My development blogging 2011 review

This year has been my first full year of blogging. And as the year is coming to an end I am sitting down to reflect upon a few…well, what am I really reflecting on?! I guess I will write about observations and personal learning and avoid anything that has to do with ‘trends’. I really do not like the kind of forecasting that many ‘experts’ do to use the current situation to speculate on future developments along the lines of ‘what we are seeing at the moment will become bigger/faster/more important in 2012’. The development blogging year of 2012 will most likely be similar to 2011-or 2010.
However, there are a few themes and issues that appeared throughout the year and that deserve to be included in my reflections as they most likely will stick around for a while and will pose interesting questions in the future. I will also try to stick to the topics I know best – blogging at the interface of anthropology and development research with a primarily academic hat on.
This is not going to be an international politics or current affairs review of 2011. But enough caveats – let’s get the review going!

Increased academic research interest in social media

 
The World Bank paper on the impact of Economics blogs and Dave Algoso’s survey immediately come to mind, but I also submitted two papers with colleagues on development blogging, Twitter and global conference rituals that hopefully will be available in 2012.
Knowing how long academic publishing processes can take, it is difficult to say whether academia’s interest in social media comes at a peak point of interest, or whether, as it sometimes happens in research, academics get interested when the innovative period is already over and a topic has become part of the mainstream development vocabulary. But as I will point out later on, my feeling is that social media, especially blogging, have become a supplementary part of communication – even if not much official credit will be given for this outreach. 

Students continue to be a major audience

 
One of the reasons for increased academic interest is probably that students keep discovering blogs as a very valuable resource for their studies. Many interesting, vibrant and often-commented posts deal with student’s concerns about the subject, academic advice for newcomers and re-visited debates about the fundamentals of development. Even if you are not blogging, keeping in touch with the blogosphere has become almost mandatory for teachers. Many posts can be excellent openers for discussions or valuable case studies. Although this stretches the limits of what I want to focus on, I believe that the blogosphere is also a ‘sounding board’ for many complex issues that higher education faces in development studies and elsewhere: Finding a balance between traditional university teaching and the demands of the ‘development industry’, re-thinking graduate research and addressing supply and demand issues will remain on the agenda.

A few well-known and -liked bloggers discontinued writing to explore new avenues for communication

This point and the next are good examples to underline that many topics do not evolve linear and progressively, but in complex, even paradoxical ways. Although the demand for blogs seems to be rising a few well-known bloggers discontinued their writing or went into a hiatus for other reasons (e.g. Aidwatch, Talesfromthehood, Aidthoughts, Good Intentions Are Not Enough). As exciting as the idea of new and different forms of communication is and as interesting as it is to see new bloggers emerge, it is a reminder that blogging is a product of our times: Internet-based, sophisticated, time-consuming if done well and hopeless with regard to ‘value for money’. I do not want to frame it as a trend, but a lot of development blogging is likely to remain on professional and organisational margins and there will be more coming and going in the blogosphere which raises interesting questions about a virtual or physical repository. Maybe there will be an Ebook of great posts in the next year, or a university library that will create a project to archive blogs?

Blogging, academia and publishing

The second issue is that despite increased ‘peer recognition’ of blogging debates on its merits for academic employment and promotion have only started recently, for example in the context of anthropology. As with most other things in higher education, blogging will not radically change power dynamics in the short- or medium-term. Much of it will be on a case-to-case and institution-to-institution base. I personally will continue to mention my blogging in academic applications and interviews even if I am fully aware of the ‘impact debates’.

Positive experiences with innovative organisations, innovative writing, the ‘pulse of the industry’ and publishers...

