How to end foreign aid and avoid a punch-up

May 7, 2013

Is power and politics a massive distraction? Crossing swords with the World Bank.

May 7, 2013

Why are there so few bloggers at the UN? A conversation with staff.

May 7, 2013
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I spent a busy few days in New York last week, talking to (well, OK, mainly talking at) about 200 UN staff at various meetings in UN Women, UNDP andI blog therefore I am UNICEF. There was a lot of energy in the room (and even outside the room – people at UNDP spilled over into the corridor), and plenty of probing viva-like questions and comments.

Which is what I expected, because intellectually, I think the UN is in an enormously productive phase. Just thinking back over recent  posts on this blog, there is UNRISD on Social and Solidarity Economy, UNCTAD on finance-driven globalization, UNDP on the rise of the South, UN Women on women and the justice system and regular appearances by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Taken as a whole, this output is innovative and important, both challenging received wisdom and coming up with some of the new ideas and alternatives we so desperately need.

So where are the UN’s bloggers? UN staff certainly read blogs (including this one, I think a lot of people came along just to see what a blogaholic looks like in the flesh). But they hardly ever write them – the only one I regularly read is Ian Thorpe’s excellent ‘KM on a Dollar a Day’ (the KM is Knowledge Management), but that is so unbranded I’m not even sure the UN knows he’s doing it. The only official UN blog that comes up on a quick search is aimed at the general public – photos etc – not much there for wonks.

In contrast, I’m speaking at the World Bank tomorrow and suggested a chat to a few of its bloggers. Tricky they said – there’s 300 of them. Why the enormous difference? Is this about a greater degree of overall confidence and agency among Bank staff, or the institutional and political constraints operating in both institutions, or a mix of the two?

You want me to blog? Must I?

You want me to blog? Must I?

This awoke painful memories of a ‘bloggers’ breakfast‘ between CGD and Oxfam America last year. As we went round the table, CGD researchers raved about how much they enjoyed blogging, the to and fro of debate, the interaction etc. The Oxfamistas came over all Eeyore and said how anxious they felt about bloggin in case they make mistakes or get the organization (or themselves) into trouble. (To be fair, Oxfam America blogs have come a long way since then, including hiring Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters).

The UN staff seem to be in an even more extreme version of that defensive crouch, so worried about going wrong that they don’t even try. One person in a comms team even claimed that blogging is actually prohibited in the UN, only to be told that no, social media was an official priority (they’re doing better on twitter – UNICEF has 1.8m followers). And there’s plenty of would-be bloggers around – when I asked how many wrote private blogs, 4 out of 50 UNICEF people raised their hands.

So (assuming there isn’t some secret management conspiracy to stifle would-be bloggers), how could the UN start blogging, they asked? A few ideas:

Blogging only works if you move ‘from permission to forgiveness’, as the management cliché has it. But in a large institution with a reputation to protect, you can’t just let anyone start blogging under your logo – they need to earn it. How to marry risk management and the freedom and speed needed to blog? A probation period is a good compromise – for the first six months of this blog, I had to get sign off from Oxfam International for every post, then we relaxed a bit. Now if I screw up too often, I know they’ll rein me in, but if I don’t rattle a few Oxfam cages, I know I’m being too bland. There’s a balance to be struck.

Don’t force everyone to blog – if people see it as a chore, the resulting posts are guaranteed to be unreadable.  Why not start with those four private bloggers and get them to kick off the blog?

Give them time: blogs take months to establish, as word of mouth spreads and readers mount up (or not – the market is merciless).

Give them a face: anonymous institutional blogs don’t usually work. Blogs need a personality. If you haven’t got anyone as obsessive as me, try the Global Dashboard model – a stable of bloggers, with an option to sign up the ones you like. That takes the pressure off a bit.

Any more tips?

This should really matter to the UN, in my view. Good research and policy papers don’t disseminate themselves, and the blogosphere is an increasingly important way to get your messages out. By self-censoring in this way, the UN is reducing the impact of some really excellent work. Consider yourselves lobbied.

This is just a subset of a much wider issue – how to attract and retain mavericks/original thinkers in large bureaucratic aid institutions. But my colleague (and uber maverick) Nicholas Colloff has complained about the growing length of these posts, so (see how interactive this is?) I’ll leave that for another time.


