Uncategorized

We Want You!

Development Intern is now 18 months on from its first ever post, reblogged from a wordpress site I started so I could vent my frustrations somewhere away from the office.

I really enjoyed blogging. I loved trying to write my way through issues I was grappling with at work – both professional and theoretical. I liked discovering and engaging with the amazing development blogosphere. I liked getting recognition for my thoughts and having people respond to what I said – a massive departure from the relative anonymity of a long-term intern.

But I couldn’t keep it up.

Successful blogs need to be updated regularly and I just didn’t have the energy or, frankly, the inspiration to keep churning out three pieces a week. My blog wound down. Other (much better and more popular) development blogs closed down as well: Think Africa Press, Kariobangi, even the mighty Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. Too often, the burden of keeping such sites going is concentrated on one person and it gets to be too much.

So why not get other people involved? I had figured out the tricky back-end business of putting together a website and built a modest audience. I realised I could

With a relatively stable bunch of regular writers, we’ve put out close to 100 posts in that time. A lot of them I think are genuinely great blog posts which I often refer back to in my academic and professional life. 18 months is actually relatively long lived for a development blog. But things inevitably start to slow down. People lose interest or get distracted by work/university or run out of things to write about or get poached by thieving Australians running a different website*….

But I don’t want this site to run down. How can I stop that? By inviting more people to get involved!

Running this site has shown me that a) there are some amazing voices out there that deserve a platform (probably a better one) that I can give them and b) having more people involved means you cover more diverse topics and gather different points of view. Of course I should get more people on board.

Join us here!

This was previously our internal writers group. We post ideas for blog posts, discuss articles and generally help each other out. Now, I’m inviting you guys to join. I will continue to act as editor and site manager, helping you craft your messages and promoting them as best I can. I will also regularly post ideas for articles anybody can write.

This is blogging made easy. Here’s to another 18 months with you guys.

___

*Obviously, I’m super proud of Jennifer becoming editor at WhyDev and only very occasionally curse out Brendan and Weh.

Standard
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.

Standard
Advice

Nine Tips For Using Twitter To Tap Into The #Globaldev Community

If you were to ask me what my most useful resource during a three-year undergraduate development studies degree has been, I think the answer might surprise you: Twitter. Although I initially joined Twitter so that I could join in on my housemates’ banter about cupcakes and Ryan Gosling (don’t judge), I quickly found Twitter to be an invaluable professional and career development resource. I decided to leave the Ryan Gosling banter to Facebook, the pictures of cupcakes to Instagram, and came to see Twitter as a ‘rolling online CV’.

Through Twitter I have been approached and invited to a coffee meeting to discuss a new business venture; I’ve been been recruited for freelance work at a national newspaper; and I’ve been sent a film that I went on to screen at my university. My housemate (also a development student) even connected to a journalist at the Guardian through Twitter, and was interviewed for an article that was published on the website. While I am by no means a social media expert, I thought I would share here some top tips on getting the most out of the Twittersphere.

