New Media and USAID

Web 2.0 technology is becoming ubiquitous and the development community is finally catching up, albeit slowly. It is not until recently that the US government development arm (USAID) has realized that it too needs to jump on the bandwagon of social networking and web 2.0 technology to market its brands, projects, and mission. But like anything else with the US government, USAID is miles behind. It’s true that you can google USAID and find a website for each country it operates in, but its also true that the quality and accessibility of the website is leaps and bounds behind the private sector. It’s also true that some USAID programs have facebook sites and Youtube videos posted online, but they are not easily searchable, key words aren’t embedded, and the metadata is weak. USAID needs to be more aggressive and effective in its use of web 2.0 technology to make its results known. Young adults are more open to the idea of using taxpayer money to provide assistance overseas . Young adults are also the largest market currently using web 2.0 on a regular basis. In my opinion, USAID has a critical opportunity right now to make its better known, gather more support for funding, and share its message with a huge audience for a relatively low price tag.  Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Flickr, Delicious, Myspace, Foursquare, Twitter, etc. are tools that the US government needs to learn to use in much the same form as Word, Excel, Outlook, and email. Why? Because the old rules of marketing, PR, and branding no longer apply in this new global technological economy/society. You can no longer solely rely on press releases, TV ads, radio spots, and billboards to connect with a targeted audience. USAID needs to better communicate impact and the only way to do that effectively in todays day and age is to use web 2.0 technology.

USAID communication officers from the US Embassies around the world recently met at a conference in Washington DC to discuss how to better communicate the impact USAID is achieving in projects overseas. The outcome of the conference was to begin paving the way to use web 2.0 to market its USAID programs. But how? no one had any real answers.  In my opinion, Director Shah needs to do three things: 1) appoint someone to develop a manual to give projects guidelines on how to use web 2.0 to communicate success.  As of now, there is no standard and no good examples that are widely disseminated. The ADS completely ignores that new media technology exists! Second thing that should happen —each project needs to have a requirement for a communication specialist either in the RFA or the RFP. This key component of project staff is too often overlooked and communication is too often an after-thought. And finally, USAID should launch a huge web 2.0 campaign to garner the support of young adults and new media users. The benefits of such a campaign are enormous but the window of opportunity is closing fast…


The Living Proof Project

The TV commercial for the Living Proof Project (linked here)–sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is currently being shown on major network stations across the US ( ABC/CBS/NBC/etc. ).

This commercial is the best development communication of its kind. It is also the first time in my lifetime that I have seen a positive commercial which advertises development assistance across the globe to the American people. This is groundbreaking people! Never has there been a US-wide campaign which seeks to sponsor, justify, and captivate the success of American aid in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Most importantly, this commercial is effective. The people’s faces are warm, healthy & smiling. You don’t see anyone with inflated stomachs, flies in their eyes, and expressions of depression and deep depravity –like we’re used to seeing on all of those Christain infomercials where they ask you to give a dollar a day to some kid in a poor country and you get their picture in return as compensation for your supposed generosity.

The truth of the matter is, the commercial is correct. We are making a difference. Health projects across the developing world ARE impacting people’s lives. The American Public deserves to hear that AND they NEED to hear that.

Moreover, what strikes me most about the commercial is that it fails to distinguish between public and private donors in the developing world that are providing aid assistnace. The commercial gives credit to everyone who is working to make a difference. This is awesome!


Cultural Diversity and Civil Society

One of the nearly indelible assumptions about civil society is that cultural diversity is the prime cause of the deterioration of civil society in the developing world. Therefore, we should expect countries with very few languages spoken among the population to have strong civil societies. Surprisingly, however, this is not always the case. Lets use North Korea as the most prototypical example. As is the case in North Korea, the strength of civil society is not always dependent upon a macro understanding of the cultural composition of a country (i.e. homogeneous or heterogeneous); but instead upon a more micro understanding which looks at how various groups within a social system coalesce and negotiate their roles in society. This more micro vision of cultural diversity provides a crucial link to understand both how and why cultural diversity affects the strength of civil society in the developing world.

Historic methods of visualizing a society as diverse or not diverse serve as a fruitless measure of classification in todays globalized world. As people continue to migrate seamlessly across borders, a majority of countries have become heterogeneous in terms of cultural diversification. Nonetheless, by virtue of classical knowledge, it would seem as though countries with less linguistic diversification should have stronger civil societies because a larger number of the population is capable of communicating. The author took this puzzle and posed it quantitatively to test for its strength across the developing world. Regressions based on survey data in 119 developing countries derived from the 2006 Bertelsmann Transformation Index reveal the expected negative correlation between the amount of cultural diversity (measured by language variation) in a country and the strength of its civil society, but with low explanatory power. The data indicates that vibrant civil society can exist in both culturally homogeneous and heterogeneous societies. For example, Botswana has 37 languages spoken among the population, but a strong civil society relatively speaking for African countries. Four case studies conducted by the author in India, Nigeria, Bolivia, and Chile show that developing countries with vibrant civil societies owe their success to the absence of deeply embedded social stratifications and the presence of upward social mobility among minorities. As a consequence, weak civil society tends to be fairly persistent in countries where the opportunity for social mobility is low. The author concludes: (1) linguistic diversity weakens the strength of civil society (but with low explanatory power), and (2) there is an inverse correlation between the embeddedness of social stratifications and the strength of civil society in the developing world.