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?

Join the Conversation

Prasanna Lal Das
June 08, 2010

Brilliant, and I agree with much of what you say. 'Stream of consciousness' reporting may indeed be able to replace much of what passes for project reporting, or what takes the most time and people to do. It can't replace truly analytical work, but it'll hopefully finally create the time and opportunity for it.

June 08, 2010

Right! It is not too much asking to re-write the sustainable development context in a real debate where the people themselves can sculpt their own destinies and environment. In the aftermath of a disaster people are left alone -lonely- I think the next step of sustainable development would be to organize a stakeholder community with goal purpose the disaster sculpture with past and future sculptures, which is in the landscape. Hazard management (risks and issues) is a science, but also an art where technologies are contributing like the mobile phone cameras, GPS, the open field virtual classrooms using i-pads and google mapping in an excellent way and one more alternative to communicate in real time where the unknowns of unknowns, the unknowns of knowns are. Also, I think these grievances/criticisms made on the back of humanitarian organizations would run away like mice on the disaster ground, and more smile would come back.

Alberto Cottica
June 08, 2010

Actually, Giulio, aid workers may not even have that choice. The messiness is going to be videoed, geotagged, twitted and what-have-you'd. One day soon some kid is going to start comparing the master plans (downloaded from aid org's websites) with the reality, and then what? Just ask corporations caught out in the open by enraged customers with blogs and Twitter accounts.

All in all, if I were in that business I'd bin the logframes alright, and fast.

Giulio Quaggiotto
June 09, 2010

P.S. As I read yesterday`s article ( in the NYT on how the US military is using chatrooms to analyse live streams from the field and connect people and data real time, I could not help but think that it provides a glimpse of what the future of at least some development work might look like.

Prasanna: it goes very much to your point about freeing up time and resources for analysis.

Alberto: spot on. This might not be an option anymore, but a necessity to maintain credibility.

June 09, 2010

Great stuff. I'd love to see all of this come to fruition, but I fear that there will be a lot of resistance to the second of these within many development organizations.

There is a tension between "controlling the message", especially around sensitive topics with allowing open exchange of views from experts inside an organization who might disagree with their organization's official policies or positions. Even with disclaimers, opinions of internal experts will carry a lot of weight with external commenters. I think this is a good thing, but I'm pretty certain there will be many who do not. I'm not fully sure what the answer is to this one - possibly some combination of brave leadership, donor pressure and well thought out guidelines.

giulio quaggiotto
June 10, 2010

Ian, I agree - this won't happen overnight. On the other hand, as Alberto pointed out, isn't it just a matter of time before a smart NGO equips local communities with mobile phones and helps them tell their story about a project - which might be quite different from the corporate message? If even mighty corporations are struggling to control their message, perhaps development organisations will increasingly take notice. Your comment reminded me of what has quickly become one of my favourite social media quotes (below) from Stowe Boyd. Perhaps the problem with many organisations is that they are, at their heart, "antisocial" :-)

"Most "social media" strategies have one or more of three goals: to "push product," "build buzz," or "engage consumers." None of these lives up to the Internet's promise of meaning. They're just slightly cleverer ways to sell more of the same old junk. But the great challenge of the 21st century is making stuff radically better in the first place — stuff that creates what I've been calling thicker value.

Organizations don't need "social media" strategies. They need social strategies: strategies that turn antisocial behavior on its head to maximize meaning. The right end of social tools is to help organizations stop being antisocial. In fact, it's the key to advantage in the 2010s and beyond.

Using the social to "build buzz" and "push product" is about as smart as using a warp drive to visit your local Wal-Mart. Social tools today are used mostly as a new "channel" to push the same old useless stuff of the industrial era at hapless "consumers." That's meaninglessness at it's finest. It's the least productive — and most soul-deadening — use of a formidably powerful tool.

Social media strategy fits inside a marketing (business, corporate) strategy, and is shaped by it. Social strategy fits outside business and corporate strategies, and shapes them."…

June 25, 2010

What are your thoughts on the discussions at the UNECA in Addis Ababa this week on science, technology and innovation? See for instance the comments by Dr. Umar Bindir, CEO of the National Office for the Acquisition of Technology (NOTAP) of Nigeria: “If we want to change our economies, there are no short cuts. You must apply science and technology to innovate and affect people’s lives,”…

Henk J.Th. van Stokkom
June 26, 2010

Thanks for a great post !

(Someone once told me the concept of logframes is about fifty years old and the world has changed since.....)

p.s. the link to the paper in the European Journal of Development Research is corrupt somehow......

Ryan Hahn
June 28, 2010


Thanks for letting me know about the bad hyperlink to the paper. It turns out that it is gated, so I redirected the hyperlink to the journal itself.

July 06, 2010

I think it is good to get update in development with these new technologies that work in real time and showing the suffering of the people. Still, I am not sure of speed of responsiveness. Technologies can reduce these lead-times between detections and perceptions and act as early warning. Still, need to be improve the responsivenss of emrgency actions with more innovation and new thinking. Buffer zones help greatly in the development process and the globalization and also money transfer.

Fredrik eriksson
September 14, 2010

Could not agree more with what you suggest, Giulio. It is a very uncomfortable feeling to work with issues of genuine interest and concern, and then realise that there is a glass ceiling for to what level we can bring a candid discussion around the conditions to deliver. It goes to the very heart of what is needed for constant improvement; a constant doubt of status quo and always to strive for what is better, irrespective of whether that might lead to uncomfortable paradigm shifts.

As Ian rightly mentions, there are organisational barriers that prevent us from moving towards the 3 useful steps you propose. It will take visionary and courageous leadership to be willing to ask the hard questions in public, while admitting to the systematic weaknesses of measuring effects and to the context specific data that underlie most of the development theories. Let's hope that "what is really happening" does get exposed sooner rather than later.

Henk J.Th. van Stokkom
June 26, 2010

Thanks for a great post !

(Someone once told me the concept of logframes is about fifty years old and the world has changed since.....)

p.s. the link to the paper in the European Journal of Development Research is corrupt somehow......