Monthly Archives: November 2016

fake news, folklore & friendships

gossipIt wasn’t getting a journalism degree, or being a journalist, that made me a skeptic when it comes to sensational stories. It was a folklore class. Urban Folklore 371, to be exact. It was a very popular class at Western Kentucky University back in the late 1980s, both for people getting a degree in folklore studies and for people needing humanities courses for whatever their degree program was, like me. Class studies focused on contemporary, largely non-religious-based legends, customs and beliefs in the USA. One class might focus on watching a film about the games kids play on a playground and how those games explore the things they fear – marriage, childbirth, stranger danger, being ostracized by their peers, etc. Another class might review the difference versions of the “vanishing hitchhiker” story and why such stories are so popular in so many different cultures, and how the story changes over time.

I heard at least one student say, “That’s not a true story?! I always thought it was!” at least once in every class. Because of that class, I realized there were legends being told as truth all around me, by friends, by family, even by newspapers. “I heard it from my cousin” or “My friend saw it in a newspaper” or “My Mom saw it on Oprah” was usually the preface to some outlandish story told as fact. But the class taught me that, in fact, no woman was ever killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo, that there has never been a killer with a hook for a hand that attacked a couple in a parked car in a nearby town, that there is no actor who has never had a gerbil removed from his anus, and on and on and on.

I became the “um – that’s not true” girl at various places where I worked. And then via email. And I still am, now on social media. And what I have learned from being little Ms. Debunker is that people REALLY do NOT like these stories debunked. In fact, pointing out the facts that prove these stories aren’t true, no matter how gently I try to do it, often makes people very angry.

Back in the 1990s, a friend sent me yet another forwarded email. This time, the text said the email was from Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, that he’d written a program that would trace everyone to whom the email message was sent, and that he was beta testing the program. The email encouraged people to forward the message and said that if it reaches 1,000 people, everyone on the list would receive $1,000. Of course, it wasn’t true – I knew it as soon as I saw it. She’d sent me several of these type of emails – one that said people that forwarded the message would get a free trip to Disney World, another said we’d all get free computers, and on and on. I had been deleting them, but I was tired of it. So I looked online, found a site that debunked the myth, and sent her the link. I didn’t make any judgement statements; I just said, “This is a myth. Here’s more info. You might want to let everyone know you sent to, as well as the person you got it from,” or something similar.

She was not happy with me. In fact, it almost ended our friendship. She told me that the Internet was “a place for having fun” and “you can’t win if you don’t play” and what did she have to lose by forwarding the message even if it sounded fishy?

And that kind of reaction kept happening. Three new friends I made back in 2010, after I’d moved back to the USA, all unfriended me on Facebook the same day, outraged that I pointed out several things they were posting as their status updates – about how Facebook was going to start charging users, about how putting up a disclaimer on your Facebook page would stop the company from being able to sell your information, and on and on – were all urban legends, all untrue. Their reaction was almost verbatim of what that friend via email had said: Facebook is “a place for having fun” and “it’s better to be safe and share it” and what did they have to lose by sharing the message even if it sounded fishy? Also, they said they did not have time to “check every single thing online.”

Now, in 2016, I have friends that are furious with me for posting science-based web sites that debunk their posts from quack sites like the “Food Babe” claiming that GMOs cause cancer or that vaccines cause autism (to be clear, these are MYTHS). Two journalists – JOURNALISTS – were mad at me when I pointed out that a status update one had shared – it urged users to use the Facebook check-in function to say they were at Standing Rock in North Dakota, that this would somehow prevent the Morton County Sheriff’s Department there from geotargeting DAPL protesters – was promoting false information. I wasn’t just annoyed by the message – I found it imprudent, and yet another example of slackervism or slacktivism: people truly wishing to assist the protesters were checking in on Facebook rather than doing something that would REALLY make a difference, like sending funds to support the protest efforts or writing their Congressional representatives in support of the protesters. It also misdirects people from the nefarious ways law enforcement really does surveil people on social media. I would have thought journalists would know better than engage in such behavior.

Contemporary legends online cause harm, and it’s bothered me long before the Standing Rock/Facebook book check-in myth. Since 2004, I have been gathering and sharing examples of how rumors and urban / contemporary myths often interfere with relief and development activities, and government initiatives, including public health initiatives — even bringing such to a grinding halt. These myths create ongoing misunderstandings among communities and cultures, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, cultivate mistrust of people and institutions, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others for no reason other than something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. With the advent of social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as just text messaging among cell phones, spreading misinformation is easier than ever.

Based on my experience as a researcher and a communications practitioner, and everything I’ve read – and I read a LOT on this subject – rumors that interfere with development and aid/relief efforts and government health initiatives come from:

  • misinterpretations of what a person or community is seeing, hearing or experiencing,
  • from previous community experiences or their cultural beliefs,
  • willful misrepresentation by people who, for whatever reason, want to derail a development or relief activity,
  • unintentional but inappropriate or hard-to-understand words or actions by a communicator, or
  • the desire of an individual or community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts

That list of bullet points was central to the long list I made of recommendations on preventing folklore, rumors and urban myths from interfering with such initiatives. I made that list to help aid workers, particularly people leading public health initiatives. For years, I’ve updated that list and felt really good about it being comprehensive and realistic, and I’ve employed some of the methods myself in my work.

But are these recommendations enough anymore? I’m not sure. Because BuzzFeed reported that fake news stories about the USA Presidential election this year generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets COMBINED – that included major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and NBC News, and on and on. And a new study from Stanford researchers evaluated students’ ability to assess information sources, and described the results as “dismaying,” “bleak” and a “threat to democracy,” as reported by NPR News. Researchers said students displayed a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in their responses, getting duped again and again. The researchers weren’t looking for high-level analysis of data but just a “reasonable bar” of, for instance, telling fake accounts from real ones, activist groups from neutral sources and ads from articles. And the students failed. Miserably. And then there’s my own experience seeing the reaction a lot of people have to references to sites like snopes.com or truthorfiction.com or hoax-slayer.com or the Pulitzer Prize-winning site Politico that debunk myths; those people claim that “These sites aren’t true. They’re biased.” And that’s that – just a simple dismissal, so they can continue to cling to falsehoods.

