Experiences, Learning

Last Day

On my last day at work, I was handed a box. It was understood that by five fifteen the contents of my cluttered desk would be in it and my ten months working for Oxfam International would have come to an end.

I started with the paper tray which since the first day had slowly piled up giving visual evidence of the poor organisation the placement was supposed to cure. The stack was helpful, therefore, in giving a chronological journey through my time at Oxfam and an opportunity to reflect.

I found CONCORD Europe’s paper on policy coherence for development from my first week underneath posters I had designed for the European Development Days, where I saw celebrities from the development world debate the post-2015 agenda. I came across my press pass from the EU-Africa summit and mountains of media reactions, erratically scribbled on by my boss. It was only ten months, but everything seemed so long ago.

I remember in September I had been anxious. Unpaid internships, I had often been told, could range from the tortuous expectations of coffee runs and anti-social hours to the twiddling of thumbs waiting for the boss to pass down even the smallest menial task. I had been misguided.

At the age of twenty-two and new to the office environment, it would’ve been unreasonable for me to expect a large amount of trust from day one. It is because of this that, at times, I did feel underused. As my placement went on, however, it emerged that rather than being unappreciated, I was simply being lazy.

At the half-way point in February, I was effectively told that; if you can’t do the menial very well, you probably won’t be asked to do the more creative jobs. First lesson learned.

Around that point, my work load started changing. No long was I solely scribbling synonyms for press reactions or watching over the office’s social media. I was given more freedom on more traditional media work, penning a number of opinion pieces and blogposts. Policy advisors started asking for help with research on issues including tax justice and climate change. Work started to feel diverse and I actually started, well, learning something.

And the back drop to this was the ever-changing Brussels life. The bureaucracy which often bores the British started making sense and actually become quite exciting. Brussels, which presents itself as a mundane, very European political centre, started to seem like the centre of the world: Obama visited, as did the heads of state of almost every African nation. The world’s second largest elections were announced there and European diplomacy seemed to be based around its institutions. The work I was doing was directly entwined with this.

The pile of reports and papers was eventually placed in the box, which in turn is now stored, out of sight in my attic. Although hidden, they represent the most notable change that has occurred since September: knowledge. Corny, yes, but true.

I do not believe that Media & Communications is the best fit for me, but I believe work in development or the European Union (or both) is. Internships offer that opportunity.

The development world is intriguing, particularly large non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam. At times you may find yourself confused with internal politics; even I – the young, inexperienced intern – felt disenchanted with some of the issues they followed. But I have been lucky to work with passionate professionals who were always willing to debate my concerns. And now, I return to university to finish my degree with the a heightened feeling of good karma and a brain filled with opinions on Europe’s role in the developing world.


Getting Lost At The EU-Africa Summit

It is easy to forget that Brussels is the second most powerful city in the world. The smell of frites fill the air, policemen stroll down the streets puffing on cigarettes and tourists huddle around a statue of a tiny, peeing boy. It is an unkempt, slightly disorganised town, not quite the capital city home to the European Union, NATO and, of course, the Belgian government. Then Obama arrived, closely followed by Chinese Premier Xi Jingpao. A week later around sixty Heads of State from both Europe and Africa follow suit.

Within a matter of days, Brussels exploded into a flurry of policemen and barricades. No longer could you park, unticketed, five meters from the Commission building. Snipers lined the buildings outside of the Council and helicopters patrolled the skies day and night.

It was for the Fourth EU-Africa Summit that I had managed to slip out of Oxfam for a couple of days under the guise of a journalist working for the Europhilic online paper CaféBabel to cover this event. My first summit as an amateur journalist would be one which would bring together a bizarre mix democrats, kings, polygamists and bureaucrats in the name of “People, Prosperity and Peace”. This was an opportunity for the populists to say something outlandish, for the political nobodies to huddle with the elites and, at the end, extol a new era as “a partnership of equals”.

History has entwined the two continents, but despite Europe being by far the largest donor of foreign aid, the Summit arrived at a time of tension. Migration and failed trade talks represent two of the key disputes, as well as the older issue of human rights emerging with new crackdowns on LGBT communities. The EU refused to invite a representative from neither Western Sahara nor Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, contributing to Robert Mugabe’s boycotting of the event.

