Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Has Twitter killed the media star? (or How I stopped worrying and learned to love social media)

By James Georgalakis

Back at the end of the last millennium my biggest preoccupation at work was how to secure more column inches for my employer. As a press officer it was my job to feed carefully crafted press releases into the fax machine and get on the phone to pitch in the story. My success or failure to engage bored sounding interns manning the phones of busy news desks with a new report or announcement determined my organisation’s ability to set the news agenda, engage the attention of policy makers and raise profile. Ten years on social media had firmly established itself as a channel through which you could tell your stories and engage key opinion formers. But this was a slow transition and an organisations’ ability to pitch stories into traditional media outlets remained of paramount importance.

However, last June, the balance seemed to tip. Perhaps in other sectors and in other contexts this has occurred many times before but at least here at the Institute of Development Studies it felt like a significant moment. IDS was busy launching the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI). The index provided scores for donor countries on their commitment to reducing hunger and undernutrition in terms of their aid spending, policies and endorsement of international agreements. Our strategy had been to coincide with the high profile UK hosted Nutrition for Growth summit to maximise media interest. Results were mixed. Despite around twenty pieces of media coverage many of the most highly valued outlets we had hoped would cover it ignored us. Save the Children and the big NGOs, who were busy promoting their own stories for the hunger summit, with their enormous resources and access to media friendly human interest stories and celebrities had the likes of the BBC pretty much sown up.

The tipping point: Social media versus traditional media

But all was not lost. Our social media strategy was having a real and immediate impact in terms of engaging policy makers with the index. We had carefully targeted key influencers on Twitter and key bloggers. Some of these were project partners, others were organisations we had identified through our stakeholder mapping as having a shared advocacy or research agenda. We shared with these networks advance links to our assets including an infographic, a website and a short animated film. We met with them, briefed them in nutrition network meetings or simply fired off an email a few days ahead of the launch asking them if they could help. Once the launch was underway we also tweeted messages to some of our key followers.  The result of this strategy was that even if HANCI failed to make the grade in the news room it was an instant hit on Twitter and in the blogosphere.

Within hours of HANCI going live a shout went up from our Digital Communications Officer: “Canada’s just tweeted HANCI”. Sure enough Julian Fantino, Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation tweeted Canada’s HANCI score. This was followed-up by the Canadian government’s Nutrition Coordinator contacting IDS directly to get the full data. “The Dutch just tweeted” went another shout. Head of Food Security and Financial Sector at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Dutch Government Marcel Beukeboom tweeted: “disappointing 16th place for Netherlands. We are more ambitious than that. Interested in indicators to learn how to improve.”  By the following day the Index received an official response from Irish Aid, with a press release quoting Ireland’s Minister for Trade and Development Joe Costello welcoming the index.

In none of these cases could we find any obvious link to traditional media. There had been no Canadian press release, Dutch or Irish media coverage. It was Duncan Green’s influential blog and retweets from key development and nutrition influencers like DFID, Oxfam, ONE, Concern, Action Against Hunger, Save the Children and the IF campaign that had really stirred things up. The top five tweets and re-tweets alone received more than 134000 potential impressions. The most popular content was the infographic swiftly followed by our animation which was watched a thousand times in just a few days. Weeks later, the reverberations continue. Just in, the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition have tweeted about the HANCI animation: “This video gave me goose bumps.”

Targeted social media = real engagement

Am I heralding the death of traditional media and its usurpation by Twitter, Facebook and Google+? Absolutely not, but this is still a watershed moment for me because it has provided such a blatant example of the primacy of social media in engaging relatively niche audiences with our research. In this case Twitter was providing us with direct responses to HANCI from our target policy makers. This is exactly what we had set out to achieve. We want HANCI to be taken seriously by governments, and used in the advocacy of those that seek to hold them to account.

The news room intern and the Today Programme night editor are no longer the only means of getting government ministers and NGOs to respond to our research. This is more than just the blurring of boundaries between traditional media and social media. If we can be innovative enough we can bypass traditional media altogether. Of course, we are still reliant on intermediaries, in the form of twitter followers and bloggers and occasionally the media itself. Traditional media coverage can still be enormously impactful especially in relation to more mainstream or topical political issues. But much as marginalised citizens around the world have been able to harness social media to make their voices heard, research organisations can use non traditional media to engage key audiences around their research without having to rely upon the overstretched editor or broadcaster.

IDS already has a digital communications strategy that places social media at its core. But this recent experience provides reassurance that we are moving in the right direction.  I will always look back fondly on those days of the busy press office and the excitement of a story really taking off but I am glad that social media provides another dimension to engaging key decision makers and influencers around our work. Social media may not have killed the media star yet but it has certainly dimmed it a little.

Blog originally posted on Wonk Comm on 16 August 2013

Friday, 16 August 2013

The other Rising Voices in Development – what is new in the G7+ project

By Ricardo Goulão Santos
Having Timor-Leste as the setting of my PhD research has brought me into the centre stage of a different kind of voice, rising in the “Development World”. Different from the group of rising stars, the new emerging economies of the BRICS, Indonesia, Australia, (whose role as donors is the object of the study by IDS’s Rising Power in Development Programme), this would more likely be defined as “the basketcase group”.

Their slogan seemed to be “the countries that won’t reach a single of the Millennium Development Goals”. They were deemed, at one point, to be “failed states”. A slightly more benevolent label was that of “fragile countries”. In a previous blog post, I discussed the fluidity of these labels, when looking at Timor. However, some of these countries created an unlikely group, one that accepted the fragilities of its members but dared to claim such condition as what demands that they, and not the donors, are in the driving seat of the global effort to face their challenges.

