Tag Archives: government

Disaster Crowdsourcing Event – FEMA’s Disaster Hackathon

Disaster Crowdsourcing Event – FEMA’s Disaster Hackathon
Sat, Oct. 21, 2017, 10 AM – 5 PM Eastern USA time
Washington, DC. and virtually

“Learn about FEMA’s current crowdsourcing coordination efforts, participate in building new projects, experiment with new tools, and shape the future of crowdsourcing in emergency management. If you are not in DC or cannot come in person, sign up to volunteer remotely. All skill levels and backgrounds are welcome, you don’t need to be a coder to participate in this Hackathon! Just bring a laptop!”

Sign up to participate onsite, or online, here.

Yes, I’ve signed up to participate remotely!
FEMA flyer

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.

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.

“If no one is complaining, we don’t have to change how we do things”

handstopOne of the most common defenses I hear from an organization or program not addressing issues regarding diversity, communications, and accommodations is this:

We’ve done it this way for years, and no one has complained about that. No volunteer / client / member / donor has ever said they don’t like how we do such-and-such. You are the only one. So we’re not changing.

My observation might be about the way something is worded on a web site. Or the process to submit an application for volunteering. It could be about the lack of mass transit access to a location of an annual event or training. It could be about a lack of representation of various groups amid volunteer ranks. Or about a prayer before a volunteer recognition event at a secular organization. It could be about a lack of certain information in another language. Any of the aforementioned, and more, often incurs that defense when I bring up an issue related to diversity, accommodations or communications.

Often, when I do a little digging myself, talking to people that wanted to volunteer at the organization but didn’t, or to current members, or to former clients, and on and on, I find that, indeed, there is dissatisfaction among a few, maybe even more, but no one says anything to the organization itself, because no one wants to be seen as ruining an event or hurting the feelings of others or not being “a team player.” Some even fear repercussions by friends, neighbors and others. So they don’t say anything about something they would like to see changed or improved because there is a culture within the program or the entire organization, that discourages complaints or suggestions.

In the 1990s, I worked for a really incredible organization called Joint Venture: Silicon Valley. While I worked there, as internal communications manager – very much a junior staffer – a board member arranged for a retired HR executive from his oh-so-large global company to visit our organization and do a survey and discussion with staff about the work culture and environment, and then report our feedback to senior staff, keeping individual comments anonymous. That HR executive handled those surveys and conversations with the greatest of care, making us feel welcomed and comfortable in sharing what we liked, and what we didn’t, about our workplace. Afterward, he revealed to us, then senior staff, that junior staff and assistants felt we operated from a place of fear, rather than a place of power. We, as an organization, were risk-averse and even suggestion-averse. We felt corrections were given out by management far more than praise and support. After senior staff got over the shock of the culture they created – they really had no idea – things changed almost immediately, under that HR expert’s guidance. It rapidly became a delightful place to work, because senior management changed the way they worked and talked to all staff. And we all felt free to suggest, even to complain.

Would your organization be so brave?

Also see:

Deriding the monetary value of volunteer hours: my mission in life?

moneysignsDuring a presentation on volunteers at a local government agency that I attended a few weeks ago, the program manager proudly noted that the agency’s volunteer contributions are the equivalent of 21 full time employees, and gave a value of their time at more than a million dollars, based on the dollar value per hour promoted by the Independent Sector. That was one of her very first points in her presentation, and this was the ONLY reason offered during the entire session as to why this agency involves volunteers; she then went on to what volunteers do.

I wonder how the agency’s volunteers would feel to know that they are involved because they replace paid staff? Because they “save money”?

This agency said the greatest value of volunteers is that they are unpaid and mean the agency doesn’t have to hire people to do those tasks. I have so many, many examples on my blog and web site – linked at the end of this blog – regarding why those statements lead to outrage, and how they actually devalue volunteer engagement. These statements reinforce the old-fashioned ideas that volunteers are free (they are not; there are always costs associated with involving volunteers) and that the number of hours contributed by volunteers is the best measure of volunteer program success (quantity rather than quality and impact).