  1. Get your profile right: It needs to include the serious stuff (such as your current degree or place of work etc.), but don’t forget to make yourself sound human (put in one of your other interests or a quirky fact about yourself). See examples here.
  2. Don’t just retweet: It’s important to inject some of your own voice into your Twitter feed, so don’t just rely on retweets or on tweeting out links or article headlines (although obviously do that too) – aim for something like 70% pure retweets, 30% tweets that you have either written yourself or altered.
  3. Live-tweet: For me, the best way to interact with people or to gain followers has been to live-tweet from events, conferences, talks and panel discussions. Jump on the event hashtag, tweet some of the best things the speaker is saying, and make sure to interact with other people who are tweeting from the event.
  4. Research hashtags: Make sure you only use hashtags that you know other people are already using. Don’t go making up bespoke hashtags à la Instagram (#yolo #internlife #unayyy). Before using a hashtag, click on its feed to make sure it’s active – basically, you want to make sure it’s worth using some of your precious 140 characters on. Talking of hashtags, the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network (@GuardianGDP) tweet out a daily hashtag (#hashtagoftheday), which is always worth checking out. Another important point is to limit how many you use – more than five hashtags significantly decreases the likelihood of someone interacting (clicking on, favouriting or sharing) with your tweet.
  5. Watch what you Tweet: If you imagine your Twitter page as a rolling online CV, you automatically become more aware of what you allow on to your feed. There’s nothing wrong with Tweeting comments of a more personal nature (it makes you a more interesting person), but being too controversial or offensive is only going to draw attention to your feed for the wrong reasons.
  6. Follow academics: This one is probably a little biased given that I am technically still a student, but there are some academics who are very active on Twitter and who are well worth following (try @laurahammond and @chrisblattman for example). Of course, make sure to tailor this to your own area of interest so that the issues they are talking about, or the research they point you to, is relevant.
  7. Get favouriting! Twitter can often be an overwhelming space of information, so the ‘favourite’ button is a really useful tool. Use it to bookmark anything that you see that may be of interest or of use, but which you want to come back to later. When I’m writing essays or preparing for exams, I often stock up on these resources and then go back through them to find what might be most relevant. 
  8. Don’t be afraid to engage: Twitter is much like the real world – people like to interact, and they like to know your reactions and opinions on things! They also love a good complement. So if you’ve read, or seen something that you liked – post it on Twitter and say what you liked about it (making sure to mention the original source). Even if people don’t get back to you on it, they’ll likely appreciate you for making the effort to Tweet about it. Similarly if people post questions, or shout-outs, on Twitter – reply to them (but only with something useful). That’s how my housemate got interviewed by the Guardian, and how I ended up contributing to this blog!
  9. It’s another skill to add to the CV: Many entry-level jobs in development organisations are likely to be in PR or communications positions, and if you can showcase that you are an active user of Twitter you are automatically in a stronger position. If you think that your Twitter feed is a good reflection of you both as a person and as a potential employee (or let’s face it, intern), don’t be afraid to include the link on your CV. It will give people a unique insight into you – one that can’t be achieved on LinkedIn or on a two-page Word document.

If all of this seems like a lot of effort, I promise it tends to be worth it. For me, Twitter has been an equal playing field – despite being a lowly development undergraduate, Twitter has given me a platform to engage and interact with the development community and has brought my degree to life in a way that I don’t think other resources could have done. There are so many ways to get the most out of Twitter, and these 10 tips are just the beginning – please get in touch if you have more to add! 

Quick links to get started on Twitter

Standard
Advice, Support

6 New Year’s Resolutions For Development Grad Students

With the New Year under way and a new semester just around the corner, development students are setting resolutions that will help them learn about the field and prepare them to embark on careers in international aid. The Guardian’s recent series on New Year’s Resolutions for Development Professionals prompted me to share some resolutions specifically for graduate students in development.

1. Read blogs

The aid and development blogosphere is rich with knowledge, opinions, and anecdotes about all aspects of the field, and provides a great complement to classroom learning. Reading blogs allows students to engage with the field informally, dig deeper into topics that interest them, keep up-to-date with new research, and see debates unfold in real time.

Though updates on many blogs have become less frequent lately, there are still dozens of excellent ones, with a tremendous amount to be learned from them. Some great bloggers to check out include Chris Blattman, Ken Opalo, Duncan Green, and the teams at WhyDev and Humanosphere. [Ed: we have an extensive reading list for the internet addicted bottom-rungers here]

On a related note, the aid Twitterati is very active and offers links to relevant posts and abridged versions of the discussion found on blogs. Both The Guardian and WhyDev recently posted lists of top development Tweeps to follow.

2. Read non-academic books related to the field

Students (myself included) often find it difficult to commit to doing much outside reading, but I’m not suggesting everyone study extra statistics textbooks in their spare time! Rather, I think reading non-technical books is a low-stress, enjoyable way to deepen our understanding of development and aid.

