Can we transform the repetition of virtual development debates into something bigger? And do we have to?

Maybe it was purely coincidental. Or maybe it was because I have more time to engage with digital content during my summer teaching break, but there seems to be an increased number of well-known discussions popping up that leave me a bit puzzled.

The Fifty Shades of Aid facebook group discussed expat salaries and various expat-local gaps again, Duncan Green revived the discussion on whether and how academics should influence policy-making, the Guardian wrote on volunteer stress and burn-out and on Africa is a Country there was a reminder that overseas volunteering needs a reflective framework.
Add to these debates the fact that a Western journalist apparently wrote a terrible book on his time in ‘Africa’ and mainstream celebrities got excited about clean water in Burundi (Beyonce) and hospital wings in Malawi named after their children (Madonna) this pretty much sounds like any other week.
Some policy debates, e.g. how much spending on refugees at home should count as ODA? have also been around for a while now and if that was not enough, someone can always organize an event on the ‘localization of aid’ or ‘cash transfers’.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to rant per se and I do appreciate that a lot of people and organizations have many of these discussions with the honest aim to improve how they think, plan and work -but what happens when the short-lived digital attention span moves on until people donate SWEDOW during the next emergency and discover that the impact of a small participatory project is complicated to assess?

Revisiting learning, behavior change and knowledge management in 2017
To some extent, I stand by my first research article on development blogging published in 2013 that stressed the potential of digital engagement as a tool for personal learning and organizational- or self-reflection. This provides me as a teacher with plenty of case studies and teachable examples and it has certainly helped me to develop better engagement with different stakeholders.
But how do we move beyond this level?
Will I read in five years from now how much of an eye-opener an immersion with poor people can be? Or that Kathmandu is a great place for your first expat aid experience? And while MSF will hopefully continue to be a critical voice in the humanitarian industry will other organizations follow or post the starving child/give a goat/volunteer in Ghana campaign because ‘this is what people respond to’?
And why would an outlet like the Daily Mail change its journalism-simulation on development? The model sells well and it may not have a large impact on those who care about the topic anyway.

So my first question from the headline remains frustratingly unanswered: Can we transform the repetition of virtual development debates into something bigger? I have yet to find evidence. Yes, a new theme like ‘cash transfers’ is gaining momentum in the community-but then it quickly moves into a discussion of ‘Uber-
something-development and perhaps uncritically following tech solutionism despite evidence that INGOs will not quickly disappear and Silicon Valley approaches will not ‘solve’ poverty.

A global water-cooler where people meet, vent and go back to make things work somehow

At the same time, I do appreciate many of those virtual debates-which brings me back to my second question: Do we have to transform them into something bigger?

As diverse as ‘our’ community may be and as much as we suffer collectively through the one or two annual populist essays of ‘but does aid really work? You know, corrupt African dictators and all…!?!’, the digital, virtual water cooler may be just that: A relatively safe space for venting frustrations, finding support and maintain a community of like-minded people (which is not simply the same as a ‘filter bubble’…).

Maybe this seems too modest and unambitious for a project aimed at social justice, equality and transformation-or maybe these discussions are an extension of that bigger project.
With all the other mediatized anger in this world I am always impressed how respectful the vast majorities of debates around global development are-which is an important goal itself: Reminding ourselves of basic courtesies, respect and emotional well-being.
So what if someone else is already organizing a get-together of aid workers in Amman next month? And if re-posting reflections on volutourism get one new college student to think about her/his engagement abroad, that’s already a win! And eventually that one NGO that keeps insisting on ‘white savior’ images to promote its projects will have to change their communications in light of a changing donor basis (I am still young enough to dream…).
Be generous, be the anti-troll you want to see online and be gentle with those who reach out and make an effort to better understand the complexities of development.

Just writing my short reflective post to wrap up this week has already calmed me down from my ranting mindset I had when I started typing.
I also revisited an old post from 2015
for additional food for thought:

At the end of the day, when all ‘white Land Cruiser’ jokes are told, all ‘white elephant’ projects are evaluated and all voluntouristic photos by white people are uploaded to Instagram, development in general and development communication in particular will continue to have an important role as witness to injustice and marginalization, as an amplifier of dissent and as a connector between cultures, stories and those who need a virtual or physical hand that reminds them of humanity
I am grateful for all the critical discussions and engagements I can enjoy through our digital community and the latest link review I am finishing now is one regular proof that a lot of good, albeit not always new, stuff is happening all around us!


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