Put this in contrast to a paper on volunteer resource management practices in hospitals which I read today. The post about it on LinkedIn promotes this quote, “volunteers contribute greatly to personalizing, humanizing and demystifying hospitalization.” The paper, “Hospital administrative characteristics and volunteer resource management practices” is by Melissa Intindola, Sean Rogers, Carol Flinchbaugh and Doug Della Pietra and the description never once mentions the value of volunteers as being a monetary value for their hours, money saved, employees replaced, or any other old-fashioned statements to tout why volunteers are involved. I haven’t read the entire paper (it’s $30 – not in the budget right now), and maybe they do talk about these values, but from the summaries of the paper, it sounds like they understand the far better reasons for volunteer engagement, and that this understanding guides their recommendationss.

I’m not opposed to using a monetary value for volunteer hours altogether, but it should never, EVER, be shown as the primary reason volunteers are involved, or even the secondary reason to involve volunteers. If a monetary value is used, it should always come with MANY disclaimers, and should follow all of the other, better, more important reasons the agency involves volunteers. It should come many pages after the mission statement for the volunteer program and the results of volunteer engagement that have nothing to do with money saved.

Years of whining about this has paid off: the Independent Sector noticed yesterday and tweeted some responses to me. Not sure why it took so many years for them to notice my oh-so-public whining, particularly since I tagged them on Twitter every now and again…

I guess it’s time to again recommend this new book, Measuring the Impact of Volunteers: A Balanced and Strategic Approach, by ChristineBurych, Alison Caird, Joanne Fine Schwebel, Michael Fliess and Heather Hardie. This book is an in-depth planning tool, evaluation tool and reporting tool. As I wrote in my blog about this book, “I really hope this book will also push the Independent Sector, the United Nations, other organizations and other consultants to, at last, abandon their push of a dollar value as the best measurement of volunteer engagement.”

Also see:

I love FOSS software!

For more than seven years, I’ve been using FOSS software for all my office software needs:

  • I use LibreOffice and OpenOffice for all word-processing needs on my laptop, including opening and editing Microsoft Word documents sent to me by other, for creating slide show/presentation/stacks and editing Microsoft PowerPoint files sent to me by others, for all spreadsheets, simple databases)
  • I use Thunderbird, from Mozilla, for my on-my-computer email client and Roundcube for my webmail needs via my laptop.

Open source software allows users (including online volunteers!) to study, change, and improve the software at the code level, rights normally reserved for the copyright holder – usually, a large corporation. Free software usually refers to software that grants you the freedom to copy and re-use the software, rather than to the price of the software, and is often referred to as FOSS (Free and Open Source Software). But in this case, I’m talking about cost-free-for-the-user software: it doesn’t cost a user money to use it.

It bothers me when I see people in countries where I work or visit – Afghanistan, Ukraine, Egypt, etc. – using pirated Microsoft software rather than LibreOffice or OpenOffice. Or when I see nonprofits struggling with expenses and spending huge amounts of money on proprietary software from multi-billion dollar companies rather than FOSS software. FOSS proves again and again to be just as secure, stable, frequently-updated, feature-rich and reliable as proprietary software. FOSS products are powerful, constantly debugged and upgraded, and feature-rich. The support forums for them are as good as anything large software corporations provide.

Sure, there are the occasional file translation issues — sometimes the fonts don’t translate ideally between FOSS and Microsoft Powerpoint, for instance, or the bullets in a word-processing document sometimes goes wonky from one software to another — you know, the same problems that happen between different versions of the same software from large, well-known corporations.

As I’ve said before, you evaluate and choose free software the same way you choose fee-based software:

  • how long has the software been around?
  • how often is the software upgraded?
  • how much documentation for the software is provided?
  • is there an online forum where users freely post questions and offer support to each other?
  • look for reviews of the software (these are very easy to find online). Read many different reviews from many different sources, not just one or two, and not just the “official” review from the software’s manufacturer(s).
  • is the software talked about by users on the TechSoup forum?

