Blogging and curating content as strategies to diversify discussions and communicate development differently

In my longer essay, a forthcoming paper, I am arguing that engaging with online social media in the form of curating a regular development blog column is a simple, yet effective way to provide decolonised resources in the context of development studies teaching, research and communication.
You can download a traditional pdf version of my chapter as well.


I started my development blog Aidnography in 2010 and it has since become an integral part of my teaching, research and broader engagement to communicate development.
In my first journal article on development blogging my co-author and I concluded:

Our research on development blogs has highlighted a range of interesting dynamics with regard to reflexive and reflective learning processes. Peer learning in the blogosphere, mentoring of students or colleagues through intergenerational exchanges between seasoned veterans in the field and aspiring aid workers, and multidisciplinary inputs all contribute to learning processes. One of the biggest challenges so far seems that while theoretically they are meant to be global in scope, blogs are predominantly used by a global elite of professionals engaged in development or students at universities.
Most of these opportunities and challenges of development blogging are still true in 2018 and I want to focus on one aspect of my blogging that has so far produced 288 of nearly 600 Aidnography blog posts: My (almost) weekly ‘Links & Content I Liked’ collected, curated and annotated blog post of interesting digital development content. Additionally, I created topic-specific curated overviews, most recently on the Oxfam scandal, the debate around Bruce Gilley’s article in Third World Quarterly and development aspects of hurricanes Harvey and Maria.

I summarized key experiences of curating development content in a post from 2013:

My weekly link review…
…forces me to stay connected, read and digest new content
…has turned into annotated bookmarks for my research
…is active social media training
…is a learning tool for students in the broadest sense.
These four aspects are still very much guiding much of my social media practices, but I would argue that my curation strategies have become more ‘political’ since 2013 with a stronger focus on female and non-traditional voices and less traditional locations of how and where development is communicated – and who is part of the story.
While I am very aware and careful as a white European man not to overstate my contribution to ‘decolonisation’, I do believe that engagement with different, often pop-cultural topics, authors and sources adds much needed diversity to my academic practices around communication and development.

My essay focuses on four important aspects of development blogging and curating digital content that I find useful to discuss in the context of decolonising development:

Curating
- is an informal way of featuring new and different authors and their stories, particularly younger writers, journalists, local aid workers or activists from the global South
- helps to identify (pop-)cultural trends, e.g. in fiction literature, art, movies and documentaries, fashion or food
- fosters engagement with audiences ‘at home’, including journalists, aid organisation headquarter staff or members of the public with opportunities to challenge traditional narratives about the global South and international development more generally
- highlights persistent power imbalances, remaining development challenges or new colonial issues, e.g. in the context of volunteering and voluntourism, expatriate aid work or higher education
- improves teaching materials and classroom activities, e.g. in the context of our online blended Master program in Communication for Development.

Featuring new and different authors and stories

Simply put, curating my weekly link review or specific topical overviews is essentially checking the pulse of my digital networks. Curating in the context of Aidnography primarily means highlighting interesting and relevant writing (although I increasingly consider other media such as videos, Tweets or podcasts as well).

I will introduce three examples to highlight some of my efforts of ‘decolonising’ my link review and how they are linked to other aspects such as course reading lists or personal engagement with different voices.

Lynsey Chutel and the Quartz media platform
I discovered South African journalist Lynsey Chutel’s writing through the Quartz news media platform. This is an interesting example of how many new global media platforms and brands attract more diverse talent. I discovered her writing through the Quartz Daily newsletter, i.e. through the platform and brand rather than through Chutel as an individual writer. This an important reminder to check news media and other global media for contributors that support the idea of decolonising journalism through their location, choice of topics and approaches to writing.

Nnedi Okorafor’s TED talk
American-Nigerian science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor’s TED talk Sci-fi stories that imagine a future Africa is a good example of how video content can be a useful gateway to discover different authors and their (written) works. Her work includes graphic novels and a forthcoming Netflix show and is a great example of how literary fiction has become an important vehicle to communicate development issues from a variety of African countries and emerging publishing markets. The value of different popular representations of development is already an emerging theme in the academic literature and fosters the engagement with contemporary authors in research and teaching
(see for example David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers & Michael Woolcock, eds., Popular Representations of Development: Insights from Novels, Films, Television and Social Media (London: Routledge, 2013) and Mel Bunce, Suzanne Franks & Chris Paterson, eds., Africa's Media Image in the 21st Century: From the "Heart of Darkness" to "Africa Rising" (London: Routledge, 2016).

Local female aid workers and #AidToo
When the original Oxfam scandal about sexual exploitation by the former Oxfam country director in Haiti opened up a broader debate that was highlighted as aid work’s #MeToo moment, #AidToo, one of the voices that was not prominently featured was that of local female aid workers. In subsequent updates to my curated overview of the Oxfam scandal I tried to highlight different comments from female researchers, journalists and local aid workers. Subsequently, a three-part blog series at the African Feminism blog provided excellent input from local female aid workers. Additionally, authors such as Angela Bruce-Raeburn and Shaista Aziz added important contributions from global Northern-based aid workers to the debate, highlighting the importance of connecting local voices ‘at home’ and ‘abroad’.