In the jungle of photographers at the VIP entrance, the president of Niger briefly stopped for the camera’s to say “Europe doesn’t care about Africa”.

Expecting further anti-colonial sentiments and heated table-thumping I  headed for the press zone where hundreds of journalists from the global media frantically typed on their computers and consumed copious amounts of coffee. I felt entirely lost, out of my depth. It quickly became apparent to me that, unless you are from high-brow media, you were doomed to watch from the sidelines. Despite frantic requests for interviews with anyone from the King of Swaziland to the President of Latvia, CaféBabel held no swing with their press officers.

My image of stumbling across a story quickly disappeared; this was a job for the BBC or AFP, not a blog with a readership entirely disinterested by African development. Instead, I saw this as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about a continent I know little more about than a few well-constructed Oxfam sound bites.

With this is mind, I wondered across a press briefing from Madagascar. Now this is a country I know nothing about. As I waited for the conference to start, I looked up a few things. Madagascar: unstable political structure, President who resembles Kim Jong-Un, national language French. The last point was disconcerting for me, but I stayed put. In came the President to a room of around seven journalists, surrounded by a few officers, and delivered his speech in a language I could not speak. He looked happy, so I smiled at him, but the other journalists – primarily from African press – were frowning, scribbling frantically on their pads. It later transpired that he was desperately trying to convince us that “rule of law” was being restored in his country.

Outside of the sporadic press conferences, the leaders spent most of their time huddled round conference tables reading statements on issues as broad as trade deals to gay rights, climate change to migration. Naturally my press credentials didn’t allow me access to this room, so like most of the journalists we sat in the press briefing room watching it on a big screen (without translation and streamed online). I think in my mind I imagined walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders, watching their discussions live; not on a TV next to a passed-out cameraman.

Disheartened, I went to a jargon-filled briefing on Europe’s imminent intervention in the Central African Republic; interesting, but uninspiring. I had no story, just a few quotes already broadcast and published online. With little to write about, I headed for the exit. But chance was on my side again as I stumbled in on another press conference; this time with Hollande and Merkel. It was genuinely exciting and the atmosphere was buzzing. It might be true that, for a first time journalist, a summit might not give much room for original thought, but as the two prominent heads of states entered the room, I realised that it didn’t matter. I was sitting in a room with some of media’s biggest European correspondents, watching the President of France and the Chancellor of Merkel deliver their vision on Africa’s future; it might not excite everyone, but it fascinated me.



Reddit & Why NGOs Need To Pay Attention To It

Originally published on Whydev

I interned in a communications department for an international NGO for a year. I spent a lot of  my time proof reading or frantically trying to get the website to work properly when my colleagues wanted to release a document or a report to the wider world.

In between these flurries of activity, I’d try to keep all the specialists working in their respective departments widely informed about what was going on in the news that could relate to our mission. It’s remarkable how much people can know about something completely obscure and have very little idea what’s going on in the news – the news that most people saw and talked about.

One day, my supervisor came over to me and presented me with a copy of the Financial Times. This conversation took place in 2012.

“Do you know about memes?”

“Um, yes?”

“I just read this article about internet memes. Very interesting.”


“You should read it. It’s this new way that people are sharing information online. Perhaps you could come up with one for us?”

Luckily, she walked away after delivering this task and forgot all about it. At the time, the idea of creating an Advice Animal for a legally focused human rights advocacy charity struck me as being particularly ridiculous.

Let’s leave aside the bastardisation of the term ‘meme‘ for now (stand down, internet pedants) and follow how something becomes popular/viral on the internet.

1) Some kind of content, usually an image, gets created and shared around a small but very active group of heavy internet users. 4chan is the typical starting point.

2) A larger aggregator/online community picks up on it and re-shares it. In the old days this was done by Digg, now it is usually done on Reddit.

3) All the heavy users normal people have in their Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr feeds re-share this new, hilarious or profound content to impress normal people.

