Links & Contents I Liked 296

Hi all,

Another book review + link review double-feature this week!

Development news: Melania in Africa; Indonesia's tsunami, localization & empathy; another #AidToo story from Liberia; how Bring Back Our Girls created a different movement; aid billboards in Burundi; decolonizing global health; Gaza as laboratory for Israel's military-industrial complex; philanthropy at the crossroads; how to survive conferences.

Publications: Uncovering 'community'; Oxfam's learning from influencing policy; from civil resistance to building democracy; voices from Silicon Savannah.

Circular logic of humanitarian expertise; digital learning revisited. 


New from aidnography
Curated stories (book review)

Curated Stories is a remarkable entry point for critical discussions that probably all of us should have who ‘do’ communication and/for development. Critical engagement with the storytelling discourse goes far beyond an authentic organizational blog or the limitations of hashtag activism. Fernandes provokes us to think beyond the instrumental, often time-consuming, practices of ‘innovative’ approaches to development and communication that easily get ‘stuck’ once they reach formal social, political or economic spaces. The book also asks challenging questions about ‘our’ work from and in the global North and how storytelling can move beyond the comfort zone of mediatized development work.
This is a concise and accessible academic book that should be on your reading list, discussed in the office and shared with students and partners around the globe!

Development news
Melania Trump's Africa visit
When Melania went to Africa wearing a pith helmet

The pith helmet was part of a pseudoscientific discourse that enforced class, as well as racial domination, since only the rich could follow such medical advice.
The pith helmet is sometimes used to denote a "frontier" spirit of adventure and intrepid exploration. This is wrong. In fact, their historical social role was to emblematise white fragility and anxieties, as well as blurring the distinction between white civilians and the colonial police and military, who also wore pith helmets.
Colonialism extracted labour and resources from "natives" by ordering colonial societies through extreme and everyday forms of violence. But it was always necessary to insist that despite enjoying the protection of colonial states armed to the teeth in order to immiserate and exploit subject peoples, it was whites - and white women, in particular - who were the most vulnerable group in the colony.
In this sense, the pith helmet represents not only colonialism, but whiteness, too. We might think of whiteness as an identity that always noisily insists on its own vulnerability (despite social and economic realities to the contrary) as the principal justification for the oppression of racialised others.
When Melania Trump went to Africa
It’s not that people aren’t working—it’s that too many of them are working in the wrong fields. Or, more to the point, it’s that too many people are working in fields and not in factories or tech startups or wherever else people are supposed to work in a “diversified, modern economy.” Such a transition is necessary, purveyors of the African green revolution say, not only because work in factories and offices are better, but because agriculture is so inherently backwards. The kind of farming that the majority of Africa’s rural people still practice, growing food for a small group of people to be processed by hand, is what people do when they’re not sufficiently integrated with the global economy. If people must farm, they could at least grow raw materials for local industries, or exports for hard currency, with a minimal use of labor and a maximal use of technology. Alas, even that is a job for a mere sliver of the population, preferably something below ten percent of everyone in a given country.
Melania Trump’s colonial fashion statement should surprise absolutely no one
All of these totems of western pop culture—Banana Republic’s “safari craze,” Ralph Lauren’s well-appointed tents, Peter Beard’s fashion shoots, Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa—are problematic because they exoticize and generalize the people and places surrounding their white subjects.
Melania’s pith helmet and its accompanying clothing seem to celebrate this legacy, whether knowingly or not. They fit perfectly with the first lady’s tradition of dressing for her role, as the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino once put it, “as if she were a paper doll, every outfit a costume.”
Costumes are frequently offensive, and this one of a white westerner in Africa is no exception. But is it surprising? Not even a little bit.
Elliot Ross for Al-Jazeera, Alex Park for Africa Is a Country and Jenni Avins for Quartz with three very different angles to the pith helmet story.

Indonesia orders foreign aid workers helping with tsunami effort to leave

Clancy said international NGOs had to walk a careful line of not acting paternalistically and taking over aid operations. “There’s pushback against the international community who come flooding in days or weeks later, taking over the response. It’s about taking back that power and saying local organisations have significant capacity.”
The Indonesian government, the Indonesian Red Cross and other Indonesian NGOs all have “significant capacity” for providing humanitarian assistance, said Clancy. “Natural disasters aren’t a new phenomenon for Indonesia, unfortunately … They are well experienced in responding to natural disasters.”
Kate Lyons for the Guardian. This piece sparked some interesting debates whether this was 'normal' humanitarian procedures or indicative of bigger changes around the 'localization' of aid or a backlash against expat involvement.