I had many positive encounters since I started blogging and organisations like Peace Dividend Trust, Engineers Without Borders Canada or Krochet Kids International have captured my attention as interesting, innovative and evolving concepts of how development can work. Bloggers like Good Intentions (in the first half of the year) or How Matters continue to share great pieces of thinking and writing with the world and there are many great sites for information on development policy, practice and studies (e.g. Aviewfromthecave or Whydev). Being active in the blogosphere gets you in touch with a certain ‘pulse of the industry’. Blogging can really help to break down organisational silos and their mentalities. That’s why I’m a big fan of the SDC blog and enjoy the IDS blogs, especially Lawrence Haddad’s blog and the relatively new Participation and Power blog

On a personal level, it has been a great year to connect through blogging; being in transition and with interesting professional challenges ahead, blogging has been a great way to share unpolished thoughts and opinions which is academese for ‘self promotion’ ;)!
I am also grateful for the review copies that publishers have sent me (which is a bit of a paradox with regard to the academic publishing debate...); so expect an increased amount of proper book reviews here in the beginning of the new year.

...but world conferences, quantitative discourses and the ‘pulse of the industry’ are an indication that the blogosphere has a limited impact

However, all these positive experiences should not gloss over key problems of development blogging. As much as I like to praise open, innovative and modern approaches and organisations I have also realised that you can live relatively happy in your silo. The idea of an evolutionary process where only the ‘smartest organisations’ attract the best people and will thrive funding- and impact-wise will be a myth for some time. Take German development cooperation for example: If the minister does not like open aid ideas or peaceful development concepts nothing will really happen. Germany continues to be a donor and whenever the ministry will recruit new young staff they will receive plenty of applications...This also true to some extent for DIY-aid, voluntourism or how mainstream media report on development issues. Despite continuous, detailed and numerous posts, many bad examples are likely to surface next year, too.
Or take the summits in Durban and Busan: This was old-fashioned conference-bubble-diplomacy at its best with some pretty predictable results. Complexity theory? Not necessary to understand this document!
I am still not satisfied with the open aid data discourse and its focus on quantitative data and IT-solutions. And when we talk about the ‘pulse of the industry’ it also noteworthy to look at initiatives like DevEx’
40 under 40’: Great people, no doubt, but many of them are also firmly embedded in the organisational and ideological mainstream. Whenever the name of a big accounting or consultancy firm pops up, I have a feeling that alternative views and methods still have a long march through the institutions ahead.

Any final words of wisdom?

While the university world explodes with new discourses on power in all its forms, the faces in the universities in my part of the world, the Resumes of scholars we hire, the forms of sharing knowledge we use, and the structures of learning and knowledge production have changed but little. (22)
This is what Budd Hall, a well-known community action-researcher, wrote about the slow rise of participatory research in academia in 2005 (In From the Cold? Reflections on Participatory Research. From 1970 - 2005); (development) blogging may only have long-term impact, too. Gillie Bolton, however, reminds me every time that reflective practice and writing is an exciting journey into the unknown and to some extent unpredictable world of stories and uncertainty:   
Bringing our everyday stories into question is an adventure. No one adventures securely in their backyard. Professionals need to face the uncertainty of not knowing what’s round the corner, where they’re going, how they’ll travel, when they’ll meet dragons or angels, and who the comrades are. They even have to trust why they’re going. A student commented: ‘What a relief it is to know that this uncertainty is essential; knowing that makes me feel less uncertain of being uncertain. Now uncertainty is my mantra.’
(...)
This is fiction: the writing has been invented imaginatively, it removes the straitjacket of what really happened. Writers are therefore free to draw deeply upon their imagination and aesthetic sense, and their intuitive knowledge of social and human areas such as relationships, motives, perspective, cause and effect, ethical issues and values (210-211). (Bolton, G. 2006: Narrative writing. Reflective enquiry into professional practice. Educational Action Research, 14 (2), 203-218.)
Development blogging has become part of narrative writing for those who work in, study or care about international aid. In that sense, 2011 has been a great year and I wholeheartly look forward to a great blogging 2012 and exchanges with you!

This is my last post for this year - so have a great holiday season and a fabulous start into the new year!

Warmest,

Tobias. 

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