This emergence of different voices with the flowering of citizen journalism and diverse content creation indicates how NGOs in common with others have thus found a voice through using new media. Flows of production today are in multiple directions. So on the one hand we see plenty of content produced in Africa that is then exported overseas, for example by youth culture, religious groups, or a wide variety of bloggers. And on the other hand, though similarly, the wide diaspora of Africans based elsewhere are also producing their own media (Bunce 2016:6).
Mel Bunce’s reflections highlight the important connection between traditional forms of development engagement, i.e. aid work, journalism or diaspora communities, in a new digital environment where boundaries between organisations, cultural products and published outputs and have become far more fluid.

Identifying (pop-)cultural trends
Rice Jollof, Nollywood movies, M-Pesa payment technology, science fiction by Nnedi Okorafor or tote bag art by Michael Soi-the cultural industry is booming everywhere-and in African contexts often in connection with diaspora producers in the global North. Featuring these trends is another way to decolonize dominant culture, art, innovation and ordinary life-especially to communicate a different image to audiences in the global North.
The broader context is the emerging concept of ‘solution journalism’ that aims at ‘heightening audiences’ perceived knowledge and sense of efficacy, strengthening the connection between audiences and news organizations, and catalyzing potential engagement on an issue’.
Online media projects such as Bright Magazine (now unfortunately discontinued) or NPR’s Goats & Soda blog platform us this approach for positive reporting on a variety of global development topics.
I discovered Nigerian journalist Eromo Egbejule’s writing through his diverse pieces on Nigeria ranging from indigenous music streaming, to the first support centre for rape survivors and clubbing in Maiduguri. We subsequently invited Eromo to Sweden to join our Communication for Development MA program as a visiting teacher, exploring contemporary cultural shifts in Nigeria in guest lectures and podcasts.
Curating this kind of artistic content helps to showcase positive stories, everyday lives and artistic projects and resources that can help students for example to explore topics for a term paper or Master thesis.

Fostering engagement with audiences ‘at home’

Much of how I approach curating interesting development content is based on how I generally interpret my role as a communication and development teacher and researcher: Facilitating discussions, being a resource person for students, aid workers or interested members of the public and using my privileged position as full-time academic to read, browse through my social feeds and sift through the digital ‘noise’ to highlight interesting food for reading, thought and discussion.
I know from direct feedback and interactions with journalists that they do appreciate my weekly link review and highlighting new academic research, reports from aid organisations and interesting posts they may not have noticed otherwise. In my understanding of the challenges of decolonising development it is important to work, write and engage ‘at home’ to challenge traditional notions of fieldwork in the global South or ‘doing’/bringing other forms of development from ‘us’ to ‘them’. Also, decolonising means to break the routine of mainstream media news sites, policy reports, academic research articles and similar ritualized products that often dominate what ends up in the mailboxes of staff in aid organisations, the public sector or on course reading lists.

Highlighting persistent power imbalances, consumer capitalism and neoliberal expansion

I have topics I feature more regularly than others-after all, part of the freedom of writing my personal blog is that I remain in charge of overall editorial choices. My writing still follows ethical research or journalism best practice guidelines, but it is a process that is different from traditional academic publishing conventions such as peer-review.
Over the years, some topics have gained more attention, often starting with links I shared and then moving into more research-related, longer reflections. Volunteering and voluntourism and #allmalepanel are two examples. Not only have these topics been discussed widely, but they often come with reflective essays, visual content and outputs that can be shared more easily than traditional reports, books or journal articles. But they are also important entry points for critical discussions with colleagues and students about diversity, power imbalances and global change or stagnation-exactly those key challenges that hide behind a term like decolonisation.

These topics also highlight the importance to engage with ‘development’ in a broader way that includes social and gender justice, the expansion of global capitalism, new forms of digital re-colonisation or volunteering and social work ‘at home’. Establishing these links through my review in the broad categories of my weekly post ‘development news’, ‘our digital lives’, ‘new publications’ and ‘academia’ is an important way to introduce different methods, ways of knowing and knowledge or people that should ‘count’ more.

Improving teaching materials and classroom activities
Our faculty connected with Eromo Egbejule, a young journalist from Nigeria, and both colleagues and students benefitted from his fresh insights into contemporary issues in Nigeria-both good and bad. Technology can be a great tool in making these connections possible. My colleague Tom Arcaro recently invited a local aid worker from Jordan to joinhis undergraduate class via Skype.
These are very small examples of how to decolonise and to ‘de-mainstream’ classroom discussions. Similar to my practice-based engagement with digital development content for my Aidnography link review, it is important to use technology, networks and other resources to displace the gap between traditional global Northern academia and efforts, no matter how small, to enhance the experiences of diversity for students or colleagues on a regular basis.

