It all began at SXSW where there was a panel, organized by a PR firm, about “Social Media for Social Change” - or social good. The discussion there was flagrantly self-serving, promotional and focused on charity — giving aid to those who have less.
That is certainly the pre-dominant paradigm - those who are better off have a responsibility to aid those who have less. Right now, the focus is on kids in Africa, for some reason, and the twitterati are flocking to (and using twitter and various other social media) building schools, raising money for wells, and other so-called charitable activities.
My assertion at the panel was this: All of this activity on twitter and other channels (as described on Beth’s blog, here, for example) does not constitute real change. We need to have a conversation about what constitutes ‘social change’ and how is it different from aid and charity, in its various forms. And, I wonder, whether we are we not perptuating power relationships that should be inversed, if one takes the promise of the web, social media, and the power of the individual to its logical conclusion.
It does not seem to me that there is much inversion of power — it’s simply more of the self-congratulatory PR, cause marketing, fundraising, and probably ultimately self-promotion that says: Look at me, I have 12,000 followers and raised $250,000 for a worthy cause [insert here] and thus, I am cool and, by the way, a social media expert. And I built a [school, well, clinic…insert here] and saved a little black kid from losing its shoes.
Or something like that.
My friend Lina Srivastava writes on her blog:
As a sector, we still have work to do to clarify the distinction between charity and social good/systemic change. The “Social Media for Social Good” panel, in particular, led off with stories of fundraising and good deeds on behalf of individuals, as opposed to scalable social change. I’m not making a value judgment against fundraising here (had they titled the panel “Social Media for Fundraising,” I would have had less of a problem with the focus— though I will continue to argue the prevailing system of fundraising needs a major overhaul). But I and a few other attendees later voiced the view that charity is an entry point, not an endpoint, in sustainable social change.
So let me say a few things here in a short series of blog posts, addressing various conversations going on.
And let me also be very clear about how I define certain terms, so that there is no confusion. First things first: I do not use the term “social good” here. It is too amorphous and open to various interpretations. It’s vague, fuzzy, and rather useless.
I define charity - or, alternately, aid — with a quote from the new book Dead Aid:
There are three types of aid: Humanitarian or emergency aid which is mobilized and dispensed in response to catastophies…charity-based aid which is disbursed by by charitable organizations to institutions or people on the ground, and systematic aid, aid payments made drectly to governments through government-to-government transfers or through multi-lateral institutions.
So, in short — it’s some sort of aid, often in the form of money or goods, given to people perceived to be less well-off, poor, or otherwise in need of such aid. Charity or