4) A stuffy broadsheet newspaper does a half-hearted column on the phenomenon and it dies through overuse.

Why does this matter?

Around two weeks ago Ted Chaiban, Director of Emergency Programmes at UNICEF, did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit. Reddit is divided into subreddits that deal with specific types of content or subjects – AMA is a particularly large one and has had a wide variety of contributors such as Bill Gates, Louis CK, and even Barack Obama. People like Mr Chaiban go online for a few hours and respond to as many questions from the Reddit community as they can. Very simple.

The community itself is, by any measure, massive. At the time of writing there are 4,300,272 users registered to the AMA subreddit. Chaiban’s session generated 650 comments (including his 17 answers). Communications and advocacy people should be getting excited right about now. When is the last time, for example, an article about humanitarian aid generated more than 600 comments?

Take a look at some of these questions:

bumblebeesbummy: I’m thinking about donating through UNICEF but since this would be my first time donating internationally, I’m not very familiar with it. Could you tell me how much, say, $50 would translate to in terms of different kinds of aid that UNICEF will provide, for how many people and how long etc, so I can decide how much I would like to donate?”

ckellingc: What percent of all money donated goes directly to relief efforts? Whats the usual breakdown of funds (x percent to food, y percent to medicine)?”

flippityfloppityfloo: I have two questions for you regarding relief aid:

    1. What more can be done to stomp out fraudulent aid relief funds or “organizations” who seek to profit from horrific tragedy?
    2. Where do you see the future of aid relief heading? For example, do you expect more international cooperation, foresee organizational mergers, etc.

Please tell all of your employees how much their work is appreciated”

These are engaged, smart questions from people with a sense of some of the major issues with humanitarian aid. These are the sorts of questions mainstream journalists ask, not just some geeky online community. More than that, isn’t it incredibly useful to know what people are concerned with and thinking about regarding your work? The great thing about an AMA is it allows campaigners to directly engage with the very people they’re looking to get on board.

As mentioned above, Reddit is probably the online community most responsible for shaping online trends and virality. Comms departments, I am hoping you know the difference between ‘lurkers’ and ‘active users’ is (you really should) but here’s a brief explanation: lurkers are users who take from social networks and/or online communities without giving anything; active users typically give more than they consume. While Reddit is used by around 6% of American adults whereas Facebook (52.9%) or Twitter (15%) have much larger total audience, Reddit users are much more active than other communities. It’s that high activity level that makes Reddit users the gatekeepers of internet popularity.

Reddit users are more likely to click through to your campaign, to your story, to whatever content you are pushing than other social media sites. They want to find and promote the most interesting content on the web so will do more to seek it out. In terms of funneling traffic, this is a site that can easily beat out Facebook or Twitter. Which is a pretty big deal if you are trying to promote campaigns or ideas with a very limited budget, as most NGOs are. This blog has received over a third of its hits from Reddit. The next highest share is Facebook with ~5%.

As I’ve written about before, the sharing function of the modern internet is becoming increasingly important in shaping public actions. People want and expect to be a part of the process, to be communicated with on a more immediate level and to be able to get involved if they want to. There is no point in lamenting this fact; the third sector needs to engage with this new reality, just like the media are.

We cannot continue to either be ignorant of what people outside of the development bubble are engaging with or to allow that engagement to exist outside of development. So, the next time you want to spark attention of your work don’t bother with memes – ask them about Reddit.

Fresh look

The Sharing Doctrine: Why communication is vital for public institutions

This is a short paper I will be presenting at the Global Public Policy Network Conference in Tokyo in December. A couple of people have asked me to send it to them and I’m lazy so I thought I’d put it up on here.

Citizens exist in wider networks in which they are more connected than ever before. So far, government led initiatives to react to this new reality have been tokenistic and too focused on benefits related to communication strategies than serious improvements to public institutions. This reflects an unpopular cynical political reality that will have to adapt in the future: with that adaptation will come improvements and innovations to public institutions.

In response to the 2007 post-election turmoil in Kenya, a small team of bloggers and programmers put together a website to record and categorise eye-witness accounts of incidents of violence as well as mapping them online as a resource for other citizens. This website, Ushahidi (meaning ‘testimony’ in Kiswahili), was found to be more accurate and more timely than information supplied by both the traditional media and the government1.