National Public Radio did a story a few days ago about a man in Los Angeles who decided to build fake news sites that publish outrageous, blatantly false stories that promote stories that extreme far-right groups in the USA (also known as “alt-right”) would love to believe; he thought that when these stories were picked up by white supremacist web sites and promoted as true, he and others, particularly major media outlets, would be able to point out that the stories were entirely fiction, created only as bait, and that the white supremacists were promoting such as fact. But instead, thousands of people with no formal association with white supremacists groups shared these stories as fact – reaching millions more people. He wrote one fake story for one of his fake sites on how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot. Again, this story is NOT TRUE. But it led to a state representative in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana; a state legislator was creating legislation and outrage based on something that had never happened.

BTW, to see these fake news sites for yourself, just go to Google and search for snopes is biased, and you will get a long list of links to fake news sites, most right-wing, all fighting against debunking fact-based sites like Snopes. I refuse to name those fake news sites because I don’t want them to get any more traffic than they already do.

Competent decision-making depends on people – the decision-makers – having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful and appropriate context. Reason – the power of the mind to think, understand and form judgments by a process of logic – relies on being able to evaluate information regarding credibility and truth. But fact-based decision-making, the idea of being logical and using reason and intellect, have become things to eschew. The Modis Operandi for many is go with your gut, not with the facts. Go not for truth, but truthiness.

I always thought that last bullet in my list of why people believe myths, “the desire of an individual or community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts,” was easy to address. Now, given all the aforementioned, I’m not at all sure.

I’m going to keep calling out myths whenever I see them, and if it costs me Facebook friends, so be it. I prefer the truth, even when the truth hurts, even when the truth causes me to have to reconsider an opinion. There is a growing lack of media literacy and science literacy in the USA – and, indeed, the world. And the consequences of this could be catastrophic – if they haven’t been already. People need to be able to not just access information, but also to analyze it and evaluate the source. That’s just not happening. And I’ve no idea how to change things.

Also see:

8:10 am Nov. 28, 2016 Update: Filippo Menczer, Professor of Computer Science and Informatics and Director of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University, Bloomington, authored the article Why Fake News Is So Incredibly Effective, published in Time and The Conversation. Excerpts: “Our lab got a personal lesson in this when our own research project became the subject of a vicious misinformation campaign in the run-up to the 2014 U.S. midterm elections. When we investigated what was happening, we found fake news stories about our research being predominantly shared by Twitter users within one partisan echo chamber, a large and homogeneous community of politically active users. These people were quick to retweet and impervious to debunking information.” Also of note: “We developed the BotOrNot tool to detect social bots. It’s not perfect, but accurate enough to uncover persuasion campaigns in the Brexit and antivax movements… our lab is building a platform called Hoaxy to track and visualize the spread of unverified claims and corresponding fact-checking on social media. That will give us real-world data, with which we can inform our simulated social networks. Then we can test possible approaches to fighting fake news.”

1:05 pm Nov. 29, 2016 Updates:

Donald Trump and the Rise of Alt-Reality Media: You think the truth took a hit last year? It’s about to get worse. A lot worse. from Politico.

For Some, Scientists Aren’t The Authority On Science from NPR

Dec. 3, 2016 Updates:

Spread of Fake News Provokes Anxiety in Italy from The New York Times

Dec. 6, 2016 Updates:

A North Carolina man read online that a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, DC, was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring, so he drove six hours from his home to the restaurant, and not long after arriving, he fired from an assault-like AR-15 rifle. No one was injured, and he’s been arrested, but, as The New York Times notes,  “the shooting underscores the stubborn lasting power of fake news and how hard it is to stamp out. Debunking false news articles can sometimes stoke the outrage of the believers, leading fake news purveyors to feed that appetite with more misinformation. Efforts by social media companies to control the spread of these stories are limited, and shutting one online discussion thread down simply pushes the fake news creators to move to another space online. The articles were exposed as false by publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the fact-checking website Snopes. But the debunking did not squash the conspiracy theories about the pizzeria — instead, it led to the opposite. ‘The reason why it’s so hard to stop fake news is that the facts don’t change people’s minds,’ said Leslie Harris, a former president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit that promotes free speech and open internet policies.”

Dec. 9, 2016 update

“Fakes, News and the Election: A New Taxonomy for the Study of Misleading Information within the Hybrid Media System”

Giglietto, Fabio and Iannelli, Laura and Rossi, Luca and Valeriani, Augusto

November 30, 2016. Convegno AssoComPol 2016 (Urbino, 15-17 Dicembre 2016), Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2878774

Abstract:
The widely unexpected outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election prompted a broad debate on the role played by “fake-news” circulating on social media during political campaigns. Despite a relatively vast amount of existing literature on the topic, a general lack of conceptual coherence and a rapidly changing news eco-system hinder the development of effective strategies to tackle the issue. Leveraging on four strands of research in the existing scholarship, the paper introduces a radically new model aimed at describing the process through which misleading information spreads within the hybrid media system in the post-truth era. The application of the model results in four different typologies of propagations. These typologies are used to describe real cases of misleading information from the 2016 US Presidential election. The paper discusses the contribution and implication of the model in tackling the issue of misleading information on a theoretical, empirical, and practical level.

Also see: Feuds in the nonprofit/NGO/charity world

Nonprofits & NGOs: you MUST give people a way to donate online

fundhuntingThe following quote is from a blog in 2013 by Sue Gardner (hi, Sue!!) of the Wikimedia Foundation, which administers Wikipedia. The quote is about how the many-small-donors-instead-of-a-few-big-ones works so well for Wikimedia, a nonprofit:

We don’t give board seats in exchange for cash… people who donated lots of money have no more influence than people who donate small amounts — and, importantly, no more influence than Wikipedia editors… We at the WMF get to focus on our core work of supporting and developing Wikipedia, and when donors talk with us we want to hear what they say, because they are Wikipedia readers. (That matters. I remember in the early days spending time with major donor prospects who didn’t actually use Wikipedia, and their opinions were, unsurprisingly, not very helpful.)

It’s not only that they have many, many donors of small amounts, rather than a few donors that give huge amounts of money, it’s also that their donors are users of their initiatives, primarily Wikipedia – in fact, many are volunteers for these initiatives.

This isn’t a new model. I worked in professional, nonprofit theater for many years, and this was their model as well; each theater had hundreds, even thousands, of donors that gave, for the most part, small amounts, and the vast majority of those donors were also performance ticket buyers. I learned that a healthy nonprofit theater has at least half of its expenses covered by such individual donors.

Of course, the many-small-donors models wouldn’t work for every nonprofit. But if your nonprofit had at least 100 clients, volunteers and/or event attendees in a year, you MUST have a way for those people to donate via your web site. There is absolutely no excuse for NOT having this way of giving, and no excuse for NOT encouraging such donations.

How about this: at least once a year, I have been ready to donate to a particular nonprofit, I’ve gone to the web site to do so, and, ta da: no way to donate online; the only way to donate is by sending a check or money order. And so, I end up not donating at all.

This happened to me last month regarding a nonprofit right here in Forest Grove, Oregon, where I live. I was going to say something to the nonprofit, but instead, decided to turn my thoughts into a blog for small nonprofits in particular. I hope they notice. I don’t have lots of money: when I donate, I’m giving up the price of a movie ticket and popcorn. Most nonprofits would claim that they would not say no to any amount of cash someone wanted to donate, including that small amount. Yet, that’s just what they do when they don’t have a way for people to donate online.

According to Blackbaud’s 2015 Charitable Giving Report, 93% of funds given to nonprofit organizations came from traditional means in 2015 – major gifts, annual funds, fundraising events, checks, snail mail and by phone. Only 7.1% of donations to nonprofits came in online. HOWEVER, online giving has been steadily growing over the last few years, up 9.2% from 2014 to 2015, and 14% of online giving in 2015 originated on a mobile device. I’ve no doubt the numbers are just going to keep going up. A good summary of the Blackbaud report is here. In addition, a study of younger supporters (age 20-35) found that 56% preferred donating online via an organization’s website.

The excuse I hear by most nonprofits for not having a way for someone to donate online?

We don’t want to have to lose some of the donation to processing fees. 

Let me be clear: you are losing ALL of the online donation by not having a way for people to donate this way to your organization. Those people that go to your web site and can’t find a way to donate online don’t say, “Oh, I’ll write a check then.” Nope – they just don’t give at all.

As of the time of this blog’s writing, Paypal charges 2.2% + $0.30 per transaction on any donation ($0 to $100,000) to a registered nonprofit with 501(c)(3) status. Wouldn’t you rather get most of a donation than none of it?

There’s no service that doesn’t have some kind of processing fee for donations to nonprofits, at least not in the USA. Some services, like Paypal or Google Wallet, just charge a transaction on every donation, but don’t provide any features, like a customized web page. Services like First Giving charge more, but also provide more services, like tracking and managing donor information and easily integrating into whatever donor database you are already using. Which should you use? That depends on the size of your nonprofit’s budget, how many donors you are expecting to donate online and how much information you need from those donors. Have a look at what other nonprofits in your community are doing in terms of allowing for online donations, and don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and give them a call and ask for advice (we need nonprofits collaborating together MORE!). Also, talk to your financial institution, the bank or credit union where you deposit your organization’s funds – they may have options as well.

And if you are looking for a magical third party crowdfunding site that will bring in lots of donations for your organization merely by your inputting all of your information and asking for money, forget it – that’s not how successful online fundraising works for 99% of nonprofits. Rare is the donor who goes to a third party web site with no idea of who he or she is going to give money to.  Most nonprofits that raise money through online means are raising that money through their own web sites, and raise that money from people in their communities that are familiar with their work and want to support them, from people that have attended the organization’s events, or from people that have seen an ad on TV or radio.

More: 

Excellent advice from someone else on how to encourage donations online to your organization

More advice for what should be on your organization’s web site

Also see Survival Strategies for Nonprofits

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

Note: since this blog’s publication in November, I’ve been adding how Trump’s presidency actually is affecting humanitarian aid & development:

How will the Trump Presidency affect humanitarian aid and development policy and practice?

And how will it affect humanitarian aid and development workers from the USA?

Effects on the work

2015-07-21-SDGsAid and development efforts in the last 10 years have made amazing strides in terms of addressing issues that make many people, even a majority of people, very uncomfortable, even angry. It’s oh-so-popular to put in a well for drinking water or to build a school for young children or to provide maternal health care, but it’s rarely as popular in those same communities to encourage women to demand their sexual partners to use a condom to prevent HIV/AIDS, or to suggest a plan for providing housing and other help for refugees from other countries. Women’s equal rights to education, life choices, roles in society and employment are now unquestioned in the policies of most international development agencies, including the United Nations, something I wasn’t expecting when I started working internationally. Honestly, I fully expected some kind of “out” in UN policy documents to allow local people to refuse rights for women, if the refusal was based on religious or cultural grounds. But the UN has stood firm, at least officially. Yes, the UN and other aid agencies absolutely look for accommodation within local cultural and religious practices, they absolutely encourage recognition of local values, and that may mean your meeting with a local village is segregated, with all the men in one place, and all the women in another. It requires very delicate maneuvering at times, but the core policy and priority regarding women’s rights, and other rights, does not change.

