A draft chapter on blogging and this blog – need your comments please

October 4, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

There’s no way I can come out of this looking good, but I need your help. I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a new edition of a Routledge book, Popular Representations of Development: Insights from Novels, Films, Television and Social Media. The topic is…. this blog.

So I have put together what can best be described as 5000 words of evidence-based narcissism and would really appreciate your comments, suggestions for improvements etc. Here’s the draft chapter .

And a couple of excerpts to (hopefully) whet your appetites:

Blogging v other representations of development

Over the years, I have been involved in a range of different roles in aid and development – as an activist, journalist, thinktank writer, scholar, civil servant, NGO researcher and advocate. Each has involved talking and writing about development in different ways to different audiences through different media.

Of all these, blogging stands out as a form of continuous engagement with a specialist audience, in which ideas and arguments can evolve and be sharpened over time. The conversation can be searching and bad ideas can be easily shot down, as I found when I road tested a 2×2 matrix on fragility and conflict in the final stages of writing a book, How Change Happens. The 2×2 never made it into the final text.

Blog conversation is undeniably asymmetric – in this field, the blogger presents themselves as an ‘expert’, or else no-one will click through. It also reflects the broader distribution of power and influence in both society and academia: most international development bloggers are ‘pale, male and stale’ (white, male and old), although national-level blogging is much more diverse. Efforts to diversify the contributors to FP2P have come up against a scarcity of resources and time (for example to work with authors or transcribe interviews). I am currently discussing possible funding with a foundation that could help address this.

Despite such flaws, blogging is often relatively less asymmetric than journalism, film or book-writing, or even academic exchange with students who can be cowed by the power hierarchies within universities.

Public debate is more horizontal, but also more rancorous and often less informed. I am always struck by how little aggression emerges on FP2P, compared to other parts of the internet (I have only ever had one reader you might call a troll, and even he was merely on a nerdy mission to critique Oxfam’s education policy at every opportunity).

Blogging also allows me to build bridges with other representations of development. One of the early posts was entitled ‘I just read four novels in a row’. The informal, personal nature of blogging makes it much easier to introduce other disciplines and forms, recognize the multifaceted nature of readers’ lives and at the same time, have a little fun with the often rather solemn discourse of development in more formal channels. FP2P has used a Bob Marley lyric as an executive summary for an IMF report on food prices and Tolstoy’s War and Peace as an introduction to systems thinking.

The most notorious post: Swimming-Pool Gate:

The Nairobi Swimming Pool post of January 2012 has become somewhat notorious in the aid sector, providing a case study for books such as International Aid and the Making of a Better World. Its popularity lay in laying bare the kind of difficult decisions and dilemmas that are a regular occurrence in aid work, but which are seldom discussed in public.

‘Nairobi is a major NGO hub, currently the epicentre of the drought relief effort, and Oxfam’s regional office realized some years ago that we could save a pile of money if we ran our own guesthouse, rather than park the numerous visitors in over-priced hotels. It’s nothing fancy, definitely wouldn’t get many stars, but it’s much more relaxed than a hotel.

But there’s a problem. As a large converted house in a nice part of town, and like most such houses in Nairobi, it has a swimming pool. But the swimming pool is covered over and closed, even though it would be cheap to keep it open. Why? Reputational risk – back in the UK, where swimming pools are luxury items, Oxfam’s big cheeses saw a tabloid scandal in the making and closed it. It didn’t help when some bright spark decided to advertise for a swimming pool attendant on the Oxfam website……

On my recent stay at the guesthouse, I asked everyone I met there and whether African or expat, they all said it makes sense to open the pool. Exhausted aid workers arrive hot and dusty from remote areas of East Africa for some R&R, but there’s no chance of a refreshing swim. I need my exercise so had to go running instead – the combination of altitude, hills and choking traffic fumes nearly killed me.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that most of our supporters back in the UK, let alone the people we are working to help, are not likely to have access to a pool in their back yard, so why should aid workers get special treatment?

So what do you think? Should Oxfam open the pool and take any bad publicity on the chin, or should we stop whining? It would probably cost about $200-300 a month to keep the pool open – if we could find a way to do it without creating an accounting nightmare, we could probably raise that from contributions from guests, and even have money to spare to plough back into Oxfam programmes.’

The post sparked record numbers of comments (89 to date) and votes. Of 800 people who took part in the poll, 75% urged Oxfam to re-open the pool, while only 7% argued for keeping it shut.

However the post itself became part of the problem, when it was picked up by anti-aid journalist Ian Birrell in an article in The Spectator, which argued that ‘Mr Green’s blog highlighted the contortions of a thriving industry that would go out of business if it succeeded in its stated aims.’ In the middle of a famine response in East Africa, Oxfam press officers were forced to handle enquiries from journalists about the Great Swimming Pool Debate. I had to apologise to them, and as far as I know, the pool remains closed.

If you have time to skim the chapter, please stick your comments on the blog, or if they’re too rude for public consumption, email me at dgreen[at]oxfam.org.uk

October 4, 2017
Duncan Green