  1. Very interesting article. I have always felt that the culture of blogging was much less active at the UN. That said, where you will find some of the most active bloggers in the system is usually on each agency’s Teamworks/closed common workspace. UNDP is the best example of this. There is an awareness of the importance of blogging, sure, but it is most certainly restricted in content breadth and in audience.

  2. Great post, with personality 😉

    In (non-dev) education, there’s a big move to getting teachers to blog, both with their classrooms as an exercise and for themselves personally. You kind of come out with this same impasse – people are stuck in their ways, and you need the handful who take the self-initiative. In this context, what I’ve seen is the lack of institutional support for blogging. If you’re going to do it, great! But in your own time and you figure it out.

    From what I’ve seen, granted being just a graduate student, is there is more support in the WB for blogging because there’s a platform (e.g. World Bank Blogs). I haven’t seen that as much with the UN.

  3. Hi Duncan, I couldn’t agree with you more about the need for blogging and opening up. We have about 200 bloggers on Voices of Eurasia – mostly working for UNDP and writing in their own personal capacity (we don’t do “we” :) ). So we went over the “defensive crouch” you are talking about, but it has not been easy. We’re also trying to get more guest bloggers, and encouraging our bloggers to become guest bloggers. We’re having some good response in terms of traffic, but obviously you reminded us that we need to get much better at marketing! :) Have a look and, if you have a chance, we would really welcome your feedback.

    Btw, your blog post was forwarded to me 3 times by 3 different people today within minutes from you publishing it, just in case you were having questions about your impact!

    1. Which makes me wonder if there is something particularly asphyxiating about working for the UN in New York, rather than elsewhere. Any views? And thanks for the evidence of impact – always useful in these results-obsessed times!

  4. “Is this about a greater degree of overall confidence and agency among Bank staff, or the institutional and political constraints operating in both institutions, or a mix of the two?” The short answer would be: yes.

    While social media are encouraged these days, there is also an emphasis on the corporate message. The UN is very sensitive about offending the sensibilities of any Member State and equally afraid of damage to resource mobilization. Consequently, blogging under the official brand is limited to corporate types with approved messages, while staff are told to make a disclaimer that when they blog, tweet, speak publicly off-work, they do so in their individual capacity.

    1. But the World Bank also has to manage tricky relations with its member states – so why are they so much more on the ball on blogging?

  5. Thanks Duncan, some much needed encouragement for the UN! I think this is symptomatic of a broader issue across the UN system which often sees the minimisation of error as more important than the maximisation of performance. How might the UN change that do you think?

  6. What Juha says: “Consequently, blogging under the official brand is limited to corporate types with approved messages, while staff are told to make a disclaimer that when they blog, tweet, speak publicly off-work, they do so in their individual capacity.” is completely right. I work at a UN agency and everything official takes MONTHS (at times years) to get approved by the higher-ups (in my case, it means sending everything through 3 levels and incorporating comments from each– plus I have to get ‘planning’ approval to even write something before I start working on it, which can take several weeks). Blogging has to happen fast and the UN just does not have that capacity as a large bureaucratic organization. It is far too invested in the hierarchy.

  7. Duncan – nice to hear/see you last week and thanks for the shout out.

    Thinking on why blogging might not be so common in the UN, I think risk aversion and some lack of clarity (and therefore over caution) about what is and what isn’t permissible certainly plays a role.

    There is I think less of a culture of publishing (books or journals) in the UN than in the Bank, and when we publish there is more of a tendency for something to come out from the organization or Department rather than clearly identifying individual contributors, so this carries over into blogging.

    I also hear that in parts of the Bank advisers are judged by number and type of projects they contribute to and blogging helps them with their internal marketing and reputation management which is a strong incentive for them to blog.

    A number of UN staffers do write “blogs” on internal networks such as UN Teamworks, UNICEF communities or UN Unite Connect – but while these are a good sandbox encourage greater internal sharing and debate, I think they also wall off UN thinkers from the outside world or even from colleagues in other agencies.
    Here’s something I wrote a while back comparing internal and external blogging

    In terms of other UN blogs, apart from the UNDP Voices from Eurasia already mentioned (started by an ex-WB blogger by the way), another official example would be IFAD’s social reporting blog but there aren’t many other examples that are not official communication focused.