Books that informally address material learned in class can help the concepts sink in and give students a chance to see how these concepts get applied in the real world. Similarly, memoirs by aid workers offer insight into the life for which students are preparing themselves. For example, Zen Under Fire, written by a human rights lawyer about her experiences working in Afghanistan, thoughtfully discusses struggles many aid workers face in both their personal and professional lives.

Novels and non-fiction works set in developing countries can also provide a new perspective and some cultural understanding. For suggestions of books from (literally) any country of interest, take a look at A Year of Reading The World.

3. Connect with students in other schools and programs

No more reading resolutions, I promise! It has become very clear to me that there are many, many different ways to approach development work – public policy, anthropology, economics, public health, gender studies, business, even engineering. All these fields and many others offer their own approach to development, their own lens through which to view development issues, their take on the most important problems and the most effective solutions. Even among the APSIA schools, which offer somewhat similar degree programs, each school has its own bent on the study of development. Connecting with students from other programs and schools can offer great insight into the many approaches to development and enhance students’ understanding of the field at large. In short, resolve to attend a happy hour.

4. Learn a relevant computer skill

Admittedly more technical (and probably less fun) than the above resolutions, becoming proficient in a relevant computer skill can only be beneficial. In my job-search and networking experience, many organizations are looking for employees and interns who are skilled at Stata, ATLAS, GIS, CSPro, HTML, or other software or languages. Do some research to identify which one is most relevant to your goals, and see if it is taught in any courses or workshops at your school or through online tutorials.

5. Listen to foreign language podcasts

On a somewhat similar note, resolve to keep up a foreign language. Most students in international development speak at least one foreign language, though maintaining proficiency probably isn’t a priority for most students while they’re in school. Since you will likely be called on to use another language during internships and future jobs (including in interviews), it’s advantageous to stay familiar with it. I’ve discovered a simple way of doing this is to listen to foreign language podcasts while commuting, which at least keeps comprehension and vocabulary from getting too rusty.

6. Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

At one point or another, regardless of the exact type of aid work you ultimately do, you will have the responsibility of portraying people from other countries. It could be in official reports for your organization, on a personal blog, during conversations with other aid workers, or in letters to your grandmother. For the sake of both dignity and accuracy, it is critical that portrayals – in whatever form they take – go beyond stereotypes, simplifications, or a “single story.”

Please share your own resolutions and recommendations for blogs, books, and other resources in the comments.

Standard
Learning

Top Five Posts Of The Year

In a time honoured blogging-in-December tradition, here is the run down of our five most popular posts this year in order of hits.

  1. We Need To Do Something About Television – a post on a shocking Italian reality TV show filmed in a refugee camp. Yes, seriously. [Written by Rowan Emslie]
  2. Working For The Poverty Barons – a look inside the oft-misunderstood world of development consultancies. [Written by Julia Lipowiecka]
  3. Networking: A guide for interns – a somewhat snarky take on the difficulties of networking for bottom rungers. [Written by Iris Leikanger]
  4. Optimism In Africa – an examination of polling and the importance of governance in measurements of optimism. [Written by John Favini]
  5. Before The Internship: What I’m expecting – useful for prospective interns and employers alike, some nice insight into what expectations first-time interns have before entering an NGO. [Written by Ben Butcher]

We’re delighted to announce that we hit our first 10,000 hits late last month. For those of you who were interested in this whydev.org published article by me about how useful Reddit is for development organisations/blogs/websites, more than 40% of those 10,000 hits were generated through the so-called ‘frontpage of the internet’. Ignore it at your peril, particularly as it seems that Facebook has begun its inevitable decline.

We’re excited to develop this site as we continue to work out exactly where we fit in the wide world of the development blogosphere. We’d like to thank our good friends at whydev.org and Aidsource for support and feedback in the last few months.

Finally, we’re always looking to publish new writers (our No 2 most popular post was written by a guest writer) as well as invite people to join our core team of talents.

Go ahead and take a look at the Submissions page – we’re excited to hear from you.

Here’s to more posts, hits and voices in 2013.

Standard
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.

Standard