Category Archives: Doing Good Work

The Economist: missing the point, once again…

Shooting Pencils At Target @ JupiterImagesThe Economist reviews this week Forces for Good, a new book about exceptional NGOs, which according to the weekly are too few and rare to be worthy of the illustrious paper’s attention. The authors, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, surveyed thousands of (US) nonprofits, and finally concentrated their attention on a sample of 12, which they believe have achieved the highest levels of impact.

These included America’s Second Harvest, Habitat for Humanity and – much to the Economist’s delight – the notoriously right-wing Heritage Foundation, a proof that this was a “serious piece of research, not the usual sentimental tosh that gets written about left-leaning NGOs” [sic!].

The Economist once again shows its contempt towards the NGO sector and its lack of understanding of its internal diversity. Kicking off with a series of scathing (and unreferenced) remarks about social enterprises, which seem to reduce the debate to a pathetic comparison between the successes of Google and those of the Grameen Bank (apples and oranges, anyone?), it then sings the praises of the 12 selected nonprofits for their excellent achievements (data, anyone?). The fact that social enterprises and nonprofits might not actually be one and the same thing, or that being based (as the 12 selected organisations are) in the US as opposed to Bangladesh might offer considerable advantages to – for example – making the most of market forces does not seem to be a relevant piece of information for the illustrious weekly.

The Economist is not alone in displaying a lack of understanding towards the complexities of the third sector, and of social enterprises in particular. Roger L. Martin & Sally Osberg – echoing Muhammad Yunus – have already made a plea on the pages of the Stanford Social Innovation Review for strengthening the definition of social entrepreneurship [PDF], but definitions are not enough when we are facing the challenges of applying them to different cultural contexts. We might reach an agreement on what a social enterprise might be in the US (therefore what parameters we can adopt to evaluate its success), but this does not mean we can apply this model to the whole world.

Aside from these important theoretical considerations, “where is the social-entrepreneurial equivalent of a for-profit start-up like Google or Microsoft […]? where is the evidence of massive social change?” – asks an irritated Economist.

Kick Start Kenya - oilseed pressThe answer is Kick-Start, a Kenya-based organisation that develops and promotes technologies that can be used by dynamic entrepreneurs to establish and run profitable small scale enterprises. As reviewed by the MIT’s Innovations journal, Kick-Start has started 50,000 new businesses, generating $52 million a year in new profits and wages, and is directly responsible for a 0.6% increase of Kenya’s GDP. See a good video by the Schwab Foundation on Kick-Start’s successful water pump here.

Now, can someone at the Economist more interested in facts than in rhetorical preaching let me know if Google can be said to have had a comparatively similar impact on the US economy and on its social needs?

My heart’s with Ethan

 Chris Jordan, Cell Phones, 2007 (courtesy: http://www.chrisjordan.com/)

Ethan Zuckerman remains my No. 1 favourite blogger of all times, and given how much I struggle to update GlobaLab at least 2-3 times a week, while trying to work and retain a decent social life, I am in awe at his amazing prolificacy.

A quick browse at his last few entries would be enough to feed an average person’s brain for 6 months. Over the last few days, he’s been busy reporting from the PopTech conference, which he describes as “the annual three-day gathering of scientists, inventors, geeks, philosophers and thinkers in coastal Maine“. The event is a catwalk for amazing projects and ideas that are truly transforming the world. If you haven’t followed the event, you can read Ethan’s posts on some of the most interesting presentations, including (but there are more):

It took me good part of the day to read them all, and there are many more celebrity bloggers who reported from the event, including BoingBoing, Next Billion, and a few (but not many) non-English speaking bloggers.

If this isn’t enough for you, check out Ethan’s earlier post about a new initiative to fight counterfeit pharmaceuticals in Ghana (hopefully soon the whole of Africa), mPedigree, which will use mobile phones to track drugs from their original producers all the way to the pharmacy shelves, allowing each buyer in the chain to ensure that they’re dealing with a legitimate product. Or check out the entry in which he takes a good shot at unravelling the complex situation in Somalia, in response to the Onion’s eye-opening video Situation in Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex, a must see for all Africanists:

In The Know: Situation In Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex

What can I say? Ethan, you are my personal hero!!!

How many bricks to build a World Digital Library?

The Washington Post showcases an amazingly visionary project, the World Digital Library, which plans to digitize the accumulated wisdom of humankind, catalogue it, and offer it for free on the Internet in seven languages:

The World Digital Library will make available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from cultures around the world, including manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, recordings, films, prints, photographs, architectural drawings, and other significant cultural materials. The objectives of the World Digital Library are to promote international and inter-cultural understanding and awareness, provide resources to educators, expand non-English and non-Western content on the Internet, and to contribute to scholarly research.

