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Celebrities and aid: Will hunger strike hard enough?

6 May

Hollywood actor Mia Farrow is now in the tenth day of her hunger strike in protest for the refugees of Darfur, whose lives have been put at risk by the Sudanese government through Omar al-Bashir’s expulsion of aid agencies from the region, including Oxfam UK and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Hunger strikes aren’t a new form of protest against government regimes and have been employed by Mahatma Gandhi to the suffragettes.

But to what extent will Farrow’s efforts along with celebrity status help in raising awareness for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur?

So far, 75 people have signed up on her website Mia Farrow.org to join her fast. An ambassador for Unicef, she has been a high profile activist for Darfur since 2005.

Scepticism is inevitable.

Khaled al-Mubarak at the Sudanese embassy in London told the Guardian: “She is a good actress and a good human being, but as a politician she is only a beginner. She is like George Clooney, who has also got involved in the Darfur question. He is good looking but ignorant. She is ignorant too.”

Picture: miafarrow.org

Picture: miafarrow.org

Indeed, Farrow herself is also aware that her attempts may be in vain. She told reporters before she began:

“I’m not presuming anybody will care whether I starve to death or whether I go on a long hunger strike or what. But it’s a personal matter.”

With the now ubiquitous role of of the western celebrity ever more frequent in aid, their efficacy and even motives are under scrutiny… Whose profile are they trying to raise – the country in crisis or their own? Their faces are icons of modernisation – why not get global recognition with a deep and meaningful reality check thrown in.. adopt a cute black kid while at it?

In a London conference in February, Professor John Street, who dubs it ‘charitainment’, quoted the Washington Post, which seriously reported in coverage of Angelina Jolie in Darfur that she was ‘monitoring the crisis’ there.

The western media has to put its hands up when it comes to covering development issues from a charitainment angle. Journalist, Ann McFerran said in London that whilst getting “privileged access” to celebrities, she is better equipped to get an unsexy issue such as infant mortality in Sierra Leone into the press if David Beckham was on board.

Of course you’ll raise your profile as a celeb getting involved in aid, but what harm can that do if it is getting an issue in the mainstream media? Is ‘branding’ today’s NGO the way forward?

MoyoMSF’s Kris Torgeson said the water crisis in Angola would “never have got half an hour on MTV” if it wern’t for rapper Jay-Z involved.

But, Zambian economist and author of the controversial Dead Aid,  Dambisa Moyo, says it’s all ‘glamour aid’:

 “Long, long lines of people [in Africa] have stood in the sun to vote for a president who is effectively impotent because of donors or because glamour aid has decided to speak on behalf of a continent.

How would British people feel if tomorrow Michael Jackson started telling them how they should get out of the housing crisis?”

Here she speaks at the Carnegie Council:


The stark contrast of a pampered celebrity stood in a sea of black faces paints a dire picture of Africa. Moyo says there should me more emphasis on the positive.

Meanwhile, Farrow toils on..

You can listen to the full LSE conference featuring John Street, Ann McFerran and MSF here: Celebrities and aid: Humanitarians or just another fad?

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Twitter and malaria bednets

20 Apr

The online world is fast becoming a platform for cyber activism – but can you make a difference in just 140 characters?

My last post looked at NGOs using Twitter. During the last week, the social networking site became the latest tool to raise awareness for malaria, when American actor, Ashton Kutcher, challenged the CNN network to a race to be the first to get a million followers, where the winner would donate mosquito bednets in awareness of the near approaching World Malaria Day on 25th April.

Kutcher had been posting about malaria on his Twitter feed in the run up to the race which he narrowly won.

“I just think its amazing that 1 voice can now be as powerful at an entire media network. thank you twitter!” (7:06 PM Apr 13th from web)

But this is the guy also Tweets about his wife’s behind.

The point Kutcher was trying to make, was that the power of social networking like Twitter can potentially make you as influencial as an entire media network…if you’re a high profile celebrity that is.

What was actually achieved? It wasn’t each follower that paid for the bednets, and how many of his followers actually clicked on any of the preachy malaria website links he Tweeted?

The Malaria Policy Centre thanked his efforts, but one blogger accused Kutcher for using Twitter to massage his ego.

“What you did succeed in doing is placing the focus on the wrong aspect of Twitter. Now every celeb would think ‘hey I’m more popular than Ashton, I could totally go beyond 1M.’ You’ll be lying if you say you’ll be reading each and every post from your 1M followers — just not physically possible.

Twitter’s value to me has always been the information shared from each contact. What you did succeed in doing is putting old media Hollywood thinking into Twitter, ie the bigger the audience you have, the better.”

Sure, social networking is an important media tool for development that cannot be ignored  – but through the front of  a celebrity it makes it very difficult to measure its realistic impact.

What are NGOs tweeting on about?

17 Apr

Micro-blogging and development…

Oxfam using TwitterWe have seen the great potential of real-time micro-blogging – for example a student journalist who used the platform to get out of prison.

But now even NGOs and charities have flown into the ‘tweeting’ nest in a bid to share videos, stories and blogs – and as a way to keep their supporters up to date on the development work they do.

