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Generation NOW! Challenging Generational Understandings of Social Change, Technology, and International Development

The first of three of the Biennial of the Americas Panel Series kicked off on Tuesday night in Denver, CO at the Posner Center which addressed one of the themes from an international development viewpoint: Generation NOW!  The panel featured young women leading organizations with new approaches to international development.  The audience was very engaged in the discussion and a number of noteworthy questions and topics were examined.  The changing role of women as leaders of non-profits, diversity in the workplace, the role of technology (especially ICT4D), and the multi-generational perspectives that now make up Generation NOW were among the topics discussed.

Posner Center
Posner Center

Among the panelists were:

Julia Alvarez, Executive Director of Elephant Energy who provides access to renewable sustainable technologies in core areas such as the U.S. Navajo Nation, Namibia and Zambia.

Avery Bang, CEO of Bridges to Prosperity who provides remote communities with access to health care, education and other opportunities by building footbridges over impassable waterways.

Alex Fiorillo, Principal at Grid Impact, which is a collaborative organization where she leads innovative behavior change and economic development projects using behavioral science and human-centered design approaches in asset building, services and programs in places like Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The moderator was Susan Abbott who leads Cross Pollinate Consulting Solutions, where she works in the media development sector, emphasizing on program design and development, monitoring and evaluation, project management, and capacity building.

From left to right:  Julia Alvarez, Avery Bang, Alex Fiorillo, Susan Abbott
From left to right: Julia Alvarez, Avery Bang, Alex Fiorillo, Susan Abbott

One of hot-button topics the panel focused on is the perceived generational divide between the millennials and previous generations working in the international development sector.  The panelists and the audience were able to engage in a heated discussion about the differences and similarities between the social activists and change-makers from the 1960s and 70s, as compared to their counterparts in today’s millennial generation.  The evening served as a reminder that it would be fruitful to have more opportunities for different generations of change-makers and non-profit leaders to come together to discuss, critically reflect on, and inspire each other around how to tackle pressing social issues and challenges.

Another much discussed topic was the role of information and communication technology in today’s work environment, especially for NGOs and non-profits working in the international development sector. ICTs were mentioned as being a game changer in this field, especially given the role that platforms like Skype, Google Hangouts, and Cloud-based services play in how NGOs approach their work. Panelists emphasized that while technology has played a key role in the way they work and their success in implementing programs in developing countries, it is not the end-all-be-all rather a means to an end. All acknowledged that they are able to carry out their work and objectives due in large part to advances in digital communication, the spread of internet access, and the low barriers to entry required for services like Skype, the suite of Google products, and file sharing systems that are readily and cheaply available.  The panel and audience also commented on the range of experiences their counterparts in developing countries faced in terms of accessing the internet and making use of mobile communications.

So how can the different generations in international development learn from each other and make a difference while moving ahead?

  • Have more collaborative discussion around development, technology, and social activism;
  • Embrace the reality that there are four very active and involved generations in the area of international development; and
  • Be proactive in seeking out the right people for the situation: tap into the wisdom and experience of other generations who have worked in or are still actively involved in international development.

Be sure to mark your calendars for the remaining Biennial of the Americas Panel Series:

Business NOW! – Tuesday, May 12, 2015 from 6:00 – 8:00PM
Community NOW! – Tuesday, June 16th from 6:00 – 8:00 PM

Hope to see you at the next one!



Freedom of the Press Around the World

This article from Business Insider takes a look at and analyses Reporters Without Boarders‘ 2014 Freedom of the Press Index. Business Insider takes a look at the similarities between Press and Internet Freedom around the world, and discusses how Edward Snowden ended up in Russia, a country where Internet and Press Freedom is restricted.

Freedom of the Press Worldwide

Clicktivism Interview: Advantages and Pitfalls of Social Media Activism

Recently, Luisa Ryan interviewed Sarah Logan of Australian National University about the internet phenomenon known as clicktivism. Here is what she discovered.

In the past few years, we have seen a number of social media campaigns, from Invisible Children’s 2012 Kony campaign, to the more recent “Bring Back Our Girls” hashtag. What exactly is “clicktivism”, and what are they trying to achieve?

Clicktivism is generally held to mean activity largely undertaken on social media whose purpose is to raise awareness or produce change. Some critics of clicktivism suggest that it also means such activity undertaken for the self-gratification of the person engaged in that activity, because—given the role of social media in clicktivism—people’s activity defines their online identity. I think this is a bit limited though. A recent article in the academic journal Policy and Internet gives probably the most complete definition I have come across. The author, Max Halupka, outlines the defining features of clicktivism. For me, the most important of these are that clicktivism, is impulsive – it is a response to something encountered online rather than a considered political act like voting or marching. It’s also non-committal, meaning that by itself it doesn’t require any further action from the ‘clicktivist’ – you can just click like and you are done, as far as a clicktivist campaign is concerned. This means that clicktivism is not specialised: anyone with a basic online skill set can do it. Because it is so basic, it can be easily replicated – and that is the point of a clicktivist campaign: it is about getting as many people as possible to repeat the same action over and over. Importantly, clicktivism is about a particular political object – a person or a decision—rather than an ideology. I think this is why people sometimes dismiss it as meaningless: clicktivism is not generally thought of as part of a larger political ideology, just a small, non-risky, one-off act.

Using the above two examples, we can see that these types of social media campaigns are not always successful. Kony is still free, and the girls remain in captivity. Are they trying to get tangible results, or is the aim more to raise awareness?