Reaching women in socially-conservative areas, like Afghanistan, can be an incredible challenge, as you navigate a culture that does not want women in public and is easily angered if they perceive an attack on their religion. And just because local senior staff are singing the praises of gender mainstreaming doesn’t mean the staff they supervise has bought in. But, as an aid worker, you have to find a way. It is your mandate. You find a workaround. Because you know that full civil rights for all people is the only way a country can prosper and become resilient to corruption, crime, and armed civil unrest, and when civil rights for any residents are curbed, officially or by widespread cultural practice, the entire country suffers, and your aid and humanitarian efforts will ultimately fail.

Something that shocks a lot of people is that the UN has a human rights mandate that includes rights for people that are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ). The United Nations Free & Equal initiative is on Twitter (@free_equal) and on Facebook. It is an initiative of the Office of the High Commissioner for United Nations Human Rights. There is this video from the UN Secretary General in support of the Free & Equal initiative. I was stunned, and thrilled, to find this out a while back. It’s a daring position, given the majority attitudes about LGBTQ people throughout the world, including right here in the USA. In promoting equality and human rights, it’s a great comfort to know that a major international development agency has your back, policy wise.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a government agency, also has the  LGBT Global Development Partnership. It was put into the planning and formation stages by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then launched in April 2013 under the tenure of Secretary of State John Kerry. The initiative works to strengthen the capacity of local LGBTQ leaders and civil society organizations in developing countries and to enable the economic empowerment of LGBTQ people in those countries through enhanced entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized enterprise development.

The UN and USAID initiatives in support of LGBTQ people are in response to the violence, economic hardship, stigma and political marginalization that are a daily fact of life for millions of LGBTQ people throughout the world. These people experience a lack of employment opportunities, discrimination in access to health care, housing and education and violations of their civil rights regularly because of their sexual preference. 83 countries and territories currently criminalize LGBTQ behavior or identification, and at least eight have laws allowing the imposition of the death penalty for same-sex relations. These USAID and UN initiatives are desperately needed, as are women’s empowerment initiatives. As are initiatives to help refugees. As are initiatives to help religious minorities. As are initiatives to help people with disabilities. And on and on.

But now, the USA elections of 2016 show that the majority of people in the USA support politicians dedicated to eliminating the civil rights gained by LDBTQ people in the USA over the last five years. Donald Trump is on the record as planning to create a militarized deportation force to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants from the USA, to ban the entry of Muslims into the USA and aggressively surveil any Muslim already here, to punish women for accessing abortion once he makes it illegal with the help of his Supreme Court appointees and Congress, and to change our nation’s libel laws and to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the press. He talks about fully militarizing and otherwise empowering police to enforce “law and order” regarding Black and Latino Americans and other racial minorities in their own communities. He has said climate change is a “hoax” and that he will eliminate all government programs that address such. He promotes myths about vaccine safety. International programs that run contrary to these soon-to-be official policy positions in the USA, that run contrary to the values of many millions of Americans who support this administration, are now in severe danger of being eliminated as well.

Even if all of these initiatives are, miraculously, not cut by the Trump administration, they will be much, much harder to deliver in years to come by aid and development workers. Why? Because any local person can look an American aid worker right in the eye and say, “Why are you promoting something – freedom of the press, rights for immigrants, rights for gay people, reducing car emissions, reducing green house gases, increasing wind and solar energy, vaccines for children – that most people in your own country do not support?” Any person can say, “Your own President mocks powerful public women, and brags of sexually assaulting them. Why is it wrong that men in my country are doing the same as him?” People in developing countries intensely watch what happens in the USA, and they are always on the lookout for hypocrisy, for the USA demanding something of another country that it does not do itself. That a majority of American voters support a political party and government lead by a man who promotes nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny and racism will fuel these movements in other countries, resulting in pushback against humanitarian aid and development workers’ efforts for the rights of women, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, the rights of LGBTQ people, the rights of immigrants and refugees, and on and on.

US development policy can—and has—lifted millions out of poverty and social exclusion, and played a role in transforming countries for the better and creating peace and prosperity where it would not be otherwise. Travel the world, talk to people, you hear the stories over and over, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, and even in Afghanistan, by people that have experienced this transformation first hand. Yes, there is still vast amounts of work to do, and many gains are fragile, but that lives have improved and business has flourished because of USAID and similar efforts simply cannot be denied. These programs not only benefit local people in their everyday lives; they also create social and economic stability that, in turn, creates a market for USA-made products and reduces the need for American military action. A lot of support for USAID and other development agencies comes from a motivation for growing the USA’s markets overseas rather than any feeling of compassion – and I’m okay with that, because such investment still helps local people, which is MY motivation. Weak or failed states are havens for armed criminal groups, some motivated by religion but most motivated by greed, and these groups not only keep their home country in chaos, they also destabilize neighboring countries. Human freedoms in such countries are at risk – and so are their economies, and all the economies attached to such. And that includes the USA. Natural disasters, including pandemics, also destabilize countries – which, in turn, threatens surrounding countries – and ultimately threatens the USA.

Nancy Birdsall and Ben Leo wrote in White House and the World:

Gender discrimination, corruption, lack of opportunity, and repressive governments in many parts of the developing world are an affront to universal values. America is often the only actor capable of marshaling the resources, political capital, and technical know-how required to address these tough issues.