Indonesia’s Tsunami and the Problem of Human Empathy
If people could empathize with mass suffering, philanthropy could become broader and more effective. But by no means would it fix all problems. The most generous charity after a disaster like Indonesia’s still must be delivered in order to help and, as in Palu, lack of good infrastructure can prevent that. Empathy generated by mass death can’t lower the toll. Charitable donations tend to be reactive, not proactive—it’s easier to care about the ongoing suffering of many than the potential suffering of future people that could still be prevented. In cases like these, aid and philanthropy should be driven by something else—for instance, objectively reasoned principles about which policies can make the biggest difference. But the fact remains that many of us will give only and most often to the causes that move us.
Jamil Zaki for the Atlantic with more psychological and philosophical reflections on the limits of 'effective' altruism and empathy.

She Wanted to Help Liberia's Most Vulnerable Girls. Then Her School Became a Predator's Hunting Ground

The charity would raise over $8 million, including almost $600,000 from the U.S. government. Meyler would enter a rarefied world of globe-trotting problem-solvers. She would rub shoulders with Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, and even get invited to the Obama White House. MTM’s footprint in Liberia would multiply to 19 schools teaching 4,000 students.
Yet some of the girls present that September day had a secret. Far from being saved from sexual exploitation, they were being raped by the man standing beside Meyler on the stage.
His assaults went on for years and continued in the new school. He was protected by his position — he was presented as “co-founder” of MTM; he and Meyler had had an intimate relationship, and she kept him in place even after having reason to suspect his predilections. But he was also shielded from exposure in the community by everything that she had brought: a school, scholarships and, above all, hope.
After his crimes became known, filling hundreds of pages of police and legal records, the charity worked to obscure the details and to place responsibility almost anywhere but with Meyler or MTM: Liberia’s culture was blamed. As a growing number of former staff, victims and their families told us their stories, More Than Me fought to contain the damage. Senior charity officials, with Liberian government support, cross-examined key witnesses, asking if they wanted to take back what they had said. Many of those they reached still rely on the charity for support. They told the charity they no longer wanted their stories published.
Finlay Young for Time with a disturbing #AidToo story from Liberia.

When Gender Parity Knocks at the UN Door, Does Merit Fly Out of the Window?

But his recent proposals to amend UN staff rules and regulations to further advance gender parity at the United Nations, have triggered a strong protest from the Geneva-based federation of UN staffers worldwide.
Ian Richards, President, Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), representing over 60,000 staffers in the UN system worldwide, told IPS that staff unions disagree with the proposal to change the downsizing rules to make achievement of gender parity at the UN a factor in determining who is fired when posts are cut.
“The current rules state an order of retention based on contract type with due consideration for length of service, performance and integrity — standard practice for most organisations elsewhere as well”.
This is implemented, he pointed out, through a points system that has been signed off by the secretary-general and unions, and is relatively well accepted by staff.
But “management is now proposing to sweep this aside so that gender becomes the determining factor regardless of performance, competence, integrity, length of service and so forth,” Richards added.
Thalif Deen for IPS with an interesting story about looming conflicts around gender parity and bureaucracy within the UN system...

How Bring Back Our Girls went from hashtag to social movement, while rejecting funding from donors

The BBOG operates a surprising funding policy: they have so far refused funding support from both foreign and local donors. The leadership argued that once there was money, there would be a struggle for it among them, and their focus would be shifted from pressurising government to sharing money. They also feared that once people (especially politicians) gave them money, they could be seen as being partisan. (There were allegations at the start that they were being used by the opposition to harass the government.)
Relying heavily on donations from members and in-kind support, the Movement does not even have a bank account. They do, however, solicit international news makers (such as Ms Michelle Obama) to openly identify with their cause.
A lot is being said about the shrinking civic space in conflict-affected and authoritarian settings. However, a closer attention to the strategies of civic actors may reveal two things: one, that the civic space is not really shrinking but changing, and two, the creative ways in which civic actors are responding to these changes – the creativity that explains their resilience.
Ayo Ojebode for fp2p on how Bring Back Our Girls operates in a precarious civic space and set up a social movement that defies traditional donor and civil society expectations.

Mind the Billboards: International Aid Conquering the Public Space in Burundi

By examining the complex contemporary issues of colonialism and authoritarianism, a scrutiny of the public space littered by aid billboards and regime symbols illustrate that these two dimensions are not exclusive. Western aid has indeed conquered the streets with paternalistic billboards without tackling efficiently structural inequalities and political oppression that is also maintained and perpetuated by the current regime.
Astrid Jamar for Africa @ LSE shares some research findings on aid billboard and the complexities of aid discourses in Burundi.

