Local thinktanks are natural allies in ‘Doing Development Differently’ so why not support them better?

October 4, 2017

What should the IMF do differently in Fragile/Conflict States?

October 4, 2017

A draft chapter on blogging and this blog – need your comments please

October 4, 2017
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There’s no way I can come out of this looking good, but I need your help. I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a new edition of a Routledge book, Popular Representations of Development: Insights from Novels, Films, Television and Social Media. The topic is…. this blog.

So I have put together what can best be described as 5000 words of evidence-based narcissism and would really appreciate your comments, suggestions for improvements etc. Here’s the draft chapter PROD.

And a couple of excerpts to (hopefully) whet your appetites:

Blogging v other representations of development

Over the years, I have been involved in a range of different roles in aid and development – as an activist, journalist, thinktank writer, scholar, civil servant, NGO researcher and advocate. Each has involved talking and writing about development in different ways to different audiences through different media.

Of all these, blogging stands out as a form of continuous engagement with a specialist audience, in which ideas and arguments can evolve and be sharpened over time. The conversation can be searching and bad ideas can be easily shot down, as I found when I road tested a 2×2 matrix on fragility and conflict in the final stages of writing a book, How Change Happens. The 2×2 never made it into the final text.

Blog conversation is undeniably asymmetric – in this field, the blogger presents themselves as an ‘expert’, or else no-one will click through. It also reflects the broader distribution of power and influence in both society and academia: most international development bloggers are ‘pale, male and stale’ (white, male and old), although national-level blogging is much more diverse. Efforts to diversify the contributors to FP2P have come up against a scarcity of resources and time (for example to work with authors or transcribe interviews). I am currently discussing possible funding with a foundation that could help address this.

Despite such flaws, blogging is often relatively less asymmetric than journalism, film or book-writing, or even academic exchange with students who can be cowed by the power hierarchies within universities.

Public debate is more horizontal, but also more rancorous and often less informed. I am always struck by how little aggression emerges on FP2P, compared to other parts of the internet (I have only ever had one reader you might call a troll, and even he was merely on a nerdy mission to critique Oxfam’s education policy at every opportunity).

Blogging also allows me to build bridges with other representations of development. One of the early posts was entitled ‘I just read four novels in a row’. The informal, personal nature of blogging makes it much easier to introduce other disciplines and forms, recognize the multifaceted nature of readers’ lives and at the same time, have a little fun with the often rather solemn discourse of development in more formal channels. FP2P has used a Bob Marley lyric as an executive summary for an IMF report on food prices and Tolstoy’s War and Peace as an introduction to systems thinking.

The most notorious post: Swimming-Pool Gate:

Nairobi swimming poolThe Nairobi Swimming Pool post of January 2012 has become somewhat notorious in the aid sector, providing a case study for books such as International Aid and the Making of a Better World. Its popularity lay in laying bare the kind of difficult decisions and dilemmas that are a regular occurrence in aid work, but which are seldom discussed in public.

‘Nairobi is a major NGO hub, currently the epicentre of the drought relief effort, and Oxfam’s regional office realized some years ago that we could save a pile of money if we ran our own guesthouse, rather than park the numerous visitors in over-priced hotels. It’s nothing fancy, definitely wouldn’t get many stars, but it’s much more relaxed than a hotel.

But there’s a problem. As a large converted house in a nice part of town, and like most such houses in Nairobi, it has a swimming pool. But the swimming pool is covered over and closed, even though it would be cheap to keep it open. Why? Reputational risk – back in the UK, where swimming pools are luxury items, Oxfam’s big cheeses saw a tabloid scandal in the making and closed it. It didn’t help when some bright spark decided to advertise for a swimming pool attendant on the Oxfam website……

On my recent stay at the guesthouse, I asked everyone I met there and whether African or expat, they all said it makes sense to open the pool. Exhausted aid workers arrive hot and dusty from remote areas of East Africa for some R&R, but there’s no chance of a refreshing swim. I need my exercise so had to go running instead – the combination of altitude, hills and choking traffic fumes nearly killed me.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that most of our supporters back in the UK, let alone the people we are dog_blog_cartoonworking to help, are not likely to have access to a pool in their back yard, so why should aid workers get special treatment?

So what do you think? Should Oxfam open the pool and take any bad publicity on the chin, or should we stop whining? It would probably cost about $200-300 a month to keep the pool open – if we could find a way to do it without creating an accounting nightmare, we could probably raise that from contributions from guests, and even have money to spare to plough back into Oxfam programmes.’

The post sparked record numbers of comments (89 to date) and votes. Of 800 people who took part in the poll, 75% urged Oxfam to re-open the pool, while only 7% argued for keeping it shut.

