New media mantras

The UN +5 OCHA Symposium was another instance where the power of new media (Web 2.0, blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, wikis, SMSs and that sort of thing) was repeatedly touted as an innovation that would change the face of humanitarian response as we know it.

The heady optimism of a revolution in humanitarian affairs using mobile phones is tempered by others who caution against seeing them as a panacea to all that ails aid work today. However, in general, there is consensus that mobile communications helps, in a way never possible before, the humanitarians speak with affected communities and vice versa. My colleague Nalaka Gunewardene has posted a hilarious account of a new media tsunami that is actually quite revealing in the attitudes of the humanitarian community represented at the +5 Symposium and their understanding of and approach to new media (save for a few on Panel 5, the rest were largely oblivious to the manner in which these technologies were changing crisis communications and emergency response).

Neha Vishwanathan, from Global Voices Online, made what I thought was a superb presentation on new media, the video of which on the Symposium website unfortunately does not capture her Powerpoint slides (though they are available separately here).

It’s not however an easy road to mainstream mobiles and new media into sustainable, timely and useful humanitarian action. As I note in Citizen Journalism and humanitarian aid: Bane or boon?:

However, success stories such as this run the risk of romanticising the gravity of problems that bedevil post-conflict democratic reform. The deep-rooted power of politicians in rigid social structures, casteism, a clientelist political architecture, rampant nepotism and corruption, among others, temper the progressive social transformation promised by the New Media and Citizen Journalism in particular. Scalability is another problem – projects that show great potential when funded often join a graveyard of well-intentioned initiatives when the funding dries up. Countries such as Sri Lanka are still bedevilled by the lack of standards based swabhasha data input frameworks that in turn strangle the awareness and growth of new media content, such as blogs, in Sinhala and Tamil. As a result, contrary to its moniker, citizen journalism today shows an urban bias, is mediated in English and, inescapably, elite. This will need to change and soon.

Nalaka’s proposed new (and traditional) media as a “conscience” of aid workers, which I broadly agree with. Given the traditional media’s own bias, constraints and ownership, I don’t know how effective it will be in this role, but citizen journalism that adheres to professional standards is certainly a way forward in this regard, particularly in holding aid workers and processes accountable to beneficiaries.

While repressive governments as well as many aid organisations can and will attempt to curtail the growth of content that criticises their work and service delivery, it is inevitable that beneficiaries are going to use technologies such as mobile phones to speak directly with the rest of the world. And while this conversation may be raw, it’s an important development that challenges the control of information by a few.

A conversation with one of the best known thought-leaders in citizen journalism, Dan Gilmor, during Strong Angel III brought out a number of points in the use of new media in humanitarian aid:

Dan emphasised the point that new media does not in any way take away from an emphasis of traditional media in disaster relief. Both old and new media he felt had equally important roles to play. He cautioned against the cacophony of citizen journalism – the tragedy of the commons as he called it, where information anarchy led to the distrust of citizen journalism driven information generation and dissemination and generally fed to the chaos in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Instead, he said, citizens journalism and new media needed to strengthen the relief process by providing decisions makers with information from the grassroots.

Listen to the full podcast of our conversation here.

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