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Hi all,

Back from a short trip, good discussions about my latest post on Christian mission misrepresentations, time for weekend readings!


Development news: Better journalism on Haiti; Coca Cola, diabetes in Mexico and the soda-industrial complex; digital sweatshops in disaster zones; communicating ‘on the ground’; Congo’s Kolwezi radio; bankrupting Sudan is a bad idea; disempowering traits of NGOs; rise of the advocacy professional; engaging with wicked problems. 

Our digital lives: Operating in a world with no truth.

Academia: Should we kill the conference panel? (yes, please!)

Enjoy!

New from aidnography
A perfect digital (shit)storm: U.S. Christian missionary communication from Uganda

The case of the Oklahoma-based missionary organization Luket Ministries and their recent promotional video from Uganda as well as pictures from missionary volunteers for Tennessee-based 147 million orphans shed light on several broader issues:
How Uganda has become a playground for American Christian missionary work, how unregulated the industry is, how accountability is easily dismissed as missions simply refer to doing ‘God’s work’, how unwilling or unable many organizations are to engage with constructive criticism in a post-factual media landscape and lastly, how digital media add to new powerful (re)presentations of the self and ‘Africa’ in this context.
Development news
On Haiti and the Ethics of Disaster

More to the point, how many news outlets that are gaining clicks and ad revenue by reporting on the current death toll in Haiti bothered to report on any solutions to Haiti’s chronic infrastructure or health problems in the past? Absent any solutions-oriented coverage, the recent barrage of news about the tragic toll of Hurricane Matthew feels an awful lot like disaster porn.
(...)
Help your readers become effective altruists. An effective altruist would argue, correctly, that things like Hurricane Matthew ravishing Haiti are not truly “natural” disasters, but man-made ones. Florida has twice the population of Haiti, and yet the death toll there isn’t approaching 1,000 — it’s only 6. That’s the result of our investment in modern infrastructure and health systems, in taxpayer dollars being spent on welfare and other programs that help people meet their own needs.
Jacob Kushner on how to create better journalism in the context of click-led disaster reporting and short-sighted engagement.

The Coca-Cola addiction of Mexico’s indigenous population

“In this scenario, the indigenous population is the most vulnerable, and has higher rates,” continues Ávila. “Poverty used to protect them in that it forced them to eat what they grew in the fields. But starting in 2010 there’s been an expansion by soft-drink makers following a strategy to bring refrigerators to communities that have electricity, and to favor the transfer of public subsidies to the consumption of this type of food.”
At the grocery stores in the village, a liter of milk – if there is any to be found – costs 16 pesos, while a three-liter bottle of Coca-Cola is 35 pesos and a generic brand is 20 pesos.
Coke and Pepsi Give Millions to Public Health, Then Lobby Against It
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said the paper shows that soda companies “want to have it both ways — appear as socially responsible corporate citizens and lobby against public health measures every chance they get.”
David Marcial Pérezfor El Pais and Anahad O'Connor for the New York Times on the impact of soft drinks and the many ways big corporate players want to have it both ways in terms 'ethical consumption' and contributing to one of the biggest health problems in the context of 'development'.

Digital sweatshops in disaster zones: who pays the real price for innovation?

Disaster-affected areas are becoming testing grounds for innovations such as crisis mapping and drone-assisted aid delivery, piloted by private firms that work in collaboration with humanitarian agencies.
While these new technologies are embraced by aid organisations competing for donor funding, implementation depends on people like Joel.
Local aid workers in technology and communications form part of the growing wave of digital sweatshops, a virtual assembly line of workers recruited to perform repetitive, automated tasks on short-term contracts. Some are part of the disaster-affected population, the very people humanitarian technologies promise to empower.
(...)
If we can approach technology with the virtue of compassion, which is at the very heart of humanitarian work, we can begin to be fair to the people who are bringing innovation to the field every day. Then we can better serve the places that need help most.
Jonathan Corpus Ong for the Guardian on how we need to pay more attention to the fact that new humanitarian technologies can create (temporary) digital sweatshops rather than sustainable local tech ecosystems.

Suits on the ground: Does "ground game" buy influence?

Within the development space, there is currently a broad debate over whether development organizations do better to specialize and focus on a narrow set of countries and sectors, or go broad and maximize their reach and visibility to hit a wider variety of targets. Both strategies have merits, but the latter approach is not as conducive to increasing communication and engagement with in-country counterparts. Making breakthroughs with in-country counterparts may require development agencies to take a more circumscribed (i.e. smaller) and focused role that involves frequent, direct communication. For development partners who specifically want to shape policy through setting the agenda for reforms, there’s an argument to be made for a smaller, not larger, footprint.
Sol Eskenazi, Tanya Sethi and Sarina Patterson present findings from a recent report for Aid Data. Not surprisingly, one of the main findings is that communication (quality and quantity) is complicated and difficult to generalize a one-size-fits-all approach...

Congo needs fewer metanarratives from the West and more of this

If one considers the coverage of RTMA carefully, the discourse of its reporters, and their encounters with mining sites, state employees, politicians, magicians, Chinese residents, and musicians all embody this assemblage, which defines Kolwezi’s broader reality.
More importantly, “Kolwezi on Air” achieves to demonstrate what makes RTMA’s perspective so important. The station embodies the struggles of Kolwezi’s residents, whether they are coping with power outages, making ends meet, or having to pursue multiple obligations simultaneously. The DRC needs less objectifying metanarratives from the West, and needs more RTMA’s.
George Kibala Bauer for Africa Is A Country on a new documentary of a local radio station in DRC.