I think the campaign organisers behind #Kony 2012 and #Freeourgirls were certainly intending to bring about actual change, but saw awareness raising as a route to those results. Sometimes, if you are targeting an international (Western) audience, awareness raising can actually lead to tangible results – if enough people pressure the right parliamentarian or congressperson, or a certain number of them, then actual results may emerge, given the powerful role Western actors play in global politics. It’s only the beginning of a very long road, though. For me, clicktivism can mean more than social media campaigns – it can also include e-petitions, for example, and these can sometimes be more immediately effective., for example, says that of the 1500 petitions started in the UK every month, almost 800 have achieved their outcomes – the majority with less than 200 signatures. Petitions of this sort have a very clear outcome, and involve very clear actors – so for example, you might have an e-petition to fund a local hospital in a particular way. Because the outcomes and actors and processes are clearer than in big, international social media campaigns, then this sort of clicktivism might be more effective.

As an awareness raising tool, are these campaigns successful? Or does it lead to public compassion fatigue when participating in social media campaigns doesn’t lead to real-world change?

I think that it depends what you mean by ‘success’. #Kony2012, for example, was part of a much larger organising campaign, Invisible Children, which had been organising around issues to do with the Congo conflict for years, amongst young people in the US. The organisation, for better or worse, has built a community in the US which many judge as cohesive and committed around Kony and associated issues. This may not be success in terms of Kony’s release, but it is some form of activist success. There hasn’t been any research done on compassion fatigue and social media campaigns, but I imagine the problem would be the same as any media-driven awareness raising campaign–there is a limit to how much individuals can consume. In terms of social media campaigns, though, I think the problem is a little bit more complex, though. If you ‘like’ something or change your profile pic, then you are shaping your online identity in a particular way by affiliating yourself with this cause. What happens if you do this repeatedly, or with a different cause every other week? This isn’t really compassion fatigue, but something else – identification fatigue?

How can social media tools be best used to bring about change?

It depends what sort of change. These can be used to raise money – the ALS icebucket challenge has reportedly raised over $100 million for the ALS Association, and also to increase awareness of a particular cause, which can lead to practical outcomes: the ALS association says the icebucket challenge has led to a 30 – 100 percent increase in participation in traditional fundraising activities, like sponsored walks. Social media games are also a useful, if relatively under-explored use of the technology – again, they can be used to raise both money and awareness:, for example, sponsored by the World Food Programme, says it has funded 94 billion grains of rice – enough to feed 5 million people for one day. Social media tools can also work really well with more traditional awareness-raising campaigns: if done well, they can allow organisers to engage a new and large audience fast, and to being a long-term relationship with them. Social media tools also allow organisers to gather data about their users which can be used to inform traditional awareness raising campaigns.

What are common pitfalls?

Common pitfalls include taking audiences for granted, mimicking other successful campaigns too obviously (how long till we see #icecubechallenge or icecreamchallenge?), being unable to translate social media engagement into long-term engagement, and having very few clear and achievable processes by which goals can be met.

Can you highlight a particularly successful campaign?

Again, it depends on what you mean by success, but if you look at a campaign which has had a practical outcome, then the ALS #icebucket challenge has been phenomenally successful. You could say that some of the organic hashtags which have emerged in reasons to particular events have been successful, in that they have opened up a space to curate discussions and images of important issues – so #iftheygunnedmedown, #yesallwomen and #malala are good examples, as is #muslimrage. They aren’t really ‘campaigns’ though, although traditional aid organisations have certainly used them to communicate their own messages – #malala is a good example there. I’d say that the gay marriage campaign whereby users change their profile pic to ‘=’ could be successful in that it required users to make a stance which was very clearly associated with their social identity. It is difficult to measure tangible ‘success’ though, because so many social media campaigns are simply about ‘awareness raising’ , and so success can be simply defined by the amount of shares and likes – but whether this is actually successful, long-term awareness raising is another matter altogether and one which requires different metrics.

What are some of the dangers for the aid community in using this type of advocacy tool?

There are many pitfalls for any organisers seeking to run a social media campaign, but particularly for the aid community. Probably the most important of these is being associated with something which is by its very definition is almost frivolous. Treading the line between engagement in serious issues and the need to reach a huge audience on social media is fraught with difficulty. Relatedly, social media campaigns, like all media campaigns but even more so, demand short, emotive campaign material – #Kony2012 was a really good example of this. But #Kony2012 also reinforced really unhelpful narratives about child soldiers, and simplified an horrendous, complex conflict into something easily digestible by American teens. Is this a bad thing? Maybe not, if it got those teens mobilised within the aid context more broadly, but it is a difficult argument to make.

It’s also important to remember that campaigns can be captured fairly easily on social media. Michelle Obama’s #bringbackourgirls tweet is a good example here – it was reworked by US conservatives, reddit users and even ISIS, and then re-released on twitter. These remixes crowded the hashtag and devalued the original message.

Overall, social media campaigns are at the moment really limited to Western users. This means that they are trying to activate a powerful humanitarian actor—Westerners–by using what are essentially very blunt instruments. Campaigns which ‘demand’ change without allowing for complexity or accountability can reinforce a new type of ‘muscular humanitarianism’ associated with short, sharp top-down interventions which I think is ultimately unhelpful.

Why having access to the internet is becoming a necessity and why this is a problem

Over the past decade, the internet has become a vital part of the way we live our lives, and its importance is only expected to grow. This article discusses the problems facing those who do not have access to the internet, why this is a disadvantage to them, and what we can do to solve the problem.

Offline and Falling Behind: Barriers to Internet Adoption

M&E Tech Conference dicusses how we can bridge the gap between hype and reality

This article from Learning Lab takes a look at lessons from the M&E Tech Conference held in Washington on September 25 and 26. Most of the points discuss issues with big data collection and ICTs, and how we need to bridge the gap between technological hype and success in implementing ideas.

Top 10 Takeaways from M&E Tech Conference