Some people are still wary and critical of this method of communication, with fears that it will totally replace a more conventional method of reporting.

‘Bits of tiny shorthand’

Anna Kramer of Oxfam America says:

And as a nonprofit communicator, I fear that Twitter undermines everything I try to do: Use words. Tell stories. Talk about people… I imagine Oxfam writers coming back from the field in the not too distant future.

To get the word out, we’d tweet about our experiences, crafting bits of tiny shorthand to share with followers. They’d then re-tweet, passing things on, sure, but not really connecting anyone to the heart of our story–the people and organizations we work with on the ground. With space for only 140 characters, I wonder: Where do those voices fit in?

Impersonal?

I understand Kramer’s point. Twitter produces media that is devoid of the ‘human face’ factor and you cannot simplify a humantiarian crisis in 140-characters. But it does give NGOs a human voice that followers can engage and interact with – not forgetting applications like twitpic that can accompany tweets.

It can get over-personal however, as the tweeter’s personal views cannot cloud the NGO’s micro-blogging goal. It also gives them the real-time opportunity to be more transparent in the work they do. What they must not do is use it as a platform to advertise themselves per se.

New audience

Twitter gets the information across without emphasising the element of poverty voyeurism to which people have grown so accustomed, and gradually becoming immune.

NGOs can also open up to audiences always on the move whose concentration spans can only cope with 140-characters and it can help with the branding of an NGO who needs to get a real feel for their audience and who is missing from it. People choose to follow you on Twitter so it’s also not so passive.

If NGOs use the right techniques they can effectively utilise this cost-effective media tool to expand their donor base and maintain awareness over a longer period of time than you would get with a 2-minute television ad. And then there are celebrities, with whom Twitter is a big hit – if you get them retweeting your updates, you have the potential of a massive audience.

Take a look for yourself at at how these organisations are using Twitter:

You can also read an interesting report on global activism and new media here.

Soap operas with soul

12 Mar

Development and health campaigns always face the challenge of firstly, getting their message out to target audiences, and then sustaining that message. But what if there was a method where you could educate people indirectly?

The UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID) helps fund soap operas, dubbed ‘edutainment’ in developing countries in Africa and South Asia.

‘Edutainment’

Makutano Junction is a Kenyan-produced soap also shown in Uganda and Tanzania featuring a fictional village. Every episode, broadcast in English, is watched by around seven million Kenyans, of which 50% of television owners live in rural areas.

Described as “stories that touch your heart and maybe teach you something new” DFID say “hard hitting and realistic storylines” are what makes them have the success and popularity of British soaps like Eastenders and Coronation Street from even the remotest of villages.

Storylines educate on topics including contraception, challenging corruption, malaria prevention through bednets, HIV and AIDS and giving women a voice in politics.

The soaps aim to kick off local conversation about some of the most serious health and development challenges that face the Global South.

In India, the series Jasoos Vijay aims to prevent AIDS and also change attitudes on the virus and HIV. Watched by 70 million Indians, figures show the mass audiences DFID have access to. There have also been moves to go beyond English and Hindi speakers, and the show is broadcast in Hindi and seven other regional languages. Throughout the fictional storylines are small intermissions, where experts give information on HIV prevention. It is vital as 5 million Indians are infected with HIV and AIDS and the social stigma of infection remains a factor in its spreading.

Bollywood

But Bollywood churns out more films than America, that are often based in imperialist ideals, where there are echos of Ritzer’s ‘Mcdonaldisation’ paradigm a lot of glamour involved in the clothes, music, houses and storylines – some of which are not relevant to audiences besides escapism and entertainment. It does make you wonder whether Bollywood should play an increasing role in ‘edutainment’.

Makutano Junction

Makutano Junction

Soap operas on the radio reach an even bigger audience than on the television. The Story Story radio programme is set in a Nigerian Marketplace and is recorded on location. Broadcast in English on 57 federal, state and independent partner stations as well as on the BBC World Service, which has also delivered extensive radio training to professionals in Nigeria. Versions have also been produced in the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba languages.

South Africa’s TV soap Soul City regularly reaches 16m people and has been running for over 15 years. It was originally set up by NGOs in 1994, but regular test screenings by producers to ensure they are real and relevant storylines to the audiences watching, where HIV prevention messages are central to its storylines.

It has been so successful that they are introducing a transition in to Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe and encompassing radio shows, information booklets and a spin-off show for young children (Soul Buddyz). One episode which focused on domestic abuse brought in 180,000 calls to a women’s helpline while the programme was on air.

Makutano Junction offers weekly comic leaflets

Makutano Junction offers weekly comic leaflets

‘Gritty’

Matthew Krouse, arts editor of the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, has been following Soul City since the beginning and praises it for steering away from Western television exported to South Africa, despite being sceptical at first:

“We’re saturated with crap American TV at the moment, this never-never land of beautiful people and unrealistic lives. But here we have a gritty, realistic soap with a powerful message. It’s something we can really be proud of.”