Unpacking Power and Knowledge in Global Health: some reflections from the Emerging Voices 2018 cohort

Reflecting on the coloniality of power and knowledge allows for a critical questioning of existing structures in global health.
Importantly, the next step should not be a fundamentalist rejection of all things modern or European or Western. Equally, we must be wary of false binaries (between the global north and global south) that are reductionist or over-simplifications of the very complex ways in which power affects these relationships. Rather, a more nuanced approach is needed, one that recognises that these inequalities are bad for all of us, and cannot be separated from the broader political economy of global health systems. Importantly, there is a role for actors from both the global south and the global north to actively participate in the decolonial project to disrupt power and knowledge asymmetries.
Some may say these asymmetrical patterns of power are inevitable while the majority of the funding still comes from the global north. Could power relationships in research partnerships between the global south and north be more equal? Could research consortia be structured differently? Are more horizontal, equal partnerships with true co-production of research possible irrespective of where the research funding comes from? We would argue that the answer is yes.
Leanne Brady, Kenneth Munge, Charles Ssemugabo and Ariadna Nebot Giralt for International Health Policies on decolonization challenges in global health.

Gaza “laboratory” boosts profits of Israel’s war industry
We asked Keren why it is that Israel’s technology industry performs at an astonishing level of productivity, especially in the military sector.
“Because we are checking our systems live,” he said. “We are in a war situation all the time. If it’s not happening right now, it will happen in a month.”
“It’s not [just] about building the technology” and having to wait years to try out the systems, Keren told us. The secret of the Israeli tech sector’s success, he explained, lay in “operating the technology faster than any other country in live situations.”
Keren isn’t the first to make this connection. Gaza is widely perceived as a human Petri dish – to improve killing capacity and cultivate pacification methods – among the movers and shakers in the Israeli high-tech and military sectors.
Gabriel Schivone for Electronic Intifada with a reminder that Israel's military-industrial complex benefits from conflict and is deeply ingrained in any (non) resolution of this intractable conflict.

Powerless: How Top Foundations Failed to Defend Their Values—And Now Risk Losing Everything
All these strategies can and do work. But their success often hinges on larger factors. For example, the Ford Foundation’s asset-building efforts—the centerpiece of its economic equity funding under Susan Berresford’s leadership and beyond—achieved some real results. But the financial crisis of 2008 wiped out nearly all the wealth gains made by communities of color over preceding years. One of the reasons that crisis occurred is because there was barely any opposition to efforts to deregulate the financial sector during the 1990s. Even now, amid a growing push to undo the Dodd-Frank law and rising warnings about future financial crises, few foundations focus on policing Wall Street—an obvious high ground of political economy.
Many foundations seemed trapped in a dated mindset about how change happens and how to have impact. They haven’t wrapped their heads around key realities of our age, like the fall of public trust in institutions and elites, and rising polarization and populism. In this environment, expertise just doesn’t seem to matter all that much.
What’s moving change right now are social movements, ideology and tribal loyalties. Old-fashioned oligarchical power and raw political muscle matters, too—perhaps more than at any time since the Gilded Age.
David Callahan for Inside Philanthropy with a detailed analysis of what the current divided political climate in the US means for philanthropy and how difficult it is to maintain influence with traditional approaches to knowledge and evidence.

I need a survival guide for conferences. Anyone got one?

Assuming that I am not the only one who experiences conferences as an ordeal, what would be some useful advice for how to attend and get the most out of them? Here are some questions I need answered
Duncan Green for fp2p is sharing challenging questions on how to survive conferences-attending fewer and traveling less is always one of my default response...

Uncovering ‘Community’: Challenging an Elusive Concept in Development and Disaster Related Work

Our approach is to first consider how ‘community’ has become popular in research and with humanitarian agencies and other organisations based on what can be considered a ‘moral licence’ that supposedly guarantees that the actions being taken are genuinely people-centred and ethically justified. We then explore several theoretical approaches to ‘community’, highlight the vast scope of different (and contested) views on what ‘community’ entails, and explain how ‘community’ is framing practical attempts to mitigate vulnerability and inequity. We demonstrate how these attempts are usually futile, and sometimes harmful, due to the blurriness of ‘community’ concepts and their inherent failure to address the root causes of vulnerability. From two antagonistic positions, we finally advocate more meaningful ways to acknowledge vulnerable people’s views and needs appropriately.
Alexandra Titz, Terry Cannon & Fred Kr├╝ger with a new open access paper in Societies.

