Commentary

Newsflash: Non-Profits Are Not Impartial

This piece was originally written for my column about transparency and the media on Beacon Reader

The notion of editorial impartiality can be a very seductive failing.

The rise of data-driven explainer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight has heralded a resurgence of this ‘view from nowhere’, an insistence on editorial ‘impartiality’ that, at best, leads to imbalanced reporting and, at worst, is used to obscure the actual editorial line from the public. Either way, it is a widely derided practice within journalism for a number of reasons. For the purpose of this piece I will focus on one of the core problems — as a public communicator, is it ever ethical to obscure your subjectivity?

“If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.” Jay Rosen

The ethical issue, in journalism, centres around deciding what exactly a media organisation is supposed to be doing. On the face of it ‘informing the public’ would be a clear, understandable, boilerplate answer. But does that mean informing the public about everybody’s views, regardless of context, or indicating which way the wind is blowing on various issues?

To do the latter is to be accused of subjectivity, a dreaded insult for reporters. But what is actually more useful for the public?

Objectivity is something to strive for in the news business. To abandon it completely is to abandon your purpose of informing the public. On the other hand, to replace editorial understanding, nuance and instinct with ‘pure’ objectivity is another abandonment — of the truth.

Here’s the secret: nobody is objective. To suggest that your editorial line is totally impartial is fundamentally a lie. Every individual has prejudices and opinions informed by their specific life. You cannot truly step outside of yourself and deliver totally impartial reflections on anything. You can try and fail, that is all.

Unless you own the fact that you are aiming for and missing true objectivity, you are misrepresenting your organisation and the content it produces to the public.

There’s nothing ethical about that.

Changes in non-profit communication

A long-standing interest of mine is the interactions between non-profits, media organisations and government bodies (particularly on the issue of transparency). Usually, my criticism is that these different sectors do not share enough when they could often benefit from closer collaboration. In the case of the view from nowhere, however, crossover simply exacerbates the problem.

A number of excellent articles in the international development blogosphere in the last few months have reflected a changing mood. Essentially, this is a sector that has relied on over-simplification and shocking imagery for the last few decades, an approach often derided as ‘poverty porn’. For many years, lots of people people have been very critical of this approach.

This current wave of backlash is extremely welcome and makes a number of crucial points, which include:

The author of that last piece, Dan Lombardi, makes a lot of points that I agree with but I was slightly troubled by his focus on communication that does not focus “solely on the positive or the negative”. In telling the story honestly, Lombardi suggests, you end up with more balanced content that is better able to deal with the inherent complexity of much of the work done in the development sector.

Undoubtedly, this complexity is there — from competing viewpoints to widespread ignorance of the subject matter (see: Ebola) to deep divisions within the industry on how best to achieve success, or even what success might look like. This is all tough stuff for outsiders, which is 99% of the potential audience. For me, his take on honest story telling does not take in another vital component — the storytellers themselves.

Non-profits aren’t impartial either

Development agencies communicate largely to raise either funds or awareness. They are not making content to inform the public. Non-profits have agendas just like everybody else.

The stated aim of most non-profits is to alleviate poverty in some form or another. It is not to make the public more knowledgeable (although that could align with their aim). In fact, their strategy could well be to make the public shocked enough to give money very quickly — hence poverty porn — or to tell the public that their relatively meagre support will make a huge difference — hence Live8 or Kony2012. Those aims are often better achieved by misinforming the public, by dumbing down the message to the point of dis-ingeniousness.

I don’t think that the Make Poverty History team actually thought that they would end poverty by getting people to buy wristbands. They just wanted maximum coverage and support and figured that’d be a fast way to get it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of the development bloggers are actively endorsing the view from nowhere. Embracing complexity and rejecting the classically paternalistic approach of development communication should be applauded. But there is a danger that this could lead to communication that seeks to hide the agenda of the NGOs and agencies creating it — all in the name of letting their beneficiaries take centre stage. This is the ethical dilemma that has faced journalism for many years.

For me, the stakes are much higher in the world of development: ultimately, development agencies seek to serve the poorest, most vulnerable people on earth. They have no way of combating the agendas of development organisations. If those organisations do not take ownership of their agendas and seek to communicate that, alongside their more nuanced telling of the stories of their work, they will have misrepresented their beneficiaries.

There’s nothing ethical about that, either.

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Experiences

Down & Out In Brussels

Last week I found myself making a rather difficult decision: do I buy a pack of cigarettes or do I instead invest it on a new scarf. It really was a ‘one or the other’ situation. My debit card had run dry and I had, for around twenty-four hours, just €7 to my name. I rationalised the situation in my head. Brussels is cold, and I scarf would alleviate that. But so do cigarettes, plus they give me the nicotine my body needs. It was a no-brainer.

Needless to say, my life in Brussels is far from glamorous. After work I return to a crowded house with a maggot-infested kitchen and tepid heating. I have moved from Sainsbury’s to Lidl and meticulously count pennies to pay for laundry. Much like university, everything is an investment, but without the student deals and ability to head home when you need a decent meal.

But Brussels is, for obvious reasons, an interns city, something which makes the feeling of relative poverty somewhat more bearable. You might not be able to afford that new pair of shoes you wanted, but there will always be someone else with even less than you.

You very quickly learn that ‘intern’ is a little more than just title, but an entire umbrella term which covers everything from the Twitter-savvy communications intern working at an NGO to the assistant of an MEP or Permanent Representative.