Beware of unsolicited email offers or web page pop-ups for free software. These are often associated with malicious software, viruses, and scams.

As I’ve said before, what’s most important in being able to work in the modern office is not a certain number of years using a particular office software. Rather, it’s for you to understand all that office software should be able to do, such as in a document:

  • using fonts appropriately and changing them as necessary
  • setting tabs and margins
  • creating and editing tables
  • adding headers and footers, page numbers, etc.
  • adding and editing tables
  • adding graphics and integrating them into a page’s design
  • recording and showing, or hiding or accepting, edits by other people
  • creating an automatically-updated table of contents based on headings and subheadings within a document
  • creating mail merges for customized text
  • etc.

What’s MOST important is that you understand the capabilities of word processing software, spreadsheet software, presentation software, web page creation software, etc. – having that understanding means you will be able to learn to use future versions of the software or any software produced by a different company that is designed to do what you want done, whether it’s to create a document or a web page or a database, whatever. The most important software skill you can have is the ability to learn new functions on upgraded software or ability to learn new software quickly or ability to figure out new software/upgrades, because software changes. And changes and changes. It gets upgraded. The IT manager decides to use something different. A board member can get a special deal on something different. The head of the organization has a personal preference. Whatever.

In short, don’t marry software. Because your relationship won’t last a lifetime. It just won’t. And it WILL break your heart at some point. Date it – and enjoy it while it lasts!

For more information, see these previous blogs and other web pages, where I talk more about FOSS options, including about entire country governments that have converted to FOSS use, and more about software choices:

Has the Internet democratized engagement?

This week, I’m going to blog and launch new web resources based on my experience as the Duvall Leader in Residence at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Leadership Development (CFLD), part of UK’s College of Agriculture,Food and Environment. My visit was sponsored by the W. Norris Duvall Leadership Endowment Fund and the CFLD, and focused on leadership development and community development and engagement as both relate to the use of online media.

First up for discussion: Democratizing Engagement. Specifically: has the Internet democratized community, even political, engagement? To democratize something is to make it accessible “to the masses.” So, my answer during the presentation in Lexington at the Plantory, to launch discussion in Lexington, was, “Yes… and no.”

On the “yes” side:

  • People can access information they need most, like weather forecasts, communicate with people remotely, even bank and community organize, through text messaging on a simple cell phone. This has been revolutionary for people in the developing world.
  • People with even more sophisticated tools, like laptops and smart phones, can do even more, like access pension information, journalism-based media sites, business information, etc., apply for college or jobs, even run entire organizations and undertake a remote career.
  • Even before smart phones, when cell phones were becoming popular in the developing world, text messaging played a key role in political movements in the Philippines, in helping AIDS patients in Africa remember to take meds, and in appropriate amounts, etc. See this paper from October 2001 for more on these early examples. Handheld, networked devices continue to play important role in political movements.

On the “no” side:

  • Social media has been instrumental in reviving incorrect and, sometimes, dangerous folklore that interferes with humanitarian efforts, government health initiatives, etc.
    Negative consequences for the opinion-sharer.
  • Government and corporate entities are monitoring and recording users’ online activities and sometimes using the information they find against citizens/consumers to curb their rights or voice.
  • Many web sites cannot be accessed by people without the absolute very latest, most advanced laptops and smart phone.
  • The Internet has never been slower.
  • People with disabilities are often excluded from being able to access Web-based resources – the site isn’t configured for people using assistive technologies, an online video has no subtitles, etc.
  • Not every organization is developing online tools for people who use only feature phones and text messaging, and that leaves out millions of people who don’t have smart phones.
  • Not everyone is on the Internet.

And I’ll add one more to the “no” list: many people are made to feel unwelcomed online, to the point of their being threatened with violence if they don’t refrain from saying certain things or even being online altogether. #gamergate is a good example of this. Also see this blog, Virtue & reputation in the developing world.