In addition to security threats, the US economy and the American workforce are more reliant than ever on developing-country markets. US exports to developing countries have grown by more than 400 percent over the last 20 years. Today, they total more than $600 billion annually and are greater than US exports to China, Europe, and Japan combined. Brazil, Colombia, India, Korea, Malaysia, Turkey, and other countries are leading markets for US exports. Three decades ago, these were relatively poor countries that offered limited US export potential. Populous countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Nigeria have the potential to be the next wave of emerging markets. It makes strategic sense to further advance America’s global prosperity agenda, thereby helping to grow middle-class societies that drive democratic change, promote peace with their neighbors, and reliably purchase US products and services.

Even if what happened far away didn’t affect the USA, I would still want to help – that’s who I am – but the reality is that even neo-liberals have acknowledged this reality, hence why even Republican Presidents in the USA in the last three decades, until now, have supported the idea of a global economy and foreign aid.

(for USA-based readers, particularly Trump supporters – the term neo-liberal doesn’t mean left wing. In the rest of the word, the word liberal means someone who believes unfettered free market capitalism is the best economic and social policy for the world – in the USA, we call those people libertarians or Republicans).

Effects on aid workers

Trump has said he will reauthorize waterboarding and other forms of torture. This, coupled with his stated attitudes about Muslims, immigrants and refugees from Syria, has the potential to put workers in aid and development from the USA, working abroad, in further danger than they already face. It is yet another thing people from the USA working in humanitarian aid and development must consider, must be mindful of as they are offered posts abroad, and must think about as they navigate another country’s landscape.

Distancing yourself from these policies and statements on social media, including Facebook, might adversely affect your employability with USAID and international agencies that receive funding from the US government during the Trump President and Republic control of the federal government, however, such posts could also help you in your work with people from other countries, people angered and further disempowered by Trump’s foreign policy. That doesn’t mean you post anti-Trump memes on Instagram or are ever have to say publicly who you voted for. It could mean posting sometimes on social media of your support of and concern for Muslim Americans, Syrian refugees, people in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Occupied Palestinian territories, human rights for immigrants, etc., and your condemnation of waterboarding, torture and any violations of human rights.

It was already difficult for female aid workers to complain about sexual harassment on the job; when I complained about such 10 years ago, while doing field work, I was told by a UN HR manager, “Well, you just have to ignore it and not let it bother you. If you can’t, you can always quit.” That’s the usual response, I quickly learned when talking to colleagues. But now, women aid workers from the USA are going to be at even greater risk of sexual harassment and assault because of the Trump presidency. The incoming President has, by his statements and behavior, made it acceptable for anyone, including politicians and other government representatives, to rate women by their looks and to insult women reporters, politicians, artists and celebrities with most vile statements about their character, appearance – even their sexuality. His bragging about sexual assault also normalizes such behavior in the minds of many men, in the USA and abroad. Megyn Kelly, a reporter for the politically right-wing Fox News channel, noted to Trump during a Presidential debate she moderated: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.” Imagine a female aid worker having such comments directed at her by men she is working with, and when she says these comments are inappropriate, is told, “But it’s what your own President says!” It will be hard to demand such comments stop when the head of the most power country on Earth is saying the same.

For male aid workers in particular, repeated statements on social media and as a part of your aid and development work in support of women’s equal rights and respect for women, as well as condemnations of sexual harassment and assault, can help counter the dangerous narrative being established about acceptable treatment of women. More than ever, your female colleagues need you to speak up when you hear people you are working with joking about sexual assault or women’s behavior.

Final thoughts for now

It’s all quite dire, I know. But it’s based on what Trump and GOP members of the House and Senate have said and promised, and therefore, it must be considered as really happening. Organizations and governments abroad that have counted on support from UN and USAID need to think about what they will do if that support vanishes, both the financial support and the rhetorical support. Aid workers from the USA, more than ever before, need to be conscious of how they are perceived abroad, and remember that the safety climate in a place can change dramatically per a rumor or a sound byte on the news. And aid agencies need to revise all of their safety measures for their staff, particularly women, and to think about how they will reinforce their anti-sexual-harassment policies in the face of this new climate.

Also see:

US aid for women’s sexual health worldwide under threat, from The Guardian

Taking a stand when you are supposed to be neutral/not controversial

Update Dec 1

The UN in the Era of Trump from Centre for Policy Research, United Nations University

The $64,000 Question: Can the UN Survive the Trump Era?, from PassBlue.

Battles to end poverty, inequality will falter in Trump era, experts predict, from Reuters

Also, I’ve gotten two comments from people taking issue with my comment “the USA elections of 2016 show that the majority of people in the USA support politicians dedicated to eliminating the civil rights gained by LDBTQ people in the USA over the last five years.” It is true that Secretary Clinton garnered more votes on election day – and that her lead in the results continues to grow: As of Dec. 1, Clinton has garnered 65,152,112 votes, compared to Trump’s 62,625,928. That’s a margin of 2.53 million votes. The Democratic Party nominee’s margin in the popular vote is also rapidly approaching 2 percentage points. But I’m not sure the vote really does represent what a majority of Americans think. Perhaps I’ve got more access outside the bubble than a lot of folks, but being from a rural part of the USA, I see and hear a jaw-dropping amount of glee over the soon-to-come rollback regarding civil rights gains in the USA. There’s no question in my mind that this is, indeed, what a majority of people in the USA want – and that’s something we need to accept in order to address and change it.

Update:
Donald Trump might be more popular than you think, from Politico, Feb. 2, 2017

Update January 13, 2017

From an article today in The New York Times: “a series of questions from the Trump transition team to the State Department indicate an overall skepticism about the value of foreign aid, and even about American security interests, on the world’s second-largest continent… the tone of the questions suggest an American retreat from development and humanitarian goals, while at the same time trying to push forward business opportunities across the continent.” The article says, “The questions seem to reflect the inaccurate view shared by many Americans about how much the United States spends on foreign aid and global health programs.” In the article, Monde Muyangwa, director of the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, noted that “the framing of some of their questions suggests a narrower definition of U.S. interests in Africa, and a more transactional and short-term approach to policy and engagement with African countries.” Ms. Muyangwa said the queries could signal “a dramatic turn in how the United States will engage with the continent.” The article notes that Former President George W. Bush quadrupled foreign assistance levels to African countries during his term, and President Obama largely maintained that, even as his administration was making cuts elsewhere.

