruption. Mature organizations have realized that letting the world know that they have healthy internal debates is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Just to stay close to home, here’s my favourite quote from the Bank’s social media strategy:

    Emerging web technologies are providing increased opportunities to have direct conversations with the online community as well as explore options in transmedia storytelling — allowing the World Bank to communicate not as a monolithic organization, but as a group of talented and experienced individuals in an institution that is open, aware, and engaged.

  3. Rewrite the script of development work. Armed with live “streams of consciousness” from the field, as it were, thanks to social media, development organizations now have an incredible opportunity to tell the story of the “practice” (rather than the theory) of development. Rather than undertaking a specific study of everyday practices as suggested in the EJDR report, why not arm communities and field staff with tools that facilitate real simple reporting and concentrate your efforts on developing new business models accordingly?

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