Losing our shirts at smartaid?
– or can social media activism change the aid world for the better? –
Some months ago I joined a group of bloggers/tweeters trying to promote the idea of “smart aid” and help the public, donors, aid agencies and workers move away from known bad aid practices. Among other things we collectively tweet under the @smart_aid handle about all things related to good and bad aid practices.
Over the past year I’ve noticed more and more voices on blogs, twitter and elsewhere who are speaking out against bad aid practices and who are advocating for a more honest, transparent and beneficiary responsive system of aid. It seems in our more optimistic moments that if we could build enough of a movement we might be able to have a real influence on new entrants to the aid world, aid DIYers and maybe even established aid agencies.
Last year when Jason Sadler proposed sending 1 million shirts to Africa the blogosphere quickly responded with comment son his website, over 60 blog posts and possibly thousands of tweets, as well as a roundtable phone call which eventually led to Jason changing course and eventually changing his plans to do something much more useful for charity with his brand.
This was a high point in online smart aid activism, with people talking about the power of social media to put would be aid providers under new scrutiny.
Well right now we might now be facing a more testing moment when we see the real opportunities and limitations of this sort of activism. World Vision recently blogged about their scheme to donate 100,000 unwanted superbowl shirts that were printed with the logo of the losing team. The blogosphere responded – but with much less speed and gusto than with Jason. This time things are a little more difficult for a number of reasons: It’s “only” 100,000 shirts, they are new, not second-hand, they are part of a larger aid effort not a one-off, we’re all tired of talking/posting about SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want).
But the biggest reason of all is that this time the project is not being done by a aid newcomer who doesn’t realize their good idea might actually not be so good. It’s being done by a major aid organization with a global presence and long experience who should know better. We’ve also heard that some people feel afraid to speak out against a major aid organization, or were asked not to. World Vision, to their credit, have engaged their critics on their blog – but have not really addressed many of the criticisms nor expressed any indication that they are willing to consider changing their approach. Indeed its probably hard for a major player to accept criticism about a very public programme and change in response to it – all the incentives point to saving face by standing your ground and hoping the criticism will go away.
World Vision know the programme is wrong (many of their staff say so – anonymously of course), but will the bloggers pushing for smarter aid be able to bring enough attention to the issue and put enough pressure on them to to get them to admit they are wrong and change their programme?
We’ll have to wait and see. What happens will tell us a lot about how far we can go in using social media to promote better aid – and also how willing the large aid agencies really are to listen to their critics.