This platform for responsive, open information has since been implemented in a number of crises around the world including the Haiti earthquake of 2010, the so-called Arab Spring on 2011 and during the Queensland floods in Australia in 2012. Ushahidi has received a huge amount of praise and shown itself to be adaptable to many situations.

The Open Government movement (OGM) has been growing in support since the advent of the networked age but, in particular, since 2008 when President Obama brought it to the mainstream by declaring his dedication “to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.2” The public will become included, relevant, vital in the policy process by giving them access to the pertinent data – that’s the ideal of Open Government.

Obama’s government in particular has come under massive scrutiny for which data it chooses to publish. Furthermore, the inclusion of the public into such matters leaves much to be desired – Obama’s administration has harboured an unprecedented hostility for whistleblowers and leaks of any kind, rather than openness.

They are not alone. Numerous other Governments that have preached the virtues of openness have since been embarrassed by revelations from civil society actors, the media and the public about hypocrisy on this matter. A look at the list of past and present member states of the Open Government Partnership (the global initiative that Obama’s administration helped to start with the aim to spread the mission of the OGM) has some high-profile cases: the UK, Brazil, South Africa, and Russia probably the biggest.

While the OGM has laudable theoretical foundations, the current wave is too government dominated. These ‘open governments’ only publish what they want to publish – ‘openness’ is defined primarily in terms of what these dominant actors perceive will benefit them, not the general public.

Trust in governments has fallen behind other major social institutions in recent years3. Business, the media and NGOs are now, more than ever, regarded as a safer bet by the general public. Any new framework for crisis response must take into account the high degree of scepticism that governments now face: government agencies are not necessarily regarded as the best choice to control these situations. While they might remain the best choice for now, this deep-seated mistrust will likely hamper crisis response in the future if it is not addressed.

The general public expects to be involved in processes now, in feedback mechanisms and in sharing. The promise of massive smart-web access has been bought into: the explosion of smartphone devices in both the developed and developing world is evidence of this. It is a phenomenon that government has yet to truly embrace: the sharing age of internet communication is a two-way street. The benefits of this paradigm are particularly clear in instances of disasters when public institutions are most likely out of position and outmatched – no institution can be prepared for everything.

The failings of the OGM to date are thrown into harsh relief by the relative success of IT start-ups like Ushahidi. The modern world is a networked society4 and citizens expect to be given full and prompt access to information in times of crisis. Given a well managed platform, citizens will collaborate in the face of adversity to try to guide crisis management. What they will not respond well to is governments withholding information in the wake of crises – the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake is an excellent example of withdrawn or manipulated information to the public backfiring5.

There will be situations in which withheld information has a clear benefit – as in ongoing terrorist attacks like the tragedy in Westgate Mall earlier this year. It is, in such cases, important to relay the reasoning of the managing public body as and when the situations arise. It is also vital not to allow governments to hide behind such reasons without proper scrutiny of these decisions after the danger has passed. The government must engage with technological advances and the related cultural changes in society to restore public trust in them.

Crisis management can be improved by establishing a foundation of meaningful openness. Borrowing techniques from the private sector or partnering with such experts as the team behind Ushahidi would be an excellent step. It is incredibly difficult to coordinate and manage resources during crises; it is even more difficult to do so when various groups of people are poorly or incorrectly informed. It is the role of public institutions to endeavour that this happens as little as possible.


1: Clay Shirky, 2011. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin: London

2: Barack Obama, 2009. Memorandum to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies: Transparency and Open Government. [Link: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment]

3: Edelman, 2013. Trust Barometer. [Link: http://www.edelman.com/insights/intellectual-property/trust-2013/]

4: Manuel Castells, 2009. Communication Power. Oxford University Press: Oxford

5: Norimitsu Onishi & Martin Fackler, New York Times, 2011. Japan Held Nuclear Data, eaving Evacuees in Peril. [Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/09/world/asia/09japan.html?pagewanted=all]