Blogging and curating content as strategies to decolonize development studies

Sussex University recently organized a Decolonising Development Studies event.
I submitted a short input for discussion, but unfortunately was unable to attend the event in person.
Below is a slightly revised version of my input on how development blogging and curating innovative development-related digital content has played a small, yet important role in decolonizing my approach to teaching and communicating development studies.

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

I started my development blog Aidnography in 2011 and it has since become an integral part of my teaching, research and broader engagement to communicate development issues.

The practice of regular blogging and curating content has become an opportunity to shift foci from traditional locations of where and how development is communicated – and who is in charge and part of the story.
While I am aware that as a white European man I have to be particularly self-critical situating my contribution to ‘decolonization’, I believe that engagement with different, often pop-cultural topics, young authors and different sources ads much needed diversity to my academic practices at a Swedish university.
Also, as a full-time lecturer in Communication for Development with a permanent contract I am aware of the many dimensions of privilege that warrant more reflections on the project of decolonizing our subject.

In the following I will highlight some of the important aspects of development blogging and curating digital content that I find useful to discuss in the context of ‘decolonizing development’. Curating

- is an easy way to feature ‘new voices’, particularly younger writers and journalists from the global South.

- helps to identify (pop-)cultural trends, for example in literature, fashion or food, particularly from Africa.

- nurtures engagement with audiences ‘at home’, including media brands with opportunities to challenge traditional narratives about ‘Africa’, for example.

- highlights persistent power imbalances and problems, for example in the context of volunteering and voluntourism.

- improves teaching materials and course reading lists.

Featuring ‘new voices’

Once you have set up good feeds on Twitter, facebook and/or LinkedIn, different voices will show up. There is a growing group from fashion bloggers to journalists to critical citizens or local aid workers who live where ‘development’ happens.
Our faculty connected with Eromo Egbejule, a young journalist from Nigeria, and both colleagues and students benefited from his ‘fresh’ insights into contemporary issues in Nigeria.

Technology can be a great tool in making new connections possible. My colleague Tom Arcaro recently invited a local aid worker from Jordan to speak to his undergraduate class. These are small examples of how to ‘decolonize’ and to ‘de-mainstream’ classes and discussions on development topics with small efforts and readily available technology.

Identifying (pop-)cultural trends
Rice Jollof, Nollywood movies, M-Pesa, science fiction by Nnedi Okorafor and fabric designs from Tanzania. The cultural industry is booming almost everywhere-often in connection with diaspora producers in the global North. Featuring some of these trends is another way to ‘decolonize’ culture, art, innovation and everyday life. Curating content also helps to showcase positive stories, everyday lives and resources that can help students to explore topics, for example for their MA thesis, differently.

Fostering engagement with audiences ‘at home’

My approach to curating interesting development content is based on how I generally interpret an important part of my role as a communication and development teacher and researcher: I enjoy facilitating discussions, being a resource person and using my (privileged) position as full-time academic to read, browse through my feeds and sift through the ‘noise’ to highlight interesting food for reading and thought.
For me, ‘decolonizing’ then also means to break the routine of engaging with mainstream media news sites, policy reports, research articles and similar ritualized products that often dominate what ends up in the mailboxes of staff in aid organizations or universities.

Highlighting persistent power imbalances
Like everybody else, I have topics I feature more regularly than others-after all, this is my personal blog and I do not claim any form of ‘objectivity’.
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, #allmalepanel or the false promises of philanthrocapitalism are some of the topics that I highlight in book reviews as well as regular blog posts (see links at the end of the post).
These topics are discussed widely and they often include reflective essays, visual content and outputs that can be shared more easily than traditional reports, books or journal articles. They are also important entry points for discussions with colleagues and students about diversity, power imbalances and global change and stagnation-exactly those key challenges that I think hide behind a term like ‘decolonization’.

Improving teaching materials and reading lists

My final point is probably a more traditional benefit of ‘decolonizing’ the academy. As quick and ephemeral short-term, regular link reviews and curating often is, some texts, authors and traditional research have a longer-term impact.
Especially in our New Media, ICT & Development course which is part of our online blended learning MA in Communication for Development those sources complement traditional textbooks and journal articles well and encourage students to embrace the diversity of sources in their own blogging assignments.
In the end, ‘decolonizing’ also means that more sources from different margins are included. This goes beyond the global North and South dichotomy and expands diversity to academic institutions, smaller NGOs or local news media sites almost anywhere in the world.

A drop in the (digital) ocean

The main purpose of my short post is to highlight some practical benefits of communicating development differently through social media and digital forms of navigating new content. I am also fully aware that my practices are embedded in important debates in media and communication studies that challenge notions of diversification and decolonization on a macro level.

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

I am also not immune to the power of global media brands. 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. In the end, I can ensure some balance and diversity simply by spending time on my blogging, reading and curating activities-time that I have as a full-time academic and that others may not have.

But despite these caveats a key point is that even modest attempts of ‘decolonizing’ higher education require a different mindset. Reconsidering traditional ways of engaging with and presenting material that we use for teaching, research and public engagement. 

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 sources. Strengthening connections and discussions, often with the aid of technological tools, thereby creating a global understanding of ‘development’ from social movements to debating inequalities and power/powerlessness will remain a bigger challenge than simply replacing a book on a course reading list or sharing a link with students. 

My years of maintaining Aidnography have always been a reminder not to become too complacent with my knowledge and practices of communicating development. Even small steps in breaking out of the
‘ivory tower’, engaging with different audiences and different digital products, are important in ‘decolonizing’ development studies. In this day and age there is no excuse for sticking to old discourses and practices of who gets heard or read in the classroom or how we communicate international development topics globally.

Selected further readings:

What I learned from curating thousands of #globaldev articles

The professionalization of development volunteering – towards a new global precariat?

From impact to transformation: Do-Gooders, Multicolored Saviors and development as lifestyle

It's the 21st century ... how is the #allmalepanel still even possible?

Reflexive engagements: the international development blogging evolution and its challenges


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