Update Jan. 26,  2017

More from undispatch.com Trump dramatically expanded the scope of the Global Gag Rule to include all global health assistance provided by the US government. Rather than applying the Global Gag Rule exclusively to US assistance for family planning in the developing world, which amounts to about $575 million per year, the Trump memo applies it to “global health assistance furnished by all department or agencies.” In other words, NGOs that distribute bed nets for malaria, provide childhood vaccines, support early childhood nutrition and brain development, run HIV programs, fight ebola or Zika, and much more, must now certify their compliance with the Global Gag Rule or risk losing US funds.

Update February 8, 2017: Charities Say That Trump’s Refugee Ban Will Be “Incredibly Problematic” For Their Work Abroad. Charities operating in countries on the US president’s banned list, or employing staff with dual nationality from these nations, also warned the ban would jeopardise their work. A nonprofit has said plans to have Syrians speak to the US Congress have had to be shelved.

Update February 27, 2017: With aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever – from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership

The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) is going to host the first national conference in the USA in more than a decade for people in charge of supporting and involving volunteers. The 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership will be
July 26 – 28, 2017 in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you want to present at the conference (presenters are NOT paid), your proposal is due November 30, 2016. Please review the Request for Proposal Instructions before submitting a proposal.

Registration to attend the conference will open February 1, 2017.

It’s great that someone is attempting to have a national conference for managers of volunteers – it hasn’t happened in the USA since 2005. Back in 2006, the Association for Volunteer Administration (AVA), the national association of managers of volunteers, went under, due to financial mismanagement. With it went the annual national conference, the largest event in the world focused on the people and systems needed to support and involve volunteers, and event that helped elevate conversations about volunteerism beyond people-that-work-for-free-are-so-nice. The loss of AVA and its annual conference hurt not just managers of volunteers, but all volunteerism – there was no one who was championing the people in charge of creating tasks for volunteers and supporting volunteers in those tasks, and there was no one advocating for the resources those people need to do those jobs. I believe it’s why it’s been so hard to refute claims that the best way to measure volunteer value is by giving a monetary value to service hours, and why, in this era where everything is about community engagement, managers of volunteers at nonprofits have been largely left out of the conversation.

I would love to attend but, unfortunately, I don’t have the funds. If you would like to sponsor part or all of my flight or accommodation costs, please contact me ASAP at jc@coyotecommunications.com (as the deadline for presentation proposals is Nov. 30, I need ot hear from you before then!).

And on a side note: if someone doesn’t update the Wikipedia page for the Association for Leaders in Volunteer Engagement (ALIVE) with citations OTHER than the ALIVE web site, the page is going to get deleted. I’ve donated a LOT of time to updating volunteering-associated pages on Wikipedia – it’s time for others to step in.

To Do List the Day After the USA election

The USA Presidental election is over in the USA at last. While not everyone is happy with the results, everyone is happy that it is over. It feels like it’s been going on for two years or more!!

This Presidential election has been contentious, controversial and very, very heated. I wrote in another blog about mistrust being rampant in so many communities in the USA and elsewhere, but the reality is that, fueled by this election, mistrust has seeped into organizations and families all over the USA: friendships have dissolved, many people aren’t speaking to various family members, and employees and volunteers may also not be speaking to each other because of what’s been said and done in this election, perceptions of the candidates and perceptions of the candidates’ supporters.

Strong feelings about the election and the issues it raised can poison workplace congeniality, kill employee and staff motivation and drive the exit of employees and volunteers you really didn’t want to lose. Maybe some of this has already happened at your nonprofit or government agency. You may need to do a number of things over many months to ease tensions, heal hurt feelings, reinforce your policies regarding workplace behavior and culture, and make sure everyone understands that the mission of your organization is always the priority while acting in an official capacity as an employee or volunteer.

You could:

