UN Week Notes: Thursday

I spent the whole day today camped out at the Digital Media Lounge, because I think I have strep throat and schlepping all over town for press events was beyond my capacities. I had originally planned on attending a cookstove event, a global warming press conference, and the CGI keynote. Luckily, the Digital Media Lounge had some interesting stuff, so it wasn’t all that disappointing.

The highlights were the live broadcast of Obama’s Israel/Palestine speech, Rajiv Shah’s talk, and the absolute awesome president of Greenpeace. There was other stuff but those were the biggies.

Obama’s speech – it was a beautiful speech, beautifully delivered. But there was nothing new in it that’s going to move the needle on the situation. And this line “And efforts to threaten or kill Israelis will do nothing to help the Palestinian people,” is, unfortunately, demonstrably untrue. No one cared about the Palestinians until the intifada. Pretending otherwise isn’t going to win any supporters.

Rajiv Shah – we had to submit questions in writing and he picked which ones to answer. Not surprisingly, he didn’t pick any of mine. He stressed the expansion of the “core development community,” specifically mentioning Coca-Cola and young people who problem-solve. Rajiv Shah seems a little obsessed with innovation. It makes sense, since he comes from Gates, but I am not convinced it’s what USAID needs to focus on.

It also sounded to me like Shah is fully on board with the idea of development as a pillar of American foreign policy. I’m not opposed to that, but I also believe in development as a moral imperative. I wish I knew if he did too.

I live-tweeted Shah – you can see the tweets starting here.

Then we had the presentation from the unmovement people. It’s a social network that connect small NGOs and lets people learn about them and donate if they want. It’s supposed to help groups that don’t get social media tap its power anyway. I was fine with the whole thing until they mentioned that they don’t need to monitor or evaluate the NGOs because beneficiaries can just use the website to rate the projects and that’s how you’ll know if they are working.

Uh, NO. M&E is about way more than whether the beneficiaries like it. They communities you work with don’t necessarily know all your goals – they have better things to do than memorize your project objectives – and even really bad work can be popular with people, even if it’s wasting money and not doing much good. We need really M&E to make sure that we’re having the impact we want to have, and to show us how to adjust midstream if we don’t.

The, after a long, long wait in the auditorium, we had a presentation from Kumi Naidoo, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International. It was supposed to be a talk about how to meet the MDGs and protect the environment. It turned out to be a barn-burner of a rant that made it vividly clear how plastic most of this week has been.

He came out swinging – his first comment was that while he’s wholly in favor of reusing, this week had been nothing but recycled comments and baby steps. It was a great talk, and it left me feeling angry and vaguely inspired. My live tweets start here.


Disclosure: I attended UN Week as an Oxfam VOICE, which funded my trip as part of an effort to increase awareness of the MDGs.


Kumi Naidoo at some other event. photo credit: wwf France

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.

A semi-definitive guide

This post is now obsolete. I get so many career questions, I have moved it all over to the International Development Careers List and my paid consulting.

American culture is such that I don’t even really like writing this post. But I am starting to get deluged with requests for assistance, and I just don’t have the time to answer them. I have a mortgage to pay and a family to feed – however much I’d like to, I can’t devote my whole life to pro bono work.

This, therefore, is my semi-definitive guide to what I will do as part of my commitment to service, and what falls into consulting work and thus requires pay. Please note that unpaid work depends on me having the time to do it, and therefore may take longer or be refused.

Career Coaching

• Answering any question general enough I can also post it to my blog
• One phone call on any topic
• Any number of emails that are easy for me to answer from my own experience
• Taking a look at a resume and indentifying obvious flaws

• Detailed resume review and commentary
• Resume editing
• Advice about what employers are good to work for and what aren’t (because I will not do this in writing, I can’t blog about it)
• Practice interviews
• More than one phone call

Social Media Advising

• Social media audit, including quick recommendations for what could be improved
• Scan of organizational blog and suggestions for improvement
• Guest posting to your blog


• Social media audit, with detailed analysis of strengths and weaknesses
• Design of social media plan
• Blog planning, writing, editing, or management
• Social media training

Technical Assistance on Health and Development

• Read proposal and provide general impression
• Suggest resources for learning more about a topic
• Any question I can answer on Twitter
• Helping individual moms with breastfeeding

• Technical input into proposal design or evaluation
• Proposal writing or editing
• Training of any kind (except as previously mentioned)

Other random things I think of as service
• Board membership (though I am very picky about what boards I join)
• Speeches
• Providing references

In a nutshell – if you need specific, detailed guidance that takes time to produce, that is paid work. So would anything that requires me to be quoted on the record and/or shift from informal to formal, any communication which requires multiple phone calls, and questions that require research for me to answer or that I find boring.

(photo credit: Sokwanele – Zimbabwe)
Chosen because writing about this makes me kind of uncomfortable, and somehow featuring Zimbawean currency made me feel better.

Development 2.0 – More than jargon?

There are a few possible interpretations of Development 2.0 that make it more than jargon. Two are simple (although not easy) and most likely inevitable. The last one is very, very hard. And, of course, it’s the one that matters most.

The first meaning of Development 2.0 would be using new technology and methods to share information and improve practice. Use new technology to improve the quality of the work we do. This includes both using new technology to solve development problems, and to share information across communities of practice. It could mean a better kind of water pump, it could mean Ushahidi, or it could mean posting your trip reports to YouTube. Other examples include Aidworkers Network, Appropedia, networklearning.org, and uncultured.com. Not to mention the growing community of international development blogs and twitter accounts.

I think this kind of Development 2.0 will occur naturally. Development organizations are full of people who care about their work and seek ways to do it better. Early adopters will grab useful new tech as it occurs, and sooner or later institutional resistance will be overcome.

Another form of Development 2.0 would be using the social web to crowd-source funding for development projects. We saw the Obama campaign route around traditional donor dominance by getting hundreds of thousands of small donations instead of relying on a few major funders. We could do the same thing in development. This would mean a greater diversity in what projects get funded, and fewer irrational restrictions on money. This would mean that no one had the power to impose a global gag rule, for example, or force a project to procure all their mobile phones from Finland.

The truest, most difficult form of Development 2.0, however, is more than improving our current work. Instead, it will mean going from a donor model to a partnership model. The web 2.0 revolution was when people went from being passive consumers of pre-packaged information and entertainment to creating their own content and sharing it with each other using new tools. It shattered traditional media structures in ways we are still trying to understand.

If we could do that in development, it would be genuinely earth-shaking. What if developing countries went from being passive recipients of aid packages to identifying their own needs and developing their own solutions, reaching out to donors to provide funding and targeted expertise as requested? What if they shared those solutions with other countries in the same situation? Countries who have seen success in bringing down HIV rates could offer technical expertise to those still struggling. New technologies make information sharing and analysis easier than ever. They are not the exclusive province of the developed world.

Web 2.0 still relies on traditional media to provide content to be discussed, contextualized, and remixed. Perhaps in Development 2.0 donors would do deep technical research to support good program design, and monitor and evaluate programs to support the best possible uses of donor money.

Thanks to JamesBT, Bjelkeman, carolARC, waugaman, stevebridger, and Will Schmitt for helping me refine my ideas on this.

(photocredit: Ed Yourdon)
Chosen because I have a deep and abiding love for Al Gore.

International Development on Twitter, Part II – Five more people to follow

Joseph Kimojino @maratriangle

Why you should follow: Fascinating first-hand account of wildlife protection in the Mara Triangle, complete with catching poachers, making tourists behave, and helping wounded animals.

Sample Tweet: Three poachers arrested two nights ago and poaching activity seen in Mingu area. 14 snares collected this morning.

Appropedia @appropedia

Why you should follow: A constant stream of interesting information on useful technology.

Sample Tweet: A miracle substance that’s cheap & could add 1 billion points to the global I.Q.: iodised salt. http://is.gd/aMz5

Usha Venkatachallam @nadodi

Why you should follow: Great posts on information technology and the developing world.

Sample Tweet: mix a nerd & humanitarian news. result = AidNews, AidBlogs, and a how-to blog post. http://bit.ly/QeCJ

Gaurav Mishra @gauravonomics

Why you should follow: Links and thinking on social media and ICT for development.

Sample Tweet: Preparing for a talk tomorrow on the role of citizen journalism in crisis reporting for my fellow associates at http://isd.georgetown.edu/

Jon Camfield

Why you should follow: Interesting information technology information, and great coverage of One Laptop Per Child.

Sample Tweet: TCO for low-cost computing in Education: The video archive of last Thursday’s discuss. http://tinyurl.com/6xwe8n

As always, let me know who I forgot in the comments.

(photo credit: Steve Woolf)
Chosen because it was either this or the fail whale.

International development on Twitter, Part 1

Ten people to follow on Twitter if you’re interested in international development. Not the top ten, necessarily – there are too many great people on Twitter for me to make that claim. But ten microbloggers who consistently engage my attention with interesting ideas:

Glenna Gordon
Glenna Gordon is a journalist, photographer, and author of the Scarlett Lion blog, currently living in Uganda. Her writing, and the links she posts, offer beautifully written insight into Uganda, with a solid dose of cynicism and wry humor.

Sample tweet: Supermodel risks TB and Genocide by visitng Rwanda: Monika Schnarre, who considers herself a supermo.. http://tinyurl.com/65aymn

Why you should follow: For links to photos and articles on Uganda, Africa, and development which you wouldn’t have found on your own.

Chris Albon@chrisalbon
Chris Albon is author of the amazing War and Health blog, and posts a great series of links on war and conflict.

Sample tweet: For the past 2 weeks I’ve been writing post on armed groups potentially exploiting Ushahidi. This is what I mean: http://tinyurl.com/56bes7

Why you should follow: For links to a huge range of articles and resources on conflict in general and conflict and health. He’s obsessed with the intersection of war and health, and obsessed people make great reading.

Vasco Pyjama
Vasco Pyjama
is an aid worker who’s been everywhere, including Somalia and Afghanistan.

Sample tweet: Documenting lessons learnt and writing up methodologies. At first I thought I had indigestion. Now I realise it’s heartache.

Why you should follow: For a self-aware, intelligent, first-person perspective on aid work and its discontents.

Glenn Strachan@glennstrachan
Glenn Strachan travels the planet supporting ICT for development. He blogs as well as using Twitter.

Sample tweet: Right now I am trying to assemble a list of the top 30 organisations worldwide doing work specifically in ICT4D. There is no list.

Maneno @maneno
The twitter account of Maneno.org, which is devoted to making African voices heard.

Sample tweet: Toivo Asheeke’s latest post on his Maneno blog, “A Brief Case Study of A Successful African Country” (Namibia) http://tinyurl.com/6mste4

Why you should follow: To keep your news sources broad and deep.

I’ve got five more profiles coming up in my next post: @maratraingle, @chriswaterguy, @nadodi, @guaravanomics, and @joncamfield. Who am I missing? Tell me in the comments.

(photo credit: FunnyBiz)
Chosen because I love graphs.

The story of FORGE

About two weeks ago, something fascinating happened. Kjerstin Erickson, the director of FORGE, a small NGO that works with refugees in Zambia, posted on her blog at Social Edge. She said that FORGE was in major financial trouble and might have to shut down. The story has unfolded from there. A major philanthropy blogger wrote about FORGE on his blog, lauding their transparency. Consultants have been stepping up to help FORGE find a way to carry on. It’s become an opportunity to have some fascinating conversations about transparency, accountability, and what makes an NGO “deserve” to exist.

For something of such interest, this is getting no attention on Twitter; there is also surprisingly little attention from the web at large. I think this is because FORGE’s web presence is limited to the FORGE site and the Social Edge blog maintained by Kjerstin. Both of these are a good start but to create buzz you need to be all over the place. FORGE does not seem to have buzz.

FORGE needs a Twitter account immediately, as well as a friend feed account, and a Flickr pool. I know they have a very small staff, but they could work with a consultant to get the ball rolling (yes, I have contacted Kjerstin and offered to donate my services on this), and even some of the ongoing stuff could be done by a committed and well-informed volunteer. Their fundraising model – many small donations – is well suited to microblogging. So is their commitment to transparency. I’d love to see Kjerstin with a Twitter account, as well as someone in the field. Epic Change‘s use of social media would be a great model for FORGE.

Where is their board in all this? Sara Hall from New Philanthropy Advisors makes this point well. Why doesn’t their board care enough to give? And if they cannot give, why are they not out foraging for donations? FORGE can’t really overhaul their board now, but your board is not just a source of guidance or a required technicality. They should stand ready to open their pockets, call their friends, and do media on your behalf. The Nonprofiteer has some great writing on what your board should be doing for your non-profit.

Another thing: I hate to say this, but I don’t like the FORGE website. I think the writing is jargon-heavy, and obscures the power of their model and their message. I also think that the color and design is unwelcoming. In general, it feels very academic to me. It feels like something I am supposed to read about, not something I am supposed to be involved in.

Finally, I think FORGE is choosing the wrong selling points. Their main website page says “With FORGE, you can help end the cycle of war and poverty in Africa.” That doesn’t make them stand out from the scores of other organizations that work in Africa. They also emphasize that FORGE lets you choose how to support and change lives – again, that’s not very different from what everyone else is saying right now, especially Kiva. It’s all just more of the same. I also suspect that use of the catch-all “Africa,” instead of naming countries, may be off-putting to some people.

What is exciting about FORGE is that it is refugee-driven. Refugees themselves identify their needs, request funding, and implement their projects. FORGE just provides money and gives them tools and support as needed.

FORGE has the community drive and focus of a local NGO, paired with the accountability and transparency of an international organization. That’s exciting. That’s where they should shine their spotlight.