My house bears evidence of this. The dilapidated town house manages to squeeze in thirteen people. In the mix I find myself living with James, my British compatriot who works at Concord, an umbrella organisation of NGOs with whom my office works closely with, and Ana, a Portuguese girl whose agricultural lobbying group actively endorses biofuels, the product Oxfam spends a large amount of time campaigning against.

Naturally, the diversity of nationalities (my house alone has eight different ones) and range of jobs creates a very active intern culture which culminates every Thursday night for happy hour by the European Parliament.

Naturally, the event is a key opportunity for ‘networking’, one of the Brussels Bubble’s favourite words.

Upon first glance you can make key assertions as to what business people intern for. Suits with ties is emblematic of the private sector intern (almost always paid at least 800 euros a month), whilst slightly worse-fitting suits might represent the Brussels institutions. Then there are the NGO, think-tanks and small business interns, a significant minority within the city, wearing their shirts and jeans.

Rumours about the levels of debauchery these gatherings of interns can reach are far and wide, but I am yet to see it myself. Another intern in my office tells me the stories, but notes that – given the ambitious, dog-eat-dog world of interns – those who work in NGOs rarely find conversation with the expert networkers. “We stick to our own kind”, he said.

And so, come Thursday night, I find myself again with only loose change as I attempt to buy my half-priced beer. I watch as the private-sector lobbyists pull fifty-euro notes out of their wallets, laughing with glee as they had out another business card. As you sip your beer, you might even frown a little and wonder why, as a development intern working for an NGO which makes a considerable impact on the world, you feel like the bottom of the heap.

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Commentary

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.”

“Really?”

“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.

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Commentary

Open Data In Development: Finding its feet

On October 28, the North-South Institute hosted the Ottawa event for Global Transparency Week. This was one of 18 high-profile events taking place around the globe focused on open data, transparency, accountability and good governance. For those who don’t know, open data for development is all about making information and data more freely available to encourage feedback, transparency, information sharing, and most importantly accountability.

Although its a relatively new phenomenon, I find the drive towards open data absolutely fascinating and feel it has the potential to revolutionize the development field. That being said, this movement also has the potential to culminate in a whole lot of nothing unless 1) we ensure the participation of all stakeholders and 2) there is a clearer articulation of the desired outcomes, and how increased transparency will lead to accountability.

During the event, the panelists discussed the importance of open data and transparency in relation to Canada’s development objectives, the changing open government narrative, challenges in delivering on transparency, and lessons learned from the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) experience. The IATI Standard is a publishing framework that was developed following the 2008 High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra, Ghana. It is a multi-stakeholder initiative that has become the standard to which donors, developing country governments and NGOs are supposed to publish information on their aid spending and activities.

It is important to note that successfully publishing to the IATI standard requires a huge commitment on the part of donors and NGOs. They are required to meet a very extensive set of criteria which at the bare minimum requires publishing on aid activities in a timely manner, and in a variety of useful formats that can be easily accessed, compared and utilized.

While this may sound like a simple feat, if you actually take a look at an IATI data file you will quickly discover that it is not.

Organizations are also required to report on a number of ‘value added’ fields including project documents, impact assessments, and precise geographic information. Providing a diverse assortment of data is a necessary component of the IATI standard, as it is crucial to respond to the needs and interests of different data users.

However, as mentioned previously, two things need to happen if we really want to see the see the concrete benefits of publishing to the IATI standard. Firstly, while many donors have committed to becoming IATI compliant, there are still many development agencies, NGOs, and CSOs that have failed to follow suit. The irony is that these were the very organizations that campaigned for the government to commit to IATI in the first place. In order to see the transformative benefits of aid transparency in both developed and developing countries, all development organizations that are receiving funding from the government, providing aid, or conducting projects in developing countries should also be publishing to the IATI standard.

The hesitation of many small NGOs and CSOs is warranted. With minimal budgets and limited IT capacity these organizations question the feasibility of publishing to IATI and feel as though they are on an unequal playing field. Despite this, there are ways for NGOs and CSOs circumvent these roadblocks, and take on the IATI commitment without taking on excessive risk. Donor agencies can follow the example set by the UK in which all NGOs and CSOs receiving public resources are mandated to comply with the IATI standard, but are also provided with technical support as well as additional funding to help cover the costs involved.

The second area for concern, and in my opinion the most pressing, is the need to unpack what we mean by “transparency” (i.e. transparency to whom, to what end); and how transparency leads to “accountability”. One of the panelists expressed fear that when donors limit their focus to increasing the quality and quantity of their aid data, they risk getting caught up in the disclosure of information and losing sight of what is really important about that information.

Donors need to move away from focusing exclusively on transparency, and towards increased accountability both at home and abroad.

There should be more of an effort to evaluate whether IATI and other open data initiatives are realizing the ultimate goal of better coordinated aid, improved resource allocation, and greater participation and empowerment of citizens in developing countries who are the ultimate beneficiaries of these efforts. In this respect, there is little evidence whether these investments are having the desired impacts.

There is much work that needs to be done to generate a clearer picture of how open aid data will interface with state and citizen actors to bring about this desired accountability. One thing we know for certain is that there is considerable traction surrounding open data [Ed: particularly within governments], which is at an important starting point. Hopefully these concerns will be properly addressed so that we can achieve the ultimate goals of aid transparency; harmonization and co-ordination between donors, and real partnerships with recipient countries.

For more highlights from the event, be sure to check out the full report – available here

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