Monday, November 22, 2010

Free the aid bloggers!

"In general I fully support transparency, but these people could lose their jobs."
That is what Saundra Schimmelpfennig told me when I asked her why some of the best aid bloggers out there were anonymous. She is right, of course. But it is also a shame. If there is a common thread running through our understanding of effective aid, it is the need to experiment, learn, and adapt. This means admitting to - rather than hiding - things that don't work, so that we can learn from them. The anonymous bloggers I was referring to talk about the reality of aid work, warts and all. They have a following because their readers know that they are speaking the truth. But their employers could not tolerate the truth, so these bloggers have to remain in the closet.

One day, aid agencies will brag about the bloggers they have on staff. This will happen when they realize the best aid agencies are platforms for conversations and learning rather than infallible oracles of aid wisdom. Until then, many bloggers will have to remain anonymous.

To shed some light on this topic, I was fortunate enough to catch up by email with J, the author of Tales From The Hood. J offered to answer a few questions about himself and his blogging.

Q: J, can you tell me a little about your background?

I got my first aid job in 1991 as a junior communications officer, based
in Bangkok with an INGO. My first involvement with relief response was in early 1992, following a large influx of Karen refugees into northwestern Thailand. Except for a couple of short breaks for continuing education along the way, I’ve been doing aid work continuously since then. In various roles I’ve been involved in responses to Hurricane Mitch, Sudan, Kosovo, Angola, and the whole can of worms that was “The Former Soviet Union” in the late 1990s (mostly Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia). I spent a few years in Vietnam as a country director. More recently I’m a veteran of The Tsunami response (Indonesia, Sri Lanka), and of course the Haiti Earthquake response.

Q: When did you start blogging, and why?

I started in 2005, mostly as a way to keep in touch with friends around
the world. It was most personal updates – “where I am this week” kinds of things. My blogging has been through a few different iterations, names and formats. When I started Tales From the Hood in March 2008, it was mainly for personal cathartic value: a space to admit the things I might not otherwise admit, say the things that would never be said in interagency working groups or in-house meetings.

Q: Did you consider blogging under your real name? If not, why not?

Not really. Even when it was mainly about staying in touch with friends,
there was still the sense of saying the things we’d never say in the workplace for fear of reprisal. NGOs are funny and sometimes a bit schizophrenic: for as much rhetoric (and maybe even actual practice) around valuing diverse input, free market place of ideas, and so on *in the context of communities where we work*, in my experience they are (typically) incredibly *in*tolerant of diverse opinion internally. If you don’t toe the party line of your employing NGO’s paradigm on… whatever, or if you simply express an opinion contrary to the happy in-house propaganda, you can be in for a world of hurt.

Q: You have blogged on a wide assortment of topics. If you look back,
which two or three posts would you highlight as ones that you most want people to read?

That’s a great question. While I sometime rant and preach on
Tales From the Hood, more than anything else it’s about my own inner struggle to balance being a full-on unapologetic professional aid worker while also staying eyes-open to the inconsistency and paradox that very clearly exist in the sector/industry. I think these three posts get at that:

Kompong Thom” - The first post, ever, on Tales From the Hood
Between Arrogance & Defeat” – a bit of a sequel to “Kompong Thom”

Q: Looking back, which posts do you think would have been least well received by your employer?

There are many. I think, though, it would be mostly those posts which deal with the extent to which NGOs typically fall down on the side of educating their donor constituents about what aid is. A few examples:

I do not think it means what you think it means.

Q: Since you started blogging, do you think your employer's attitude has changed about blogging from inside the organization?


There seems to be a growing awareness of the power of blogs and social media overall. I have not talked to very many people with the power to make actual decisions around this on behalf of large INGOs who were able to envision anything very far beyond the sort of marketing and flag-waving possibilities.

Q: How many people inside your organization would you say agree with
most of your posts? Is it the people or the organizational culture/hierarchy that keeps you from coming out of the closet?

To the first, I can tell you that I have a large and growing following
within my employing organization. Some of those people know who I am, but many do not. To a large extent I’m saying things on Tales From the Hood that we all talk about at Starbuck’s (during lunch break, of course) or during happy hours. And so in that sense I don’t think I’d have much to fear from my professional colleagues. My fear in “coming out” would be more around the organizational culture, which (like every NGO that I’m specifically aware of) has a very low level of tolerance for opinions not strictly in alignment with the “party line.”

Q: What do you think the repercussions would be if your identity would be discovered?

It would depend quite a lot on the circumstances which led to that
discovery. Most probably I’d be instructed to “be careful” about what I wrote. The worst-case scenario would probably involve me being forced to choose between taking down Tales From the Hood and ending my employment.

Q: How do you think your situation compares with some of the other
bloggers out there?

I think my situation is quite comparable. Not to over-romanticize it, but there is something of an informal “underground” alliance of anonymous aid bloggers. We know who each other are in real-life and in some cases interact professionally as ourselves. We all face similar constraints in our respective workplaces.

Q: Recently I met in person someone I knew only on Twitter. The quality
of our interaction was much richer, and I found that the personal connection helped create a level of understanding and conversation impossible in the online world. Do you feel hampered by your inability to reveal your identity in face-to-face conversations?

Yes and no. To the extent that I’m known personally by a small group from among those who read my blog and follow me on twitter, our professional and personal interactions are very rich. In some cases I very definitely get the feeling that some readers/twitter followers truly are friends that I just haven’t met yet.

On the other hand, I do have to self-censor to some extent both on Tales From the Hood and in twitter conversations. There are some issues or questions that I cannot respond to fully because to do so would compromise my anonymity.

Q: Thank you, J.