  8. As a UNDP staff member, I completely agree with you..we can do much more…for example, open our a currently closed ‘platform’ to a broader audience (i.e. rest of the world). Important to get ideas and thoughts out there. Times have changed and we need to change with them.

    1. You’ve put your finger on it Taimur. There’s a key organizational shift away from a traditional default position of keeping things internal, and publish externally if there’s a reason to do so, to a presumption in favour of publishing – you need a reason why not to publish. Oxfam has yet to get there – I regularly find really interesting internal documents which could quite easily be published. Not sure about the Bank (I’ll ask them today)

  9. A couple of points in answer to your query Duncan:

    1) UN agencies are monstrous bureaucracies – who would organise such a thing and rally the necessary thinking people who might do this? Qualified, clever, dynamic, motivated and original people are few and far between in the UN.

    2) UN staff are far too well-paid to risk saying anything controversial that might potentially endanger their careers.

    Don’t advocate for the UN to promote a culture of bloggers in order to surreptitiously disseminate ideas that might change policy. Advocate for a more accountable institution that doesn’t waste millions of dollars paying under-qualified staff who sit around waiting for their pay-cheques.

  10. Dear Duncon,

    great post, thanks for raising this important topic. One reason for the timidness of UN staff with regards to blogging is a UN policy that prohibits any staff member to release any written publication without UN approval (as evidenced e.g. by the case of the authors of ‘Emergency Sex’ who can’t work for the UN again). What constitutes a publication, however, was always very unclear in and created a lot of anxiety for staff in the wake of social media (“Does that mean I can’t maintain a personal Twitter account, because it’s written word in public?”). While the UN slowly got a handle on dealing with social media channels in an official capacity, it did not clarify until today whether staff are actually allowed to maintain a public blog, and if, how much of their work they can talk about. That is why on my and many of my UN colleague’s blogs you will find a disclaimer like “The information posted on this blog, while sometimes related to the author’s work at UN, does not reflect UN’s views but the author’s”, just to be sure.

    That having said, there are a number of UN colleagues who are out there with their ideas and experiences, and they are contributing to a climate in which official blogging initiatives like the excellent “Voices of Eurasia” blog can be piloted, and the notion gets traction that letting UN colleagues share their work with the public is a good thing!

    Here’s a list of blogs from UN colleagues that I follow personally (well, and yes, I’m listing my own blog too 😉

    A digerati wannabe:
    Gauri’s mumblings:
    KM on a Dollar a day:
    La puce savante:
    Roxanna Samii blog:
    Talk – Share – Learn:
    The Little Peacekeeper:
    Stepping Higher:

    May there be more and more of us!

  11. Thanks Duncan for highlighting this issue.

    While it’s not yet as widespread as it could be, we do have a blog at the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific regional office.

    We use this for a mixture of opinion pieces from our regional experts, plus stories from the field by comms people like me:

  12. Duncan,
    Thanks for this post. As mentioned by Ian and Johannes, the UN family has a number of bloggers and some of the agencies also have blogs. Glad to see the mention of my organization’s blog
    I believe what we should be advocating for is for our colleagues to embrace the digital culture and change in mindset. The challenge we all face is how to move publishing from paper to digital platforms and ask ourselves why is that our colleagues are keen to get their articles published in journals etc and why are reluctant to provide the same content as a blog?

  13. Dear Duncan,

    Great article. I believe UN employees witness many issues that could help contribute to various debates. I have been in and out of the UN for 10 years, working on various health issues.

    I am currently a staff member with a leading UN agency at country level, having worked for different agencies at country, global and regional levels.

    I write this anonymously as the rules and regulations of my large UN agency expressly suggest not blogging or conributing without clearance at high level first.

    I contributed to a global health discussion blog in early 2011, which was well received by many. However a senior member of a key donor phoned a senior HQ-based member of my agency and forcibly requested that I stop contributing and blogging. I was requested not to blog or contribute again.

    Whilst I feel I have been effectively silenced so the agency receives funding from this donor, there are many issues I see everyday and would love to contribute to discussions globally..but have to balance this passion with the practicalities of not getting fired as I have a family to feed.

    Good luck to those who are able to speak out freely!

  14. Dear Duncan,

    Enjoyed your talk in NY, and the questions you posed. On the issue that UN staff blog less frequently, a few small points.