Even with all that said, and the “no” list being so much longer than the “yes” list, I said that the Internet is playing a role in democratizing information for everyone, but it’s got a long way to go.

What do YOU think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

(and I have to note that my favorite moment of the evening was when we went around the room to ask why people had come and if they got what they wanted out of the evening. One of the attendees said that, in fact, she was in the wrong room – she had come for something else – but once I started talking, she was so interested in the topic that she stayed!)

Contradicting myself?

In the same day, online, I applauded an organization that involved volunteers to help preserve historic sites on US public lands, and then questioned California for relying so much on volunteers to maintain state parks.

Am I a hypocrite?

No. Well, at least not about this.

The nonprofit HistoriCorps engages volunteers to work on historic preservation projects in USA. Individual projects might last from a week to more than two months. Cultural and historical sites in the USA are at risk because of drastic budget cuts by state and federal governments – many could already be beyond saving. This program could never repair everything that needs repairing, but what it can do, through volunteering, is educate people about those needs and about the consequences of those budget cuts. This program repairs a small number of sites every year, but maybe even more importantly, it also creates passionate advocates for US historical sites. It also is a way for historic sites to involve Americans in a deeper way than just as a visitor. This program builds job skills, gives people construction experience, and engages youth. From the web site: “Projects offer unending opportunities to tell America’s greatest stories, making historical connections real, and cultivating among those involved an appreciation of the heritage, balanced use and stewardship of our nation’s special places.” Even if there was enough money to hire paid staff to do all of the work needed to preserve these historic sites, it would be a great idea to reserve some work for volunteers, to keep those many benefits for historic sites and volunteers alike.

By contrast, this story from the Nonprofit Quarterly about volunteers in California state parks pretty much says, We don’t have enough money to pay people to do the work of keeping state parks open, so we need people to work for free. Ugh. Volunteer engagement in this case isn’t presented as building community or engaging under-served populations or building awareness or giving people a deeper experience at the parks – it’s presented as being about having an unpaid labor force to get the work done. I’m very grateful that volunteers are keeping California state parks open – I’m a California state park user. And just as with HistoriCorps, absolutely, let’s keep volunteers involved in trail repair, invasive plant removal, habitat restoration, rehabilitation of historic orchards, etc., so that not only can the work be done, but also, so volunteers can have a deeper relationship with the parks they love and become advocates for state parks – and state funds for those park.

In fact, I think that, in both these cases, volunteers are helping for the same reasons: their love of these sites. And I think the results are quite similar: volunteers get work done but, more importantly, volunteers are seeing first hand the consequences of cuts in government funding. The contrast really is a matter of language and attitude about volunteer engagement. So, let me say it again: watch your language regarding volunteer engagement. Saying,”If they don’t do this, we’ll close!” can also mean, “Volunteers are free! We don’t have to pay people! Hurrah!”

For more on the subject of the value of volunteer or community engagement:

I’m thrilled with UNV’s 2015 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report – Transforming Governance

state of volunteerism 2015I’m thrilled with the United Nations Volunteers program’s recently published 2015 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report – Transforming Governance.

Oh, yes, you read that right. THRILLED. And , as you know, I am a tough audience.

Why am I thrilled? Because, instead of doing the usual – talking about the value of volunteers only, or mostly, in terms of money saved because they aren’t paid a salary – this report talks about the value of volunteers in the terms that are much more powerful and important, value that goes far beyond money. Excerpts from the reports introduction explain better than I can:

For the post-2015 sustainable development agenda to succeed, improving governance, tackling inequalities, and expanding voice and participation need to be addressed simultaneously. Volunteerism can help by giving voice to stakeholders and by mobilizing people and civil society organizations to contribute to solutions.

The report suggests that the ability of volunteers to support development progress depends on the willingness of national governments to ensure that the space and supportive environments which encourage their participation and initiatives are available. The Report finds that volunteerism can help to generate social trust, advance social inclusion, improve basic services, and boost human development. Volunteers and volunteerism bring the greatest benefits where enabling conditions like freedom of speech and association and an atmosphere of vigorous political debate are already in place. At the local level, the Report suggests that volunteerism can increasingly be a vehicle for people in excluded and/or marginalized communities to be heard, and to access the services, resources, and opportunities they need to improve their lives.