Bankrupting Kleptocracies is a Dangerously Bad Idea

The most dangerous moment in a kleptocracy is the slide into insolvency. That’s when its rulers (political business operators) become desperate and willing to contemplate extreme measures.
Part of the reason why Enough has got it wrong is that it uses a simplistic definition of kleptocracy as the rule of thieves. A more sophisticated definition is a system of government in which the laws of supply and demand determine the allocation and use of public office. Another reason why Enough misleads is that its starting point is not the problem itself (the complex dysfunction of countries like South Sudan) but the tools that the U.S. government can bring to bear.
Kleptocracy—in both senses of the word—is a serious problem that needs to understood and resolved. Addressing corruption is a serious issue that needs a serious response. But Enough’s idea that driving these systems to bankruptcy is wrong and dangerous.
Alex DeWaal strongly disagrees with the idea that 'bankrupting a corrupt state/system' contributes to short-term conflict resolution, e.g. in South Sudan.

Five disempowering traits that international NGOs must drop

Can they transform themselves by working with independent social movements, devolving governance and resources, and freeing their organizations from so much internal bureaucracy?
Their work will have power, impact and sustainability only if they can deploy tools, tactics and spaces that create a mass constituency for change; interrupt the predictable future of neglect and inaction by states and most members of the public; keep the state as the primary duty-bearer for guaranteeing rights and freedoms; and remain agile enough to exercise the constant capability to reinvent themselves as the context around them shifts.
Irũngũ Houghton continues the current discussion on the 'future of NGOs' for opendemocracy. Are we demanding too much from NGOs and civil society or at least overestimating the speed and depth of change that will likely happen in the next coming years?

Is Advocacy becoming too professional? A conversation with World Vision and Save the Children

But as the meeting wore on, my concerns got deeper. It felt like what I was witnessing was the birth of a new guild – the advocacy professional. There’s lots of reasons why that is a good thing – people learn from each other, exchange ideas and experience, and sharpen up their act. But I was also acutely conscious of the downsides. Any emerging guild has to establish its identities and boundaries – who is/is not a member. That rapidly leads to rituals of inclusion/exclusion, typically around language and methods, and the occasional burning of heretics just to keep everyone on their toes.
Duncan Green on campaigning and the rise (?) of the advocacy professional. There is a new discourse in town, jobs and tasks get re-labeled and organizations continue to exist (see post above...).

We’re failing to solve the world’s ‘wicked problems.’ Here’s a better approach

In the case of coffee sustainability standards, the modular approach emerged over time and was not designed up front. But the modular principle can help develop solutions to various wicked problems, including climate change and the refugee crisis. This is because it tackles problems step by step, eases consensus among multiple stakeholders and promotes knowledge exchange and replicable solutions.
For example, as part of climate adaptation, today many coastal communities are trying to develop idiosyncratic solutions to respond to rising sea levels. Yet, while local experimentation is important, both costs and risks of failure of location-specific solutions are very high. By contrast, a modular approach would prompt local communities to implement over time combinations of tangible and tested building blocks towards greater resilience.
My colleague Stephan Manning shares reflections and recent research for The Conversation. Lots to think about, e.g. the fact that coffee is a 'low-hanging fruit' in terms of regulating a commodity and that I have some more general doubts about CSR and how willing the corporate sector is to work towards bigger 'modules' to solve problems.

Our digital lives
Operating in a world with no truth

The “post-truth” nature of the world shapes all of our realities, not just those who follow proto-authoritarians or lurk on conspiracy-fueled message boards. In fact, if we look at politics in countries that never had the same dominant media authorities, there are reasons to think that fragmented truth is the historical and global norm. The authority of mainstream media in 20th century America may have been an outlier or even a mirage. If truth has always been a social construct, then the current fragmentation is more likely a regression to the mean rather than something entirely new.
What to make of that? Staring at a world with many truths but no truth would make one question whether truth has any value at all.
Truth matters, but not in the ways we typically assume. The social nature of verification is both a weakness and a strength. It means that building truth is intertwined with building social cohesion. Truth matters because it’s a necessary step in the iterative process of building inclusivity and social capital, upon which everything else we do together is built. It gives us common agendas and common understandings for making progress on the things that matter.
Dave Algoso's essay is highly relevant for the aid industry as I pointed out in a recent post on post-factual development communication. If humanitarian law is not a 'truth' then hospitals get bombed without repercussions, because what is a 'war crime' after all?! Evidence from development projects quickly becomes contested because it does not fit into the main policy narrative-and aid workers become more vulnerable-because who believes that they aren't spies etc.?!
This will be a crucial debate of our generation!

Academia
Should We Kill The Conference Panel?

We also always think that panels will be good. The panelists sitting on the stage are indeed interesting people. They are doing great work. They have interesting things to say. They are luminaries.
The reality is that the room dynamics of panels just don’t work all that well. It is difficult for panelists to build a narrative that will capture the audience’s attention. Panel discussions become performative rather enlightening or challenging. None of us are as good as speaking extemporaneously as we think that we are.
Joshua Kim for Inside Higher Ed. I think Joshua misses a few important points, although I agree with much of his analysis. Many conference panels I have encountered either present finished work ('as me and my 3 co-authors just explained in our high-impact journal article') or on-going research projects of which I am not a part ('we just got a ton of money to pursue our interests and we may be doing a, b or c and report back at the next conference'). The performance takes over, plus, the big conferences still exclude digital participation which could add interesting aspects from outside the room-see for example my post If you want more diverse conferences & panels, make technology part of your diversity strategy

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