I got pissed off today. Ok, I get easily pissed off, but that is what drives me, what keeps me going (a topic for another post, on another day)..
At noon time, we were sitting in a presentation of a dude who introduces the main trends in the world and tries to explain how it influences our work.
The guy is external to our organisation, so his ignorance is forgiven.
Five seconds into the presentation, "BAF!", I get mad. The first line on the first slide of the presentation, and I get mad. It sets the tone for the rest of the two hours (OK, I walked out after an hour, but that is besides the point).
The first line on the first slide stated "the digital divide" (the indicator between the use and penetration of ICT -Information and Communication Technology- in developing versus developed countries) becomes smaller.
Unfortunately it was the first of many points where I did not agree with the speaker and thought the whole presentation was based on a series of outdated, hollow and superficial quotes from news articles without sourced facts, a clear analysis or any interpretation.
But hey, even the worst of presentations gives people the opportunity to think. And to discuss. So.... let's think and discuss....
Let's first really look at the digital divide and then broaden that dynamic. This is not the digital divide itself. It is more "why we all like to believe the digital divide is getting smaller". But mostly it is about honesty. About our daily professional lives. What can we learn out of this.
1. The Digital Divide: Bigger or smaller?
The ITU 2009 year report just came out. While in its summary they state the divide is 'status quo' or 'slightly improving', checking their own data, it is clear you have to look really far for any sign of improvement.
In gross numbers, yes, the subscribers of Internet, mobile phones has gone up in the developing world (and that is good), but not by far as quick and with as deep a penetration as in the first world.
In 1998 the "digital divide" in mobile phones was (20%-0%=) 20%. In 2007 (the most recent data), it is (100.3%-39.2%=) 61.1%. Now prove to me the digital divide is getting smaller, hein? Hein? Hein? ;-)
How about Internet penetration?
There the digital divide went up from 13% to 42.6% in 8 years.
2. Now for a core issue:
Sure enough, we all have seen the really interesting pictures of the farmers in the bush getting SMSes with market prices etc.. We read articles about it. Hey I wrote and published some of them myself... BUT how much of that has a real and true impact?
Still a positive balance? OK, so how how much of that is really having a positive impact on the global scale.
Still a positive balance? I doubt it, but then hold whatever is left against the massive increase of hunger and poverty in the world. The progress on the farmer SMSing his crop data disappears in the void if you compare to all the rest of the bad news.
Where did I read again that Ban-ki Moon stated we are further away from the MDGs than five years ago?
Here is what I really have on my mind. What really makes me mad.
The worse thing that can happen in the humanitarian world (according to me) is the 'make believe'. It is such a the self-justification and self-preservation pitfall it is not funny anymore.
We, all humanitarians alike, like to believe we make a difference, and that the world is becoming a better place tralala. While we *have* an impact, and do save lives, and do make progress, but... the progress is not half as much as we think it is, or like them to be, or make them believe to be. It is not half as much as what we, humanitarians, could do.
I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.
The ITU report is the living proof of that. Read carefully what they state in their introduction. And HOW they say it:
Based on the IDI values, statistical methods were applied to measure the changes in ICT developments by groups of countries at different ICT levels, from 2002 to 2007. Although results have to be interpreted with caution, they suggest that globally the digital divide is as prevalent as before, but is slightly closing between countries with very high and low ICT levels.
I have to "interpret it with caution" and even then "it is as prevalent as before or slightly closing". To me this is as much as "the figure show clearly the digital divide is getting bigger but we don't dare to tell you as doing so, will show we suck at our job".
That is ITU.. And how far have we indulged into this make believe within the aid world? Within each of our own organisations? In our daily lives? How many times have we not given numbers a positive spin? Or not shown the negative numbers? Or given the negative numbers a positive explanation?
I can somewhere understand, but not justify, why this is done towards the outside world. But least internally, within the aid world, within our own organisations, and between me-and-myself, we should be honest. And we hardly are.
The reality of aid work, accepting the hard facts that things are not rosy are hard to accept. The negative spin of poverty, the fact we hardly see any impact anymore on poverty (and the 'we' stands for the humanitarian world as a whole), touches the core of our 'raison d'etre'.
If we -aidworkers- believe we suck at what we do, we will lose motivation. If we tell donors we suck at what we do, we will lose funding. And suck even more.
But, hey, there is a balance between "loosing motivation" and "loosing sight of reality". And this is where we are today. We have been fooling others and ourselves for so long, we started to believe our own fairy tales.
If anything, this is a plea for more openness, for more frank discussions. For taking down the silos. And for having the guts standing up in those useless meetings where everyone is looking at each other, knowing everyone is bullshitting, and start shouting:
and I am not going to take this anymore."
A quote from the movie "Network" (which has marked many moments in my life). Watch this:
Even if you are not an aidworker, do you see this applicable to your life? How many times have you stood up and yelled "I am as mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore" or are you complacent with the bullshit?
So, "Are they yelling in Atlanta yet?" Hahahaha.
Read the related post: Aid is Dead. Long Live Aid!