  • Encourage departments to organize lunch together one day every other week, or do this for your entire organization if staff numbers are small, for a few months. You could introduce non-work topics for each lunchtime: recommendations for binge-watching, best classic black and white movies, predictions about March Madness, etc. Or have lunchtime trivia contests. The goal is to create fun, friendly, non-political conversations and help employees and volunteers again see each other as real people with real feelings. You don’t have to say why you are doing this – just do it.
  • Have a simple, fun contest for staff. For instance, ask them to bring in photos of themselves as babies or very young children, or in a Halloween costume, put the photos on the bulletin board in a common area and ask people to say who they think each person is. Or staff can bring in photos of pets they have, or have had, and staff can guess what animal belongs to what staff member. Or have a weekly staff award, like most tenacious, or most congenial, or person with a work situation that would make the best reality show. The winner could get a gift card. Again, this creates fun, friendly, non-political conversations and help employees and volunteers again see each other as real people.
  • Consider posting appropriate quotes in the break room that encourage humanity and kindness. For instance, from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. Or this quote from Carlos P. Romulo: Brotherhood is the very price and condition of man’s survival.
  • Organize several activities over the course of coming weeks that will remind staff and volunteers of the mission of your organization, such as a Q & A with frontline or program staff, a video of clients talking about the difference the organization makes, etc. This is good advice anytime, not just after a contentious election.
  • Remind staff in various ways that, at your organization, people matter, and in the workplace, we need to take care of each other, we need to have each other’s back. Cite individuals in front of all staff that have demonstrated this, or any teamwork, in some way. Have a brainstorming session on what kinds of words your staff would like, ideally, to be able to say about their workplace culture.
  • Note in an all-staff meeting that your organization’s staff has the right and responsibility to ensure that the work environment is free of hostility aimed at employees, consultants, volunteers or clients because of protected classification, such as race or gender, and that there are federal and state laws that prohibit hostile work environments on the basis of sex, race and religion. It’s better to do this in-person, in a conversational tone than a memo, as it feels less like a cold command, but certainly, you can also send out a written memo as a reminder of what you discussed in a recent meeting on this topic.
  • Remind staff – employees and volunteers – that, in the workplace, political discussions should never interfere with work, should be avoided with clients, and among staff, should never be allowed to devolve into debates over race, national origin, gender roles or religion, as such talk could be construed as creating a hostile work environment, even by someone not participating in such debates but just hearing such. Remind staff that such discussions should not happen in the workplace and, instead, should happen outside of the organization. This may require a written memo to drive home the point if things are getting out of hand.
  • Immediately take aside any employee, consultant or volunteer who seems to be crossing the line regarding political comments and remind them in specific terms what they have said that is inappropriate and in violation of your policies. Take appropriate action for repeat offensives, including dismissal.
  • If your organization, as a part of its mission, is focused on issues that came up frequently in the election, such as marriage, immigration, refugees, veterans, safety, government transparency, women’s health, insurance coverage, etc., make sure all staff, including non-program staff, know where the organization stands on these issues and knows how to properly refer any questions or criticisms of such.
  • Be absolutely strict on senior staff demonstrating the behavior they want out of subordinates and volunteers in all of the above. If they aren’t walking the talk, all of the aforementioned is for naught.
  • Be prepared to say goodbye to employees, consultants or volunteers who cannot let go of hostility about the election and are letting such affect their work and the work place.
  • Welcome questions or discussions from staff about any of the above.

If you try anything at your organization, or are struggling with staff cohesion, share your experience in the comments below.

Also see

For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle Online Criticism

Survival Strategies for Nonprofits , a guide for nonprofits facing critical budget shortfalls.

Al Gore Campaign Pioneered Virtual Volunteering

algoreweblaunch
Back in 2000, when Al Gore ran for President of the USA, his campaign championed virtual volunteering, including microvolunteering, by recruiting online volunteers to help online with his election efforts. I was getting ready to leave the Virtual Volunteering Project at the time, to work for UNDP/UNV in Germany, and was not able to document these pioneering efforts at the time. I remembered this effort recently, per the current (and seemingly never-ending) Presidential campaign in the USA, and went digging on archive.org to find the original materials from that campaign regarding this work with online volunteers. They are worth looking at – they are still an excellent example of how to clarify expectations for a virtual volunteering role, something I emphasize again and again in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. They also show that virtual volunteering, including microvlunteering, is NOT a new idea.

He even had an “app” for people with personal digital assistants (PDAs), the precursor to the smart phone.

Somewhere on the archived Gore-for-President site is also a mention of either online volunteering or virtual volunteering, but I can’t find it anymore…

And by the way: Al Gore never claimed he invented the Internet. But he was most certainly one of the visionaries responsible for helping to bring it into being, by fostering its development in a legislative sense.

Also see:

Volunteers are more important than social media in Presidential elections

A volunteerism blog, not a political one

Why I still don’t like “International Volunteer Manager’s Day”

logoNovember 5 is celebrated by some as International Volunteer Manager’s Day. And I’m not fond of it. I’ve said so in conversations, and in a post on OzVPM back in October 2009 . But I wanted to revisit why I’m not fond of it.

I call it “hug-your-volunteer-manager” day. I compare it to Mother’s Day.  And I don’t mean that as a compliment. 

Mother’s Day didn’t transform mothers’ lives. It didn’t elevate the status of mothers. It didn’t improve maternal health. It didn’t make women want to become mothers. It wasn’t transformative regarding how society thought about mothers. That’s what the founder of Mother’s Day wanted, and instead, she saw the day become a commercial celebration, a day of sweetness, but not substance. In fact, the person who led the campaign to adopt Mother’s Day in the USA later regretted it because of how empty and commercial the celebration was, in contrary to her intentions, and even filed a lawsuit to stop a Mother’s Day Festival.

Maybe I would be more attracted to the day if it was a day less about cute memes and inspiring quotes and was, instead, devoted to encouraging people that are in charge of the engagement of volunteers to:

  • go to their supervisors and ask for salary and budget increases
  • put themselves on the agenda to address their organization’s board of directors regarding the importance of quality volunteer support and ask for a larger budget for this support
  • write their local newspapers and blog in response to whatever the latest volunteerism campaign is (because there is ALWAYS one going on somewhere), debunking myths like “volunteers are free” and talking about why volunteer management is essential to such a campaign’s success (and writing the campaign leaders as well)
  • have a meeting with the person responsible for the annual report to present a proposal regarding how the contributions of volunteers will be noted in the next annual report, and absolutely refuse for that information to be presented in terms of money
  • launch a new, updated, detailed section of the organization’s web site that gives volunteers as high a profile as donors, and ensure that the link to “support us” doesn’t just link to a page on how to make a cash donation
  • use social media to promote the impact of volunteers at the organization, or to assert volunteers aren’t cost-free, or to push back against those that want us to value volunteers primarily in terms of money saved by not paying staff
  • develop an action plan for the next year with concrete actions to elevate the role of volunteers and volunteer management within the organization (the board, the staff, partner organizations, etc.)
  • present a strategy to expand the engagement of volunteers at the organization
  • present a strategy for training staff to work better with volunteers, create more assignments, etc.
  • vow to never, ever write another Facebook post or blog or online discussion comment whining about how overworked and underpaid they are – or at least not to write one for six months.