    Maintaining neutrality of an organization, and having its staff perceived as non-political advisers focused on human rights and welfare, at times can be the difference that permits an UN organization to stay engaged and continue to operate in politically difficult environments. With so many good bloggers already, there may well be much less value added from having another person’s opinion enter the blogosphere, compared to the value added of having that person’s efforts remaining tolerated (if not welcome) in some very marginalised states.

    Another thought is that the extensive internal blogging that does go on in most UN organizations, such as UNICEF, permits staff to rapidly seek advice and expertise from colleagues on issues, such sharing better practices on dealing with a disease outbreak, overcoming a stock-out of meds, or being able to bring politically sensitive issues up for discussion. This provides a pragmatic way to bypass the organisational layers that otherwise might delay knowledge sharing, increasing the agency’s ability to intervene and protect the welfare or lives of , in UNICEF’s case, children. Writing takes time, and many choose to spend it on internal discussions rather than on the stoking of external ones.

    A last thought is that some filtering and vetting of ideas by UN organizations is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as there are other fora allowing all global development folks (including civil society) an unfettered exchange of uncensored opinions. A process of advocating the merits of one’s opinion on a given issue, and then being required to provide a well-thought out rationale before an opinion is churned out, might also be beneficial to the quality of the ideas generated.

  15. Hi Duncan. Thanks for posting this. In addition to the reasons Ian Thorpe lists in his post, I think that staff do not see the value in blogging. In addition to the personal development benefits of developing and curating one’s ideas, there is significant benefit to the organization from sharing ideas and collaborating in an online community. Blogging, and engagement on the social web in general, creates serendipitous opportunities, that also have significant value, especially when resources are tight.

  16. There are two issues to keep in mind:
    1) We sign ‘do not communicate to the media’ when we join UN. With the blogs, “We are the media” but the signed piece of paper still feels like it is somewhat relevant.
    2) As mentioned before, we need permissions on (loosely defined) external activities, which include publications. And the approval chain for this could significant (I’ve done it to publish a non-UN book). Again, when is a blog not a publication?

    Finally, UN bloggers include more than bloggers within UN writing about UN. I am a computer geek and write on computer geek issues. You would not follow me to learn about UN. But people like me skew your ‘UN bloggers’ statistics.

  17. @Tom – I think you are right that in some UN agencies there is an increasing amount of internal knowledge sharing going on, and that is an encouraging sign -although it’s still somewhat of a minority pursuit even in UNICEF and UNDP (where I’ve recently worked).
    But I’d argue on many (although not all) issues you will get more useful feedback and insights if you include outsiders in the conversation, or even people from other UN agencies. Practical issues of internal policies and tools are of course better done internally, but on many areas the best technical knowledge, or at least diversity of opinion is better found through external dialogue.

    On the issue of thinking through your ideas fully before sharing I think there is a “perfect being the enemy of the good” thing going on here. If you share a draft idea you might actually be able to get useful feedback which you can incorporate at an early stage. Also from my experience if you write something dumb you actually get caught out more quickly on an external blog than an in house one so you quickly learn to think before you write (or to quickly admit you are wrong and correct yourself).

  18. Hi Duncan, I’ve got an update that maybe delves a bit further into the subject. In this case it’s about UN/DP and microblogging. My awesome colleague Jura Khrapunov built a web tool to see who’s influencing us on Twitter – we mapped our small team, and have also started with a bunch of UNDP Twitter accounts too – a first look suggests that we’re all following (and influencing) each other/ourselves:

    So maybe a couple mind shifts need to happen: not only to work out loud, but to also really broaden our conversations (and partnerships). Genuinely opening up would mean connecting with people and organizations outside the UN – for the best knowledge, and a diversity of opinion, as Ian rightly says, (and maybe uncharted possibility and better development projects and programmes).

  19. Interesting blog. By the way, may I claim that I was first ever blogger ( or to be modest , one of the first ?) in United Nations System? Read my blogs when I was in UNEP from year 2007. The first blog appeared on 2nd Feb 2007. I of course I had to add a foot note that the opinions expressed there in are my personal etc. See:

    Later after my retirement from UNEP I continued my blogs on

    It is my feeling that UN inflicts the sense of remaining in the mold and within the boundaries though potentially the staff goes through amazing experiences that need to be expressed and outreached through blogs for better and common goods.


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