Our New Media, ICT & Development course which is part of our online blended learning Master in Communication for Development is structured around a group blogging exercise where students design a Wordpress blog and contribute posts and comments as assignments. One key aspect is to complement traditional academic textbooks and journal articles with diverse digital content and to encourage students to discover diversity and digital literacy through writing in different ways and for different audiences. Ideally, this is a reflective exercise that translates into engaging with diverse sources differently in professional and personal contexts after the learning environment of the course. Our course resonates with recent research that explored the value of blogs in student learning during and after their studies:

If blogs and other social media platforms make communities of practice more visible, then they may have untapped potential for preparing students for professional development after graduation. (…) A new role for blogs, we found, was as an informal learning source. In this capacity, blogs delivered guidance and how-to advice for developing essential life skills. Moreover, graduates looked for blogs that conferred what Wilson called cognitive authority and also served as an information rich source.
For us, decolonisation in the context of teaching and learning means that more sources from different locations are included as valuable knowledge to study development. We also include a module that focuses on fictional representations of history and development in another course, Media, Globalization and Development. The mix of more traditional efforts to diversify and decolonize our course through reading lists or guest speakers goes hand in hand with changing practices, tools and communication approaches in the New Media, ICT & Development course.

A drop in the ocean
My final point is probably a more traditional benefit of decolonising the academy. As quick and ephemeral short-term, regular link reviews and curating often is, some texts, authors and underlying research sticks around.
The main purpose of my chapter is to highlight some practical benefits of communicating development differently through social media and new forms of navigating digital content.

My example of curating development content on/for my blog Aidnography is meant to highlight that from the vantage point of a European university and its teaching and research frameworks decolonisation is a set of practices that should be included in the capillary system of how we engage with knowledge on a regular base, quite literally with the stroke of our fingers on the computer keyboard. My weekly link curation is a constant and powerful reminder of how the information landscape of who communicates and how we communicate development is changing. My autoethnographically-informed chapter is also a reminder that when it comes to the basics of teaching or researching ‘decolonising’ is not a static process, a process of exchanging some reading on a course reading list or adding different writers to the reference section of a journal article. Every tweet, every ‘Like’ on Facebook, every additional minute spent reading a blogpost written by a local aid worker has the power of ‘micro-decolonisation’, of embracing new knowledge, of listening to voices outside the loud and powerful information flow, of being reminded of different experiences, be they painful or joyful.

These routines are important because they internalize diversity. I do pay attention about the diversity of my link reviews along broader dichotomies such as male and female writers, global Northern and Southern writers or writers from well-known global media brands and a new blogger who just got on Wordpress. Over time I have noticed that diversity seems to increase more ‘naturally’ and that paying attention to different writers, journalists or cultural producers opens the way to even more diverse information.

As Aidnography is a public project I have a small opportunity to share this diversity with colleagues, friends, students and the broader digital audience who passes by my blog, amplifying interesting, diverse and new content. This practice-based approach extends the initial curation process into other aspects of my academic engagement with development studies, encouraging me to listen or observe before ‘doing’ something. Put bluntly, my curated link review relies on others to make the first step, on great content, thereby reversing some of the traditional extractive dynamics of research, of going ‘there’ to collect data etc. In the context of my work at the intersection of media, communication and development research this is an important shift in perception that hopefully extends my practices beyond the blog.

However, I am also fully aware that my practices are embedded in important debates that challenge notions of diversification and decolonization on a macro level.

Like any other prosumer issues around the power of algorithms for newsfeeds, filter bubbles and generally how ‘the Internet’ works apply to my practices and create (new) biases and blind spots.

I am also not immune to the power of global media brands, of course. At the end of the week there is usually a variety of links to Guardian articles and I have to be selective in how I share content from one particular media brand. As I mentioned before, it is important that exciting new media ventures such as Quartz or Bright Magazine are diverse projects from the onset so the routines of receiving regular newsletters or having their articles appearing in my networks ensures diversity more or less from the beginning.

But despite these caveats a key point is that even modest attempts of ‘decolonizing’ the academy require a different mindset. Reconsidering traditional ways of engaging with and presenting material that we use for teaching, research and public engagement will be challenged by those who assess or rank the quality of our engagements. In our crowded digital lives this means that curation and facilitation will become more important skills for those working in academia because there is already an abundance of diverse material from many different sources.

In a recent blog post Tanzil Chowdhury asks What is there to Decolonise?. Her reference to policing and links to educational spaces is an important reminder about gate-keeping and letting slightly ‘unruly’ texts into our carefully peer-reviewed, published and academic writing spaces:

Anyone who reads about colonial policing as a practice, will understand that it is fundamentally about the making of docile, passive, subservient bodies. (…). The policing of educational spaces and the creation of students as docile, passive and subservient, and marketized bodies is therefore a key struggle for contemporary decolonial activists.
Strengthening connections and discussions thereby creating a global understanding of ‘development’ from social movements to debating inequalities and power or powerlessness will remain a bigger challenge than replacing a book on the course reading list.

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