No pins. No mugs. No flowers. No posters. No t-shirts. No buttons. No badges. No memes. Not for this day. Instead, concrete, even provocative, action, by managers of volunteers – real activism – to elevate respect for their roles and their work, to increase the recognition of the vital importance of volunteerism specialists, so much so that people choose it as a career. To be transformative regarding how society thought about volunteer engagement and those in charge of such.

When “participatory” & “consultation” are just words

social cohesionWhen you work in humanitarian initiatives in other countries, whether your project concerns water or HIV/AIDS or maternal health or vaccines or bridge construction or government web sites or whatever, your nonprofit headquarters and your donors will emphasize over and over that you must employ ways for the local people to participate in decision-making.1,2

Yet, too often participatory decision-making doesn’t happen in developed countries, by the governments that fund overseas initiatives and demand details about how participatory decision-making was assured.

The backlash against the European Commission (the government of the European Union), manifested most recently by Brexit and the Belgian region of Wallonia rejecting a long-planned free trade pact between the EU and Canada3, are great examples of lack of participatory decision-making.

So is the anger in Portland, Oregon regarding the new contract with Portland Police Department4, 5

And so is the anger and protests regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline is being built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners and will transport as many as 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. The Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, a group that supports the pipeline, says 100% of the affected landowners in North Dakota, where part of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe lives, voluntarily signed easements to allow for construction, and the Army Corps of Engineers, the consulting agency for the project, has a list of dates it said it contacted the tribe, or tried to and never heard back.6, 7 In addition, government officials believe they have followed the consultation process promoted by the President’s office in 2010.8

But the Seattle Times says “Environmental documents filed by the company show that during its permit application the tribe was not even listed in the entities consulted during a piecemeal, fast-track review of the project by the Corps. Company contractors contacted the county weed board, the Audubon Society, county commissioners and more. But not the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, permitting documents show.” The company has not allowed the tribe’s archaeological experts to review the ground in the path of the pipeline as it comes toward Standing Rock. The tribe’s expert, Tim Mentz Sr., in a review at the invitation of a private landowner, discovered some important artifacts, including stone effigies, burial sites and rare depictions of celestial constellations. The Seattle Times says, “So confident was Energy Transfer Partners that its work would go smoothly, that it started building the pipeline last spring, long before it had all its last permits in hand.”9

There can be no argument that tribes have been historically unable to influence projects that affect them and the land they hold sacred so this feels like just yet another land grab against native people in the USA that will marginalize them and hurt their lives. Sarah Krakoff, a professor at the University of Colorado specializing in American Indian Law and Natural Resources Law, says, “Sometimes what the agencies think of as adequate and with all good intentions do not feel adequate from the tribal side. Either because the process isn’t meaningful to them, it doesn’t accord with their timeframe or decision frame.”

Even when participatory decision-making is emphasized, the actions taken that are supposed to provide ways for lots of different people to influence what’s happening can be just for show; any community activist can tell a story about meticulously capturing the input of a group through a variety of listening exercises, only to have all that feedback utterly ignored in the final plans. I don’t know that this happened in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but I’ve seen it happen overseas in my own humanitarian agency work; it’s infuriating.

And even well-done participatory decision-making isn’t always enough to keep protests at bay: until 2016, the ongoing consultative processes regarding the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge between local people, including ranchers, birders, outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists, tribal members and others was considered a model for other communities. But that process, including a landmark 2013 agreement, didn’t stop people from far outside the area from using guns and force to invade the refuge, occupy it and cause many thousands of dollars in damage, including to private property and tribal lands.10, 11

On a related note, social media posts the Dakota Access Pipeline are often tagged with #NoDAPL, and slackervism / slactivism abounds, with people posting memes in support of the the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, or adjusting their Facebook page to show they are at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation when they actually aren’t.12 It’s supposed to somehow create support for the tribe and to confuse law enforcement authorities regarding who is at Standing Rock and who isn’t, but Snopes points out that there’s no record that such has helped at all, including in attracting more “material assistance.”13

Since I’m really not fond of slacktivism, here are ways to REALLY help re: #NoDAPL without leaving your house or coffee shop or wherever you are with Internet and phone access :

(1) Call North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple at 701-328-2200, leaving a RESPECTFUL, firm message on this subject (I find writing out the statement & reading from it helps me).

(2) Call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414 & tell President Obama to rescind the Army Corps of Engineers’ Permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

(3) Sign the petition at petitions.whitehouse.gov

(4) Contact the executives of Energy Transfer Partners that are building the pipeline:

Lee Hanse, Executive Vice President
Telephone: (210) 403-6455 or email: Lee.Hanse@energytransfer.com

Glenn Emery, Vice President
Telephone: (210) 403-6762 or email: Glenn.Emery@energytransfer.com

Also see:

Sources:

  1. Oil workers and oil communities: counterplanning from the commons in Nigeria, Terisa E. Turner 1997
  2. LEFT BEHIND; As Oil Riches Flow, Poor Village Cries Out, New York Times
  3. Wallonia rejects EU ultimatum over Canada free trade deal, EuroNews
  4. Portland City Council approves police contract amid unruly protest, Oregon Live
  5. Why protesters are mad about the police contract, Oregon Live
  6. What to Know About the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests, Time
  7. Tribal Consultation At Heart Of Pipeline Fight, insideenergy.org
  8. Guidance for Implementing E.O. 13175, “Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments” , whitehouse.gov
  9. The violent Dakota Access Pipeline protest raged for hours — until this tribal elder stepped in, Seattle Times
  10. Audubon Society of Portland Statement on the Occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
  11. Beyond the Oregon Protests: The Search for Common Ground, Environment 360, Yale University
  12. Standing Rock Facebook Check-in, CNN
  13. Facebook check-in at Standing Rock, Snopes