Celebrating the International Humanitarian Studies Association's first newsletter anniversary-A few reflections on curating humanitarian content
A few reflections on curating humanitarian content & the limits of virtual knowledge repositories
My colleagues of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) encouraged me to share a few thoughts on the occasion of their first anniversary of IHSA's curated newsletter.
Blogging and curating international development and humanitarian content have played an important part in my digital life for almost ten years now and I recently shared my 400th weekly development content review here on the blog and started to experiment with my own newsletter.
But as tempting as positive metrics are, they cannot capture some of the bigger issues in our otherwise small community and we need to stay humble and realize that we are communicating in a very small bubble…
One of the big challenges I have found throughout my years of communicating on social media is that expanding readership and engagement into any ‘popular’ arena is difficult and most nuanced content, often following academic rigor, journalistic ethics or evidence-based policy approaches is difficult to communicate.
The situation in Mali is still complicated, delivering aid to Yemen has never not been ‘challenging’ and the impact of climate, weather and governance on the situation in Mozambique is difficult even before we throw a decolonization spanner in the development works…one of the paradoxes I have encountered in my digital communication is how quickly agendas, events and crises move, yet how persistent many of the underlying issues are and that discursive change does not mean that the ‘humanitarian system’ is reformed.
A newsletter as a small piece of collective memory-making
One of the interesting and complicated aspects about blog archives, newsletter repositories and curated collections is that they can serve as one important piece of our historical puzzle. They work over time, they build a community over time and perhaps even a small collective conscience, sometimes literally one subscriber or ten views at the time.
Going through the IHSA’s archive is such a powerful reminder of how much knowledge there is in ‘our’ community and how much we can (or could) contribute if more people were paying attention.
As a good curator I will start with a reference to another post, Nicolas’ and Susanne’s Recent trends in Humanitarian thinking post from November 2020. I think this post is already doing an excellent job highlighting key emerging trends from a ‘new normal’ with and beyond Covid-19, to localization agendas, #AidToo or growing global inequalities.
Communicating beyond (English) words
Just as I was finishing my post, I noticed that the World Bank’s Development Impact Blog is celebrating its 10th anniversary and that they took this opportunity to feature some great photos by a Bolivian photographer and development researcher. This is an important reminder that we need to think about communication beyond the written word, but also visuals beyond the ‘WFP truck delivers flour in Syria’ or ‘rebels on a Toyota pick-up truck’ to indicate conflict in Africa. This is not just a question of platforms or how dominant visual content has become online, but about reminding donors, bosses or PhD students to create respectful, dignified, critical, powerful visual content. Lengthy pdf reports, book chapters hidden in expensive edited collections or even a nice written summary of your work on an organizational website are not enough.
Podcasts have also been emerging as an interesting channel from the corporate-professional (UN’s Melissa Fleming’s Awake At Night) to community-based (Reimagining Development), or well-being (The Humanitarian Self-Care Podcast) or academia-focused projects (In Pursuit of Development). As interesting and diverse as these podcasts are, it is still difficult to assess their ‘impact’ and how well they are doing to reach audiences outside an existing humanitarian community.
The IHSA blog is including content in languages other than English which is an important reminder that even if we stick to written language, we have so much more homework to do to make our communication more inclusive and attractive in a rapidly changing mediatized world.
Communicating, sharing and connecting are obviously not just practices for the sake of it. When I look through a year of IHSA’s newsletter postings I am often filled with a sense of anger, perhaps even despair at how powerless good intentions, well-implemented work and evidence-based policy recommendations can be. From Covid responses in Brazil to humanitarian disasters in Yemen or Tigray or the umpteenth reiteration of the question whether or not the UN’s humanitarian chief should be a British man again are tiresome.
And for every story on responses to racism, colonial legacies or language/jargon in the sector there seems to be a new scandal and a repetition of discussions around ‘safeguarding’ in the humanitarian system.
The challenge for a newsletter and curation project remains that they are occupying a unique space between the doers, the writers, the communicators and the amplifiers.
I recently shared a new blog, a writing project of a survivor of sexual violence in humanitarian work and when I noticed on Twitter that another reader had connected with the author through my weekly link review, I had a short moment of affirmation why it matters to share good writing and smaller blogs and listen as discussions unfold.
Curation as diversification
Since I am an academic and usually not happy with inaccessible academic writing, often buried in long journal articles, hidden behind paywalls, I really cherish the diversity of writing I have the privilege to discover (I reflect more on this in a longer essay Blogging and curating content as strategies to diversify discussions and communicate development differently).
In my teaching, research and communication I rely heavily on non-academic resources, sometimes just one of Jeff Crisp’s tweets where he points out excessive humanitarian branding again or listening to one of the thoughtful podcasts mentioned above. And since this is the newsletter of the Humanitarian Studies Association, this is a good reminder to academic colleagues to pay (more) attention to communication outside the box and dare to engage critically beyond established written products.
None of this knowledge management and community building will ‘put pressure’ on politicians as the dismantling of DfID in the UK has painfully showed or change the course global governance where many cards are stacked against a ‘responsibility to protect’.
But ‘we’ as a global community of practitioners and academics who are working towards positive change every day also need to read different, perhaps sometimes difficult readings to be reminded of our common goal and the humanity that the writing we share here creates even for a short moment, a click or a glance over a blog post.
But a pandemic like COVID-19 does also provide an opportunity to think again, to remember we are all humans and while the virus affects people differently, not only based on age and medical preconditions, but maybe more importantly based on class, wealth and status, (…). At the end of the day, we need to survive as humanity on the planet, as humans who are first and foremost social beings. It is ultimately up to all of us if and how we show solidarity in the times of Corona (and hopefully in its aftermath when other more pertinent threats to humanity like the climate emergency dominate the headlines again) – and avoid falling for the trap of social distancing. Give physical space to everybody (and wash those hands) – but at the same time, keep your heart open, would make for so much better advise.(This is a quote from IHSA’s board member Tanja Mueller’s post at the beginning of the pandemic and shared in the first newsletter in March 2020)