Category Archives: Media

The Story of Stuff


Here’s something that got me thinking:

The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns, with a special focus on the United States. All the stuff in our lives, beginning from the extraction of the resources to make it, through its production, sale, use and disposal, affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues and calls for all of us to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something. It’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

Naturally, the topic is far from new to GlobaLab. I have been looking at the political economy of globalisation for months now. I agree with many of this movie’s positions, and love its simple and entertaining tone. Well done to Annie Leonard and to all those involved for translating into an easily-graspable short film some of the complexities of the global economy, particularly the commodity chains that form the backbone of world trade.

Yet, I can’t help pointing out: it’s not that simple. Describing the problem as one of ever-collapsing natural resources and abused Third World workers fighting the evil and conspiratorial plans of multinational corporations with the help of selfless international NGOs might look good on film, but is it an actual reflection of the real world?

I am not a great admirer of corporations, or a blind believer in the transparency of their CSR policies, but branding them all as Earth-destructors does not do justice to the good many of them do (in terms of job-creation, economic growth, research into innovation – including into clean energy), nor will it help change the way they behave.

And similarly, the omnipresent sanctification of NGOs fails to disclose their deep accountability limits and underlying political interests. According to One World, the NGO sector scores lower than the corporate and intergovernmental sectors when it comes to transparency, so it is legitimate to question many of their claims, especially their Doomsday positions on the environment and development.

But on one point I fully agree: consumerism lies at the centre of this system, so if we want to change it we have to start thinking of creative ways to change people’s attitude towards stuff…

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From Development 1.0 to Development 2.0

The Future - CG4TV

FreePint printed this article by Giulio Quaggiotto and Pierre Wielezynski – both linked to/working for the World Bank – on how Web 2.0 is changing the face of development. This is the first article of its kind, as far as I know, and it’s also the subject of my dissertation here at the London School of Economics and Political Science, so I am glad I’ll be one of the pioneers on the subject. It’s in fact more than this: it’s a manifesto for the future of development. 

I am reproducing the article below for your perusal. It’s an excellent and most comprehensive review of the subject, and I thoroughly recommend it.

The transition from Development 1.0 to Development 2.0

One interesting aspect – which is sometimes forgotten – behind O’Reilly Media’s coining of the term ‘Web 2.0‘ is that it stemmed from an analysis of the companies that survived the crash of the dot-com bubble. Not so much of a futuristic vision, then, but rather a reflection on tried and tested business models (as well as technologies) that weathered the storm to produce the likes of Google and Amazon.

What if one were to apply the same type of analysis to the development sector? One could argue that we are currently witnessing a crisis of the traditional aid and international governance models, which could have far-reaching consequences somewhat reminiscent of the dot-com crash. At the same time, the emergence of new approaches (such as microfinance and online campaigning) may herald the beginning of a whole brave new world – indeed, it would seem that the era of the wisdom of crowds and the Long Tail, as defined by O’Reilly, has caught on in the non-profit world. Out with Development 1.0, the era of the World Bank, the UN, the IMF (but also the traditional non-governmental organisations (NGOs)), and in with Development 2.0, whose ambassador could perhaps be Grameen Bank, funded by Noble Prize winner Muhammud Yanus, or Gapminder’s founder Hans Rosling with his iconoclastic zeal to deconstruct established development myths.

Intriguing as the prospect of identifying clear-cut boundaries might be, the reality is that it’s probably too early to tell whether we are truly witnessing the emergence of a new development paradigm (see here for a similar conclusion). Rather, we are in a fluid, transition phase where traditional NGOs and development institutions are testing the waters of Web 2.0, while, on the more innovative end of the spectrum, new start-ups are emerging whose entire business model is based on Web 2.0 opportunities. Somewhere in the middle are ‘hybrid’ projects that span the two worlds. For instance, Oxfam’s recent campaign to support Ethiopian farmers featured traditional campaigning tools such as faxes, postcards and demonstrations, but also shared pictures via Flickr and a YouTube duel with Starbucks.

Take a look at the interactive list of the ’59 Smartest Orgs Online’, which ranks non-profits based on their ‘Web 2.0 smarts’ – the extent to which they integrated Web 2.0 in their business model. On any given day, it will feature established organisations such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International, alongside the likes of MobileActive.org (‘cell phones for civic engagement’) or microloans site Kiva. Indeed, the list is perhaps the best place to test the pulse of ‘Development 2.0’, together with Change.org‘s intriguing tag cloud.

If it’s too early to talk about winners or losers, it’s still interesting to apply O’Reilly’s model of key Web 2.0 patterns and competencies to the development world. It may highlight emerging trends and identify areas that may be waiting for the birth of a Google equivalent for the development sector.

The Long Tail of development services

O’Reilly invites Web 2.0-savvy companies to ‘reach out to the entire web, to the edges and not just the centre, to the Long Tail and not just the head’. The emblem here is eBay. This concept has interesting applications in the development context. Traditionally, managing micro-donations has proven to be challenging for non-profits, whose back end was not designed to guarantee to, say, a donor in the UK, that their money will go to found a specific project in a given village in Rwanda. ‘Adopt a school’ type of projects have often incurred very high overheads. In come the likes of Kiva.org, which uses the Web to cut out intermediaries and allow for direct donations to small businesses in the developing world, or GlobalGiving, which guarantees that ’85-90% of your donation gets to local project leaders within 60 days’. This way, even donors with niche interests can find a way to support the cause that is dear to their heart through the Web. The same desire to cater for niche interests lies behind Change.org, a social networking site that aims to foster ‘a fundamental change in the way people engage in social issues’ by allowing grassroots activists to network with others who share their interests. It will be interesting to monitor how these new business models will fare and, on the other hand, how traditional NGOs will react to the challenge.

The race for development data

What do Amazon, eBay and MapQuest have in common? They are backed up by the largest specialised database in their respective markets (books, auctions, maps, etc), O’Reilly observes. For this reason, he adds, ‘the race is on to own certain classes of core data’. The smartest companies are the ones who let users add value to their data through mashups or other types of interaction (e.g. book reviews on Amazon). Once again, there are intriguing parallels here with what is happening in the development world. Take, for instance, conservation – an area traditionally plagued by the lack of data interoperability. A number of initiatives are emerging, such as IUCN-backed Conservation CommonsEco-ishare that are trying to encourage open access to biodiversity data and build the biggest repositories in their category, to use O’Reilly’s language. Others, such as the above mentioned Gapminder and Maplecroft are adding value to their sets of development data through visualisation software (Gapminder’s so cool that Google had to get a piece of it). As for mashups, an example of an application with great potential that we’ve come across recently is a combination of Google Earth with meteorological data. Imagine for a moment the weather forecast being delivered to farmers in Ethiopia, specially trained for the purpose, via mobile phones, as in Wepoco’s plans. But see also the combination of Google Maps and ethnicity data done by Healthcarethatworks to prove that disenfranchised communities have more difficulty accessing care. and UNEP-WCMC’s

Letting users interact and play around with the data, ‘trusting them as co-developers’, (O’Reilly) is still a cultural challenge, as Gapminder’s Rosling found out, but the obvious next step. One could easily imagine, for example, that WWF’s recent partnership with Google, which allows virtual access to conservation projects on the ground may be followed by some interactive feature that allows scientists or volunteers on the ground to add or comment on the data. Ditto for the work Amnesty International has done with Google Earth, mapping out human rights abuses around the world (more here).

Getting datasets out of their respective databases is certainly a challenge due to intellectual property issues and data interoperability, but if the various owners of these datasets were willing to do it, the very 2.0 site Swivel would be the ideal place to get some collaboration going. After barely 4 months of activity, the site (still in beta) already offers over 3,000 datasets contributed by over 4,000 members (including OECD) and has all the 2.0 features you can dream off: blog it, digg it, badge it, Google widgetise-it, etc.

Harnessing collective intelligence

The key principle behind the giants of the Web 2.0 era, points out O’Reilly, is that they have embraced the power of the Web to harness collective intelligence. What better example than Wikipedia? NGOs in this respect would seem to have a natural advantage over the private sector, given their traditional reliance on volunteers’ passion and creativity. And Development 2.0 is creeping into perhaps unexpected areas of the development sector. It may come as no surprise to learn that the likes of Greenpeace and Oneworld have their own blog. Perhaps not many people, though, may know that the World Bank Group is running three blogs (as well as online discussions) and has recently developed Buzzmonitor, a tool to gauge stakeholder’s perceptions through social media. And what about UNICEF’s sponsoring of The One Minutes Jr. site, the YouTube equivalent that gives a voice to marginalised young people?

Campaigns, as in the case of Oxfam above, are the obvious place to harness Web 2.0 to create connections and galvanise supporters (readers may be interested in an interesting think piece by the author of ‘Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age‘). Online campaigning is by now a well established advocacy tool in the armament of the smart NGO campaigner. See here for a list of examples and here for an illustration of how EWG is using volunteer support to build an online database of labels for their water safety project.

But this natural affinity doesn’t mean that all opportunities have been explored. Far from it, one can only imagine what would happen if the development sector were able to fully galvanise the ‘wisdom of crowds’ in support of its goals. One has to love the interactivity of Amnesty’s Guantanamo campaign, which allows users to create a virtual alter ego and join an online flotilla to the US base in Cuba. But what if you were to take this one step further? What if, as in the case of WWF Russia’s strategy game to save the leopard, you create a full- scale simulation of a real conservation challenge, let users compete to come up with their best solution and then use it in the real world? Likewise, one likes to think that it is it just a matter of time before an NGO (or development institution) will use a tool like Second Life or equivalent to interact with funds recipients to jointly create a virtual version of an ideal project scenario before funding it.

Joi Ito, a prominent venture capitalist, has written an interesting paper entitled “weblogs and emergent democracy” where he outlines how blogs and other 2.0 technologies will help shape democracy. Yochai Benkler has written a riveting book (available free online) titled “The Wealth of Networks”, in which he explains and documents how peer productions are changing markets and freedom. The arguments used by these two authors revolve around the network effect. How can an issue go from obscure to front page in a matter of five links and lead people to act and change things? A site like dotherightthing.com leverages the wisdom of the crowd to evaluate corporations and hold them accountable. By asking users to vote, tag or flag issues, these sites hope to become forces of change and get organisation to, well … do the right thing. A similar issue aims at doing the same for the US government. GovTracks mashes up various information sources to help regular citizens track their elected officials, key legislative issues, voting records etc.

If these initiatives do not yet have huge visibility, they are a model of the things to come.

Making a difference, in hard, cold cash: the Long Tail of micro-donations

And finally, what about fundraising? Raising awareness, having conversations around development issues and sharing photos could be labelled the first wave of 2.0 applied to development. But what if there was something much more tangible (money for example) coming?

Over 3 years ago, Fred Wilson, a popular blogger and venture capitalist out of New York City decided to sign up for the AdSense program offered by Google and to contribute the revenue generated by his traffic to the Grameen Bank. Small step, yes. But scale that up and it could make for a significant amount of cash for various social causes.

See also GoodSearch, which helps monetise traffic much in the same way most site do, via advertising, except that, here again, a portion of the revenues are contributed back to social causes. Even Microsoft launched their own program, labeled I’M. The idea is that a portion of the advertising revenue generated by users of the Live Messengers IM software would be allocated to social causes.

There is something more than just a gimmick here. As it becomes increasingly easier to put your money where you mouth is, why not think about fundraising through Linked In and other social networks where you put your money on causes that you, your friends and the rest of the crowd filtered and recommended for you?

The very secretive Project Agape seems to want to do something along those lines by ‘applying virality to altruism’. No specific details are available at the time of writing but given that the founder was behind Napster and Facebook, a healthy dose of ‘sociality’ is to be expected.

More to come

We have seen that many of the initial uses of Web 2.0 were focused on raising awareness around issues by leveraging word of mouth. We also discussed a second wave where applications and sites are more focused on getting people to collaborate, and a third wave focused on monetising traffic and attention to support social causes. Given the short time frame in which these three phases have happened, and given the increasing pressure on governments, international organisations and large NGOs to be more transparent, there is little doubt that much is yet to come.

As our world increasingly looks like a village, as new information sources become available and as more people get connected (see “The Internationalisation of Web 2.0“), it is inevitable that new, revolutionary applications will spring up and take the development sector by storm. The challenge therefore for existing 1.0 players like the World Bank and the United Nations is not to decide whether they should ‘comply’ to Web 2.0 but to actually embrace the technology and principles and maintain (or redefine) their relevance. Medium to large size non-profits also need to ask themselves questions about their relevance in this highly competitive, highly fragmented environment. How can they invest in technology, people and applications, not to be cool but to leverage their competitive advantage (be it their donors, knowledge, data or assets)? Smaller non-profits have proven the most innovative so far in their use of 2.0 and the question arises whether they will still be able to compete for attention once the entire sector has moved to this brave new world. The upcoming Web2fordev conference, hosted by FAO, looks like an interesting place to get the discussion going.


Giulio Quaggiotto <gquaggiotto@ifc.org> is the Programme Officer, Knowledge and Innovation at the IFC, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. His interests include social network analysis, integration of KM in business processes and the link between KM and sustainability.

Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski <pwielezynski@worldbank.org> is a member of the World Bank’s Central Web Team, where he focuses on audience measurement, marketing strategy and social media. He designed and supervised the development of the buzzmonitor, the first open-source social media aggregator.

Store Wars

Store Wars 

In a pause in the endless series of exams I seem to be enduring these days, here’s an excellent use of the Internet and creative imagination to promote organic products: the Store Wars animation.

A similar – and equally funny – idea to that of the Meatrix, which also takes inspiration from a movie to promote messages about farming and organic production methods!

So when is organic food going to cost less, so we can all afford it?

Evgeny Morozov on Web 2.0 as the future of activism

 

Evgeny Morozov, Director of New Media at Transitions Online, where he focuses on promoting citizen journalism in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union, has just written an article for the Globalist on Blogs As the New Frontier in Human Rights, which makes some really good points on the potential of on-line Web 2.0 networks for social change and political action. A broader selection of Evgeny’s thoughts on the future of media, technology, and activism will be found on his blog, which he has just started after closing down his previous one.

He’s going straight into my blogroll and RSS feed…

What links YouTube with Yogurt?

Istanbul the Eastern Capital

The answer is of course Turkey, where yogurt was invented and YouTube recently banned… Read on:

Saving the world with a cup of yogurt – Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the father of microcredit, has a new idea. It’s called social business enterprise, and the first step is a yogurt factory in Bangladesh. [via Pam]

Turkish court bans YouTube access – Access to the popular video-sharing website YouTube has been suspended in Turkey following a court order. The ban was imposed after prosecutors told the court that clips insulting former Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had appeared on the site. According to Turkish media, there has been a “virtual war” between Greek and Turkish users of the site, with both sides posting insulting videos. [via Ebed]

Alliance of Civilisations report published

The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre - François Dubois

Building on the efforts of the Dialogue Among Civilizations, a panel of 20 cultural leaders under the banner of the UN released today a final report outlining a set of recommendations that they believe will help bridge the West-Muslim divide. The report sketches the crucial dilemmas of our globalized era – the rising inequality, the unavoidable inter-connectivity, the diffused complexity that is generating mutual suspicion – which it sees as the root problem of many misunderstandings and prejudices between the Western and Muslim worlds. The report is the first major attempt to create a framework for policy-makers worldwide to address the difficult issue of cultural and religious integration, and for this it should be welcomed and praised. But, like all mega-projects, especially sponsored by the UN, when observed more closely it reveals some crucial limitations.

Behind the grand statements advocating mutual tolerance and respect, the report fails to highlight (and therefore address) some more divisive questions. In its Guiding Principles, for example, it reiterates the central role that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights should play in any attempt to bridge said divide, without recognizing the fact that framing the rights discourse in individual (as opposed to collective) terms is itself perceived by many civilization as a manifestation of Western cultural dominance. Moreover, how is a multilateral framework of justice meant to be implemented when countries like the US, China, Japan, Russia, Egypt and Israel (to name but a few of the key ones) refuse to endorse the International Criminal Court?

While reassuring us that all world religions are peaceful and just, the report warns us that

[…] in democratic societies, when groups sharing a history of discrimination or victimization make claims for equal rights and political participation, they may be addressed peacefully through, for example, affirmative action. In political systems which offer no channel for grievances to be heard, political and militant groups often emerge, advocating the use of violence to achieve redress. [page 6]

The two controvertial counter-questions to this statement would be:

  1. Why are certain groups seemingly more prone to violence, while others are not, despite both living in the same socio-political environment?
  2. Which political system should people turn to when they perceive their problems as originating from global economic and social structures?

In fact, in its commendable attempt to defuse tensions and promote mutual understanding, the report doesn’t really help us understand the tragedies of 9/11 and 7/7.

Underlying the entire report is the fact that religious identity is reasserting its role in international politics and this – it appears – is not so bad after all. The return to religious values and principles is described as a response to the attack on cultural identities perpetrated by globalization over the last few decades. The historical precedents of these resurgences are seemingly dismissed. If anything, however, history teaches us that – whether or not manipulated by people with particular interests – religious differences in shared social spaces have a tendency to be more divisive than any other cultural difference.

Most bizarrely, the report states as its first and foremost recommendation the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While we can certainly all agree that this is long overdue, I am not very sure how this will address the problems of identity, poverty, inequality, cultural domination, etc. that have been blamed so far on globalization. If the root problem of the clash between the Western and Muslim worlds is the way globalization is connecting them in an uneven manner, why are the policy recommendations aimed at addressing this imbalance deemed of secondary importance, and outlined in very generalistic, even shallow terms – a renewed committment to multilateralism, respect for human rights, etc.?

Thankfully, part 2 devotes a lot of attention to the crucial issue of education, which should certainly be at the centre of any resolution and policy implementation. In particular, and rightly, the report stresses the importance of cross-cultural youth events and educational exchanges to prepare the future generations to a global world. It also makes important points on the issue of migration, which is certainly one of the most contentious and politicized, but usually also misinformed. Which obviously leads to the hot issue of the media and the need to balance freedom of speech with the need to limit the media’s irresponsible approach to many contentious issues.

Overall, a first step in the right direction.

Corporations policing corporations: is this the future of CSR?

Fast Food Nation poster

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Fox Searchlight Pictures is releasing a movie called Fast Food Nation, which I imagine is based on a loose adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s compelling study of the fast food industry in the US. The book itself makes for an interesting read, ranging from the little-known political influences of the meat-packing industry, to the effects of fast food corporate sponsorship in the American educational system. Echoes of this book can certainly be found in Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners Campaign, which dominated the media debate on health and education in the UK about a year ago.

But the really interesting aspect of this story for me is the fact that the big names of the film industry are progressively embracing the idea of political movies as something that makes money. This is not about corporate social responsibility, on the contrary, it’s about exploiting the markets to the full, and policing other corporations in the process. Using the powerful and far-reaching medium of cinema, this new dynamic is changing the way people think on some pretty important issues, which until a few years ago were relegated to the dusty bookshelves of some university library. While I appreciate the risk that these films might be sensationalising some issues – as Paul pointed out in relation to the upcoming Di Caprio blockbuster Blood Diamond – it is also worth reminding ourselves that often corporations will only be moved to action when pressured by market forces.

In other words, while films might oversimplify the complexity of some of these issues, they serve a hugely important purpose, that is to awaken the all-too-often sleepy political conscience of the vast majority of people. And when people start questioning where their engagement rings come from, or why those burgers are so cheap, there’s a higher chance corporations will be moved to alter their behaviour. Most interestingly, the corporate system seems to be developing a self-monitoring mechanism, that picks up abuses at one end, and displays them to the public at the other end. And all this in the name of profit.

So, are the ways of capitalism truly infinite? Well, personally I am still very sceptical about the alleged wisdom of markets, but I have to admit they are showing increasing signs of adult behaviour, although still primarily motivated by self-interest.