New Podcast Series: Voices from the Inside


Voices from the Inside October 9 2011

For every expat aid worker who swans in and out, complaining about Delhi belly and inadequate per diem, there are at least ten host country aid workers doing the real work of international aid. They don’t live in hotels, they don’t get special treatment, and they’re the ones who’ll still be there twenty years from now.

We don’t hear much from those aid workers. They don’t tend to blog, and the media prefers the pretty story of whites in shining armor. But these aid workers – the “global south” – are the heart of the work we all do. We ought to be learning from them.

In that spirit, I am proud to announce my new podcast series, “Voices from the Inside,” where I’ll be interviewing the aid workers who actually come from the developing world. Some of them are expats now, but that’s not how they started.

These are the voices that can tell you the real story of aid work.

Find the first episode right here, where I talk to a woman I met during this trip to Bishkek.


photo credit: livepine

Ushahidi, Twitter, and the future of foreign aid

Text of a short talk I’ll be giving next week:

I want to tell you a story about crowdsourcing, social media, and how the world is changing.

A little while ago, we saw an outbreak of brutal ethnic violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Southern Kyrgyzstan is largely populated by ethnic Uzbeks, and they were being attacked – in really horrible ways – by ethnic Kyrgyz. They had been living together calmly for 20 years. It was an ugly shock.

I have spent a lot of time in both Southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and I was pretty upset about what was going on. I was reading about the situation obsessively, and talking to all my Uzbek and Kyrgyz friends about it. I learned that the violence was being driven by rumors. The first Kyrgyz attacks came in response to rumors of Uzbek atrocities, and rumors and distorted stories were still triggering violence.

So I thought, Kyrgyzstan needs Ushahidi, to cut through the rumors.

Ushahidi is an open source software platform that aggregates and maps crowd-sourced information. It receives information via SMS or the web, and then presents it in a user-friendly way that people can view on a computer or a cellphone. It was first used to map post-election violence in Kenya.

Five years ago if I’d thought that, there would have been nothing I could do. I could have told my friends, written a blog post, and worried. This year, I posted about it on Twitter. A couple people on Twitter gave me the contact information for the Ushahidi team. I wrote to them, and they told me that there was an Ushahidi Kyrgyzstan effort going on.

A guy called Altyn Ismailov was working on an Ushahidi platform for Kyrgyzstan. I got in touch with him by email. He told me that by now the violence had mostly stopped, but there was a constitutional referendum coming up in three days that threatened to trigger it all over again. Alytn wanted to have a referendum-specific Ushahidi platform running, to both monitor the voting and track any violence that occurred, but he had hit a wall.

Altyn was out of money, and he was exhausted. He asked if I would help him write a grant application to get funds to finish the Ushahidi platform and educate people about how to use it. I said yes, but I was worried about trying to get DfiD or USAID to mobilize funds in four days. Then Altyn told me he needed 564 dollars.

Now I don’t have a life where I can just write a check for $564, but I do have a bunch of Twitter followers. I told Altyn I thought I could fundraise the money for him, and leave major donors out of it. I put up a ChipIn widget with a project description, and described the effort to my Twitter followers. My goal was to raise $564 in 48 hours.

We raised $610 in 8 hours. It was amazing. Altyn got his money, and the platform was up in time for the referendum. The voting went smoothly, and there was no further violence. Odds are it would have gone smoothly anyway, but we were proud to be part of the insurance.

This isn’t a story about me or Altyn, though. This is a story about change. Ushahidi is an open source platform, developed in the global south. Ten years ago, Africa didn’t have the connectivity to develop and distribute a platform like Ushahidi. And ten years ago, cell phones didn’t have the power or the ubiquity to make Ushahidi a useful tool.

I learned about Ushahidi from the web. I got the contact information for its team via social media. I was in touch with Altyn by email. I raised the money using the ChipIn widget to let people track and donate, and all my fundraising requests were on Twitter. Nothing about the fundraising effort would have been possible without social media and new technology.

This was a small scale effort, and there were a lot of reasons that it got lucky.* But I have a feeling it’s going to be the model for a whole lot of bigger efforts in the future.

*Specifically, Ushahidi is a social media darling, the amount of money needed was small and specific, and Kyrgyzstan was in the news.


(Photo credit: Robert Thomson)

Chosen because this is a gorgeous picture of Kyrgyzstan and looks just like I think of it.

Me, in other places

What if we renamed Chagas to “blood sucking assassin bug disease?” I sexify NTDs over at End the Neglect.*

Just to demonstrate that I have range, I also have a post up at UN Dispatch, looking at the possible outcomes of the events in Kyrgyzstan.The scenarios range from almost good to very, very bad.

*Clever description stolen from Kathleen McDonald

A Kyrgyzstan Cheat Sheet

This is way off my usual topic, but I have been living in Central Asia on and off since 2001. I love this region, and I love Kyrgyzstan (my mom and I had actually been planning to go to Bishkek this week for a long weekend). I don’t have a whole lot of insight to offer on the situation in Bishkek right now, but I thought some background might be useful. Your Kyrgyzstan cheat sheet:

  1. Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, and became independent in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The president of the Kyrgyz SSR, Askar Akayev, became president of independent Kyrgyzstan.
  2. Initially hailed as the “Thomas Jefferson of Central Asia,” Akayez grew less committed to democracy and more corrupt over time. His family, particularly his children, began to dominate all forms of commerce in Kyrgyzstan.
  3. In March 2005, Akayev’s party swept the parliamentary elections in an election that nobody thought was free and fair. It was criticized by the OSCE and led to massive protests all over the country. On March 24th, there was a bloodless coup and Akayev fled the country. This was known as the Tulip Revolution.
  4. The new president was Kurmanbek Bakiev, a former prime minister and leader of the People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan. He expressed his commitment to a freer, more democratic Kyrgyzstan.
  5. That didn’t happen. His term in office has been marred by state-sponsored violence and widespread corruption. The protests against him began in April 2007.
  6. Here and now, April 2010, the protests are starting again. The media is reporting that the State TV station has been occupied by protesters, and approximately 10,000 people are gathered in the nation’s main square. At least four people have been killed. Two provincial government offices have been occupied. Twitter is reporting that the Interior Minister was killed. Friends in Kyrgyzstan tell me that more people are on the move from all over the country to Bishkek to support the protesters, and their goal is revolution.

Two on Tuesday – Tuberculosis

Yesterday was world TB Day. In honor, I’ll offer two resources about multi-drug resistant Tuberculosis. MDR TB is very very scary. It also shows the challenges of any kind of health treatment program. It’s hard to keep patients in engaged in a long course of treatment and it is highly infectious.

This article talks about MDR TB in the Kyrgyz Republic. As an added bonus, using an x-ray to diagnose TB, as described in the article, is not all that accurate. You can’t identify specific strains. You really need sputum smear microscopy to make it work.

For more information on MDR TB, you can check the WHO MDR TB report. I attended the presentation of the report in DC and it’s both seriously researched and as frightening as one would expect.

An addendum: Another interesting TB document: notes on communicating with the media about TB. The WHO did a brilliant job of this, as their fairly dry report on a technical medical topic got all kinds of news coverage, including the New York Times.