They don’t come more visionary than this one…

[via Jon]

JR: Photography as Social Activism

JR - 28mm project (courtesy: http://www.jr-art.net/)

On Africa Visual Mediaitself a really interesting blog on African and Africa-related cultural artifacts in film, photography, television, and print– I came across a post about a visit that photographer/street artist JR made to the banlieues or ghettos that ring Paris after the 2005 riots. The upclose portraits (blown up to poster-sizes) of the young men and women whom he photographed were then pasted across Paris, an open-air (and illegal) exhibition entitled ‘28mm – portrait of a generation‘ that – in Kamau Mucoki’s words – brings the gallery to the street and forces Parisians to confront the images of these youths who are usually depicted as rioting, violent hoodlums.

Below is an excellent video of the shooting and pasting of the portraits he took in collaboration with Ladj Ly:

This is not the first time JR uses photographs as a social mobilisation and activism tool. He was also behind the Face2Face project, on which I blogged in the past. With a number of other artists – such as the Bolognese graffiti creator BLU, with whom he collaborated on the Outsides project in Wuppertal, and to whose genius I will dedicate another post soon – he wants to use public spaces as vehicles for his strong political messages. Thus, breaking the ostentatious separation between ‘art’ and ‘life’, he transforms his pictures into posters and makes open space photo galleries out of our streets.

Simply amazing.

JR - Lilou on Sao Paulo Roff tops (courtesy: http://www.jr-art.net/)

N2Y2: Web 2.0 projects for social change

Net2 logos

Last post of the day and of the month, since I am going back home tomorrow and won’t have Internet access (gasp! horror!) from our Tuscan retreat

In May 2007, over 300 participants gathered to discuss the 21 Projects that had been selected by the NetSquared community as having the greatest potential to leverage the social web to create social change.

This was a real talent contest between several innovative ideas, from Kabissa‘s proposal to strengthen Web 2.0 applications across the African continent through their network of over 950 local organisations, to Yankana‘s idea to help non profits located in developing countries adopt and benefit from social web tools, without advanced technical skills, financial resources for infrastructure or english language knowledge.

Only 3 made it to the final stage:

  • MAPLight.org, a project aiming to illuminate the connection between money and politics, connecting campaign contributions and votes for U.S. Congress, while providing groundbreaking transparency so that bloggers, journalists, and citizens can hold legislators accountable.
  • Miro, an open source, open standards video. Their pitch: “We are to Google, AOL and YouTube what public television is to the big networks. We are a nonprofit, fully open source and open standards, dedicated to creating the next Firefox of web video.”
  • Freecycle.org, an initiative that has empowered globally local social networking, with the purpose of creating a gift economy/community: “The magic: it’s easier to give something away than throw it away & keeps it out of landfills; a cyber-curbside; a digital segue from commodity to community“.

Although these are all really good projects, it’s a shame that none seems to address directly the needs of communities in developing countries, which some of the other proposed projects did.

What to do with icanhasprotest.com?

cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuute 

Ethan Zuckerman, in his infinite creativity, has just purchased the site http://icanhasprotest.com/. The idea came from an exchange with commenters on an excellent blog-post about the connection between cute cats and web censorship – i.e. how Web 2.0 online tools have been used by social activists, something Ethan has spoken at length about in the past.

The call’s out about what to do with this site. Here’s an idea: how about using it to collect – in a wiki format – all those examples of successful protests, campaigns, rallies, mass-mobilisations, and so on, which have been possible thanks to Web 2.0 tools? This way, social activists will have a one-stop shop where to get ideas on how to adopt these technologies and give feedback when they have not worked…

If you have better ideas, get in touch with Ethan…

Open Source, Web 2.0 tools for social change

The New Wave in Open Source - Business Week

Partially via the excellent blog of Dan McQuillan, Internet.Artizans, partially just hopping from other sources I had, I keep on unearthing what appears to be a never-ending thread of discussion, blogs, networks, events and activities that are sizzling beneath the surface of the UK/European NGO sector.

There are hundreds of Web 2.0 and FOSS applications out there, which NGOs are making use of, and given the enormous amount of information one can unearth, it is not surprising for many poorly-staffed and under-resourced organisations continue to be overwhelmed by the speed of technological change. Yet one thing is certain: those who are passionate about Web 2.0, and have the time, resources, and dare-I-say age to undersand its potential, see it as the key to the future success of the NGO sector. Even the World Bank seems convinced about it.

I am trying to put together a list which – like the others I have started in the last few days – will try to offer an overview of the most common Open Source and Web 2.0 tools applications which are being used (or could be used) by NGOs to pursue their missions and promote social change. Open Source software in particular appears to have experienced a boom in recent months, and NGOs are set to be among the first ones to benefit from this creative wave.

The full list can now be found on this separate page.