Examples of formal and informal volunteering attest to the fact that those who are marginalized, such as women, indigenous populations and disempowered young people, can create spaces where their voices can be heard and where they can affect governance at local levels. This report addresses the issue of women’s engagement, providing interesting examples of how women have been able to engage in spaces outside the traditional norms, hold authorities accountable and ensure responsiveness to their needs and those of their communities.

Further research and innovative strategic partnerships are needed for better understanding, documenting and measuring volunteerism and its contribution to peace and development. This report starts a conversation that can and needs to be deepened.

And this, from the executive summary:

This report shows, using a body of knowledge collected through case studies, that volunteerism provides a key channel for this engagement from the local through to the national and global contexts.

This report has identified key strategies, challenges and opportunities for volunteerism, focused on three pillars of governance – voice and participation, accountability and responsiveness – where volunteers have shown impact. Specific volunteer actions and strategies illustrate the diverse ways in which volunteers engage in invited spaces, open up closed spaces or claim new spaces.

Volunteerism spans a vast array of activities at the individual, community, national and global levels. Those activities include traditional forms of mutual aid and self-help, as well as formal service delivery. They also include enabling and promoting participation and engaging through advocacy, campaigning and/or activism. The definition of volunteerism used in this report refers to “activities … undertaken of free will, for the general public good and where monetary reward is not the principal motivating factor.”

Volunteering in this report is also understood as overlapping and converging with social activism; while it is recognized that not all activists are volunteers, many activists are volunteers and many volunteers are activists. The terms volunteerism and social activism are not mutually exclusive. The idea that volunteers only serve to support service delivery or are only involved in charitable activities is one that is limited and provides a superficial line of difference between volunteerism and activism.

The report recognizes that volunteering is highly context specific and is often not on a level playing field. Women and marginalized groups are frequently affected by this unevenness; not all volunteers can participate equally or on equal terms in each context. Volunteerism is harder in contexts where people are excluded, their voices curtailed, their autonomy undermined and the risks of raising issues high. An enabling environment that respects the rights of all enhances the ability of volunteerism to contribute to positive development and peace. The report shows that creating a more enabling environment that allows positive civic engagement in sustainable development is critical for success.

If you do nothing else, PLEASE read the report’s executive summary.

Every program or project manager in every local, regional or government office needs to read at least the executive summary: government workers that are focused on police, fire and emergency response, parks and recreation, environmental issues, agriculture, the justice system, education, public health, arts, library, historical sites, economical development – they all need to read this report, look at how they currently involve the community, and ask themselves lots of questions:

  • Could you do a better job involving volunteers in decision-making?
  • Could you do a better job involving a greater diversity of volunteers – women, minority groups, children, the people that are the target of government services, etc.?
  • Are there tasks that volunteers actually might be better at doing than paid staff, because they wouldn’t have any worries regarding job security or loss of pay?
  • Are – or could – volunteers help your organization be more transparent to the general public and improve services?
  • Could volunteers help you build bridges with hostile communities?
  • Have you handled critical comments from volunteers appropriately?

This report can help you start answering those questions.

For more on the subject of the value of volunteer or community engagement

UK Government adopts Open Doc Format for all sharable docs

The Government of United Kingdom has adopted Open Document Format (ODF) for all sharable documents. That means government offices and employees must use PDF/A or HTML for documents that are to be just viewed (but not edited), and ODF for sharing and collaborating on gov docs.

It doesn’t meant that anyone has to give up Microsoft Office, but it does mean that, when creating a file in that office suite, it has to be saved in an ODF format:

.odt and .fodt for word processing (text) documents
.ods and .fods for spreadsheets
.odp and .fodp for presentations
.odb for databases
.odg and .fodg for graphics
.odf for formulae, mathematical equations

If any of those employees are, like me, using open-source office suites as LibreOffice and OpenOffice, they can stop having to save files as .doc (Word), .ppt (PowerPoint) and .xls (Excel).