However the post itself became part of the problem, when it was picked up by anti-aid journalist Ian Birrell in an article in The Spectator, which argued that ‘Mr Green’s blog highlighted the contortions of a thriving industry that would go out of business if it succeeded in its stated aims.’ In the middle of a famine response in East Africa, Oxfam press officers were forced to handle enquiries from journalists about the Great Swimming Pool Debate. I had to apologise to them, and as far as I know, the pool remains closed.

If you have time to skim the chapter, please stick your comments on the blog, or if they’re too rude for public consumption, email me at dgreen[at]oxfam.org.uk

13 comments

  1. I think blogging still has its place, and is used by the private sector for content marketing, NGOs do this as well. One thing you could touch on maybe is the difference between individual / private blogging and corporate, or organisational blogging. Blogs started off as a platform for individual expression, and are now being used by organisations for marketing (NGOs included). Just as the individual portrays themselves as the expert in the blogs, so do organisations which use blogs for marketing and SEO. So have blogs simply become a vehicle for marketing and self-promotion? Not that I’m accusing of you of not being an expert or using this blog for that purpose (that was a serious comment, not a sarcastic one…when will we be able to adjust the tone of our words on the web).

  2. Still recovering from the shock of seeing a warfighter prominently displayed on the cover of such a book, and the implications of the same. This topic isn’t addressed much, perchance that’s where the value of blogs (as opposed to articles, whitepapers, reports, and whatnot) comes in – to address the unaddressable?

  3. I have continued lecturing in International Development long past my sell-by date (I’m 74) and was supposedly ‘retired’ by my old universty when I reached the grand old age of 65. The law has, thanks to the EU, changed since 2008. I recommend the blog to my first and second year undergraduates and many of them subscribe to it. I use it to keep uo to date with what is happening in the world of development; something that I would find extremely difficult otherwise. It provides me with insights into a complex world and draws my attention to useful publications. In short, I would be almost lost without it.

  4. This looks great, Duncan! I’m very opportunistically suggesting my journal article on development blogging (“Reflexive engagements: the international development blogging evolution and its challenges” (http://aidnography.blogspot.co.za/2013/06/reflexive-engagements-development-blogging-denskus-papan-development-in-practice.html). I also think that the aspect of curating content may deserve attention (http://aidnography.blogspot.co.za/2016/09/curating-globaldev-what-i-learned-from-reading-thousands-of-development-articles.html); I’m also remembering our virtual debate around gender and ‘female writing practices’ (http://aidnography.blogspot.co.za/2012/03/is-writing-reflective-blogs-on.html). All the best, Tobias

  5. Blogging can also be a form of reflection on your practice, the great and dumb stuff you do, the ‘stucks’. Then comes the additional sense making with a specialist audience. You touch upon the latter, not the first? What happens as you write your blog?

  6. I agree with all the comments above – any chance you could have a like button on the comments so that one doesn’t have to say “what Amy said” and “What Lucia said”.

  7. Hey Duncan – apologies first off as have only managed to find time to skim-read the chapter, but looks good so far.

    I think as another commenter mentions, the difference between blogs of an individual ‘expert’ vs. marketing/organisational-blogs is worthy of clarifying as I think your chapter is concerned with the former, but the latter are also becoming increasingly prevalent.

    The only important aspect I think you are missing (unless I missed it!) is the timeliness of blogs. There is really no other avenue where ‘experts’ can publish their thoughts about a current, ongoing issue. Journals and books take far too long, traditional news outlets have their own censorship (sorry, I mean acceptance criteria) in place, Facebook/Twitter are timely but ephemeral… So for people who want an informed view on a topic that may fall outside of the purview of the mainstream media outlets, ‘expert’ blogs are pretty much all that exists. And to me this is vitally important – if I had to rely on The Guardian for all my development news, I would know very little about what is going on in the world until it appeared in a book in 18 months time… :-)

  8. I enjoyed the chapter. I found it a bit heavy on numbers, though I appreciate that you want to show how the blog outreach has grown over the years. I very much appreciate being given links to all sorts of websites and data I would otherwise spend hours looking for (or actually, just would not look for). I try very hard to get my students at the Institute of Social Ministry, Tangaza University College, Nairobi, to use the blog, but without great success. So occasionally I forward a particular topic to them – especially one with a series of charts.

    As regards the swimming pool in Nairobi, surely it is also there for fire safety reasons? Given the low water pressure and water rationing in the city, does the house insurance oblige one to have a certain amount of water avalable on site in case of fire? I have always presumed that is why new blocks of flats have at least small pools – to comply with fire regulations. Nothing to stop the pool having multiple uses surely?

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