Using evidence to influence policy: Oxfam’s experience

In this article, we combine insights from policy studies with specific case studies of Oxfam campaigns to describe four ways to promote the uptake of research evidence in policy: (1) learn how policymaking works, (2) design evidence to maximise its influence on specific audiences, (3) design and use additional influencing strategies such as insider persuasion or outsider pressure, and adapt the presentation of evidence and influencing strategies to the changing context, and (4) embrace trial and error.
Ruth Mayne, Duncan Green, Irene Guijt, Martin Walsh, Richard English & Paul Cairney with an new open access article in Palgrave Communications.

When Civil Resistance Succeeds Building Democracy After Popular Nonviolent Uprisings

Why do some nonviolent revolutions lead to successful democratization while others fail to consolidate democratic change? And what can activists do to push toward a victory over dictatorship that results in long-term political freedom?
Several studies show that nonviolent revolutions are generally a more positive force for democratization than violent revolutions and top-down political transitions. However, many nonviolent revolutions, such as the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, do not seem to fi t this pattern. This study takes on this puzzle and reveals that the answer lies in large part in the actions of civil society prior to and during transition. Democracy is most likely when activists can keep their social bases mobilized for positive political change while directing that mobilization toward building new political institutions.
Jonathan Pinckey for the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict.

Voices of the Silicon Savannah: Key challenges facing Kenya's social-tech ecosystem - views from within

A key finding is that the narrative of ‘success’ often focuses on the ‘successful Mzungu founder’3, who receives more investment, has better networks and resources and can afford to take greater risks. This ignores the many local Kenya successes, and the fact that many perceived ‘failures’ contain valuable lessons, data and signals about market demands and customer needs.
Similarly, the funding landscape, dominated by overseas funders, donors and private investors, skews how aid implementers and entrepreneurs frame their projects, and distorts their incentives. Too much emphasis on numbers-based reporting to donors, and high-risk, easily scalable products for investment creates a gap in funding for local entrepreneurs, experimentation, building local capacity and exploring local markets and needs — i.e. finding out ‘what really works’. It also reduces the potential for creative and equal collaborations between NGOs and local entrepreneurs, a relationship that is more commonly that of client and supplier.
There is a clear opening in this landscape for local investors and intermediaries such as tech hubs, who understand the local context. While change is slowly taking place and social-tech projects with alternative models are evolving around the country, the ecosystem requires new forms of leadership and collaboration between different groups.
The report also reflects on major cross-cutting themes emerging from the interviews that resonated with my own and others’ research, such as the skills gap spanning the social tech ecosystem — including modern project management techniques, iterative product development and engagement with end users.
Matt Haikin with his latest research paper.


The circular logic of humanitarian expertise

Humanitarian expertise can therefore be conceived as a sort of performance. It is less something a professional has acquired through experience (even though this is undeniably the case too) than something (s)he has come to excel at through repetitive performances. In other words, it is through the mastery of conscientiously choreographed practices of document production and bureaucratic rituals of authorization (embodied in meetings, conferences and workshops) that one qualifies as an ‘expert’.
This emphasis on ‘processes’ and ‘forms’ as effective carriers of ‘evidence’ denotes a commitment for action for lack of a concrete vision of the future. The tasks forces, working groups and conferences that humanitarian expertise relies on to achieve legitimacy tend to maintain ‘the reality on the ground’ that is supposed to inform policy ‘within the brackets’, to use the title of Riles’ 1998 American Anthropologist article (Riles 1998). Indeed, the ‘humanity’ embodied by the ‘people’ that such activities are ultimately meant to serve remains hidden from view, behind the documents and the processes that lead to their collective production. Expert knowledge, as a fragile product of negotiations, implicitly requires “the co-production of ignorance” (Mathews 2008).
Julie Billaud for Public Anthropologist shares her anthropological reflections on how humanitarian discourses are shaped and why historic organizational ethnography is still relevant to rediscover power-knowledge connections.

Q&A: 2 Digital Learning Devotees Evaluate Their Progress

Critical pedagogy asks that educators help students develop not only an epistemological relationship to reality, but also an awareness of their agency upon that landscape: the agency to change or be changed, to name or to be named, to claim power or surrender it. The learning management system doesn’t easily open itself to these concerns, but more importantly, the LMS makes no space for LGBTQ -- and specifically trans and queer -- identity formation. There need to be new practices developed for communication and support of trans and queer students across distance.
Mark Lieberman talks to Jesse Stommel & Sean Michael for Inside HigherEd about digital learning and pedagogy and new challenges for creating inclusive, critical online education.


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