Probably inspired by the G77 group of developing countries, the G7+ was born not long ago, in April 2010. Its main goal is “to stop conflict, build nations and eradicate poverty through innovative development strategies, harmonized to the country context, aligned to the national agenda and led by the State and its People.”[1]  In slightly more than a year, they had their manifesto, the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, approved in the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness hosted in Busan, and promptly applauded as one of the successes of the gathering, as reported by Mawdsley, Savage and Kim (2013:6). However, even gaining the honour of having their chair, the Timorese Minister of Finance Maria Emilia Pires, as a member of the High-Level Panel of eminent persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the G7+ seem to have been left under the radar already. When they gathered to produce the Dili Consensus, as part of the consultation process towards the Post-2015 Development Goals[2], the interest of the international community seemed to have faded somewhat. Nonetheless, the process did not stop and the pilot Fragility Assessments of Timor-Leste, South Sudan and Sierra Leone are producing the first reports.

As part of my PhD research, when analysing the political economy of Timor-Leste I am called to look deeply into the Timorese engagement with the New Deal, especially as it now has a central role in the development partnerships the Government negotiates. In future blog posts I’ll seek to share more about the programme and the Timorese leading case study of its implementation. In this one I’d like to briefly explore the principles originated in the New Deal. In their document, the G7+ countries determined the need to seek a set of 5 Peace-Building and State-Building Goals (PSG), following a process (coined by the acronym FOCUS) and requiring from the donor community a commitment towards a set of principles framed by another suggestive acronym, TRUST. The first two establish a strategy of development.

Each PSG is a dimension that each G7+ country needs to reinforce in order to reach what they perceive to be their path to development:-
Legitimate Politics, encompassing an inclusive political settlement and conflict resolution;
PSG2: Security, the establishment and strengthening of people’s security;
PSG3: Justice, the reduction of situations of injustice and facilitating the access to justice;
PSG4: Economic Foundation, the capacity to generate employment and promote livelihoods;
PSG5: Revenue and Services, the State’s capacity to manage its revenue sources and to an deliver an accountable and fair public service.

Some of these principles may have resonated in the High Panel report. Concerns regarding the access to basic human rights, such as the access to justice or the promotion of livelihoods (that can be perceived in the commitment to end extreme poverty), the transformation of economies towards employment generation or regarding an accountable and fair service delivery seem to be clear commonalities. The concerns with conflict resolution and people’s security seem also to be present in both sets of guidelines. The concern with a sustainable development, keystone of the High Panel report, was already transparent in the Dili Consensus. This seems to indicate that the voices of the G7+ might have been heard by the High Panel and urges us to look with care to their implementation.

The process chosen to guide such implementation is delineated by the acronym FOCUS:-

      Fragility Assessment, as the main policy evaluation instrument;
O      One vision, one plan guiding the policies put into place by each ministry, in contrast with the current  multitude of (competing) priorities proposed by the diverse thematic, bilateral and multilateral aid agencies and international NGOs;
C       Compact, as the instrument of harmonization among stakeholders (political society, civil society and aid actors);
U      Use of PSGs to monitor, reinforcing these principles as the framework for g7+ country’s development;
      Support Political Dialogue, as the key to a politically inclusive process.

This process already establishes a joint commitment by both national governments and other national actors (starting with the political parties in opposition) towards dialogue and the prosecution of the PSGs, but also a commitment by international aid actors towards an harmonized support to these efforts.

The urge for harmonization becomes even clearer in second set of commitments inscribed under the suggestive acronym TRUST:-

      Transparency, a commitment towards a transparent reporting of aid and its implementation;
R       Risk-Sharing, the assumption that a commitment by the international community in fostering the development of “fragile states”, even if risky, is a better option than non-commitment;
U      Use and strengthen country systems, as the key to sustain the development efforts and aid effectiveness;
      Strengthen capacities, both of the State and Civil Society in a balanced way, namely through jointly administered pooled facilities, South-South and fragile-fragile cooperation;
T       Timely and Predictable aid, a remnant of the Accra Agenda for action, repeated in each document that echoes developing countries’ voices and, sadly, also repeatedly forgot by donor countries.

These required commitments trace a significant set of obligations to be followed by donors themselves, much in the spirit of some of the commitments of the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action, and against which, time and again donors have failed to comply. The need for timely and predictable aid clearly flags one of the key failures in performance by donor countries, that despite precious admonitions regarding “developing countries” weaknesses, seem to continue oblivious to their own inconsistency, volubility in aid policies and lack of compliance towards committed financial support to recipient countries.

They also open a space for South-South cooperation, suggesting the possibility of a convergence with the Rising Powers. They go further, however. In a radical depart from the donor-recipient logic of aid, they propose and have put into place, in annual forums, a space for fragile-fragile cooperation. In this last possibility may lie the main innovative strength of the G7+ proposal. From the shared experience of weakness and challenges, more than from the success stories of those that never faced equal troubles, new ways and solutions may occur. If “necessity is the mother of invention”, opening and promoting the sharing of experiences may enable such opportunity of innovation to occur.

These sets of goals, processes and principles are being now piloted and tested. The Fragility Assessment of Timor-Leste of which we already have the first installment and from which we can already analyse its report serves as an opportunity to look into the practice of these guidelines.But that will the theme of another blog post.
[1] An introduction to the G7+ can be found here (pdf)
[2] A reflection I shared on this gathering can also be found in the Povertics blog.