These soaps are fairly sanctimonious and preachy and don’t necessarily offer a means to put this new thinking into practice. There is the danger that the messages are so indirect that they just blend into the notion of entertainment. Viewers and listeners are also very passive, so it does echo a top-down model.

There is still the problem that these messages cannot reach those who cannot afford to purchase television sets or radios.

However entertainment is an important strategy for development and it does seem practical for regions that have an aural tradition.

NGOs: The African Children’s Education Trust

5 Mar

Take a look at my interview from 2008 with David Stables , who runs an NGO from a tiny council flat not far from where I live in Leicester.

David Stables says NGOs must work within ways that are suitable for Africa

David Stables says NGOs must work within ways that are suitable for Africa

The African Children’s Education Trust (A-CET) is an NGO that takes a more participative approach with an “Ethiopians are the best people to help Ethiopia” attitude.

A-CET brings full-time education and training to thousands of land-mine victims, AIDS orphans and street children, of which 20% are disabled.

They particularly focus on vulnerable children, because culture and tradition still condemns them to exploitation and begging in many areas of Northeast Africa.

It has retained its independence through relying on private voluntary donations, receiving no lottery, corporate or government funding and has minimal overheads with no professional fund raising or consultancy fees, which enables 90% of donations to go directly to the children.

What steers this NGO towards a more horizontal approach to development is that it works in partnership with the Ethiopian Youth Educational Support (EYES), which is run by previous students of the trust. It’s been going for over a decade with this approach which I believe is quite progressive thinking for small NGO emerging in the 1990s.

You can watch their quick video here and catch my interview here – it’s from last year but would be an interesting case study to compare with more familiar NGOs.

The Guardian on Katine: Can it start with a village?

28 Feb

The Guardian’s ‘it starts with a village’ project in Katine, a rural sub-county in Uganda with a 25,000 population is halfway through its three-year duration.

The Guardian describes it as more than fundraising and tracks every stage on the website and through blogs and multimedia – successes and failures included, they claim. It is the only project in mainstream media that offers this level of transparency.

Partners

It has been working in partnership with NGO Farm Africa, Amref, Panos and is sponsored by Barclays. It does however make you question if it is a vehicle for corporate interests of the institutions who sponsor it. In 2007, Barclays already had around 180,000 market traders in Ghana linked into a micro-banking programme based on a traditional saving scheme run by local collectors. 

Poroject Katine has also been scrutinised because it only last for three-years – would it be a case of Western organisations putting in their penny’s worth (£2.5m worth to be exact) and then just leaving a region like Katine holding the baby once they’ve got all their stories – how sustainable will it be?

Can media do development?

Last month POLIS held a seminar to discuss whether the media can actually do development. Following this, Charlie Beckett said “the brutal answer from our seminar was ‘no, but it was worth trying’”…

It was clear from the evidence given by the Amref and Guardian staff at the seminar that this was an exhilarating, exhausting and ultimately unsatisfactory experience. They have another 18 months to go and everyone has learned lessons, much has been achieved, – but there was no sense that either party want to or could repeat the project.

amref quoteThe Guardian’s keenness to introduce new media technologies and take a participative, bottom-up approach was inevitably going to face some barriers as AMREF director Grace Mukasa voiced: “There is an oral tradition in rural Africa. You have to remember that these people may not be literate and may not have seen a computer before so it is hard to expect them to blog.”

Amref also said that coping with the expectations of the Guardian and working under the media spotlight was challenging. They were accused of not opening up to the media in the early stages.

Journalists Sarah Bosely and John Vidal also admitted that they had censored themselves, which is an ethical dilemma that many development journalists face. How well can you balance your duty as a journalist to report the truth without undermining a good project?

These ethical issues and pressures to support the project were also faced by Weekly Observer journalist Richard Kavuma, employed by the Guardian to cover Katine.

He said many Ugandan journalists saw it as “the poor of the North giving to the rich of the South” that would only benefit elites, but that other Ugandan media are increasingly reporting human realities that are often “unsexy” issues, giving people on the ground more of a voice.

And with the Guardian’s resources so heavily on Katine, does it compromise their coverage of other development stories? You can however take the view that covering one country intensely and in detail is much more effective than skimming over a number of them.

Archives of material

The Guardian has benefited from more traffic on the website, but of course any media organisation seeks this when covering development. But Katine is not just covering the development – it is executing the development with Amref. The Guardian admitted that they wanted to test to potential of their website and its ability to ‘crowd-source’ public knowledge around an issue.

The effort put in is evidently not for just online traffic however – Katine is an ambitious venture because it does not provide news grabbing headlines. It is ‘slow’ moving documenting everyday lives of a village which differs to sexier stories involving war, famine, AIDS or through the prism of a rock star celebrity – so it is unlikely to evoke revolutionary change. But it does provide a ‘human face’ rather than masses of statistics.

It has recorded a mass of useful information, video, blog and images and has made great attempts at development on a participatory level. It is an interesting experiment for the media and someone had to make the first dalliance..

New Media

See the Guardian’s use of new media technologies in development communication in this short video.

Independent moderator Rick Davies is monitoring the project and you can view his August 2008 report from his second visit here and Amref’s response here.