From the ZDNet article: “All office-suite programs, which do not support ODF, such as Google Docs, must add support for the standard. Without it, they will find themselves unable to compete for UK government business now. And, in the future, they may find themselves unable to compete for other office contracts that will require ODF.”

Now, if I could just convince the United Nations, and all of the NGOs and nonprofits I work with, and all the local government offices in the USA, to do the same…

How I ended up at a Philly Tech4Good event

When I get to travel for work outside of my home near Portland, Oregon, I do a search on Google and Twitter to see what people and organizations might be worthwhile to connect with while in a particular area. I look for volunteer centers, international nonprofits, nonprofit development/support centers, nonprofits focused on computers and the Internet in some way, and academics that have done research or teach regarding nonprofit management or international aid work. I write each of those organizations, departments or people and ask if we could meet, just so I can hear about their work and so I can offer any advice or resources, in an informal setting.

Sometimes, my schedule fills up quickly, and I get to meet face-to-face with people I might never get to meet otherwise. Other times, I get confused email responses from people that find this old-fashioned “networking” idea as oh-so-strange.

Last week, I went to Philadelphia to present for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)’s  US National Thrift Shop Conference, about trends in volunteer engagement. I also contacted a few nonprofits, university offices and government offices to see if they would like to meet. The organizers of Philly Tech Week said yes (thank you, Brian James Kirk and Corinne Warnshuis!).

Philly Tech Week featured an event on the campus of Temple University while I was in the area:  Exploring Civic Volunteering With Technology: Kickoff for Commit Service Pledge. The event was to launch the Commitpledge.com web site that asks Philadelphia-area nonprofits to post tech-related volunteering opportunities, and for volunteers to offer their expertise through the web site to help with those opportunities.

The event also featured a panel discussion by Jeff Friedman, the new Director of eGovernment Business Development at Microsoft and recently a part of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Mayo Nissen, a New York-based designer who has been involved in urban improvement initiatives involving technology, and Anthony Pisapia, Associate Executive Director of Tech Impact, the nonprofit behind npCloud and VolunteerConnect.

The panelists talked not just about how tech helps nonprofits, but also how it helps governments better engage and support citizens – too many of tech-for-good initiatives leave out government programs, IMO, so this was great to hear.

Some good questions were asked, including:

  • How can big data help more in helping citizens?
  • How do we make products that result from hackathons sustainable?
  • How do we better address the disconnect between tech and who it should serve?

A moment I loved was when, in response to several panelist comments about how to find out what the community needs, an audience member said “Go to city council meetings!” She’s so right – nonprofits and individual citizens are being loud and clear about their needs, in government meetings, in their own meetings, on newspaper Facebook pages, on government program Facebook pages, and on and on. Quit wondering and start reading and listening!

My favorite moment, however, was when Anthony Pisapia said “Nonprofits are geniuses at innovation, but maybe not at technology.” I’ll be quoting this again and again! He’s absolutely right: nonprofits have expertise, and their staff and volunteers do amazing things with very little resources. In fact, they have as much, if not more, to teach the corporate, for-profit world as the other way around! Too many tech folks think nonprofits are incompetent or inefficient; in fact, nonprofits are some of the most innovative entities around.

There was also the inevitable questions of “What’s the difference in a social entrepreneur and a volunteer? Actually, what is a volunteer? Is our goal that, eventually, everyone gets paid for their work?” As I was an observer and outsider, I didn’t enter into that discussion during the event, but afterwards, did my best to answer the question one-on-one. That may turn into a blog…

If you will be in the Portland, Oregon area, and want to meet with me, contact me! Just tell me who you are, what your area of work is, and what you would like from me in terms of a face-to-face discussion.

I write a LOT about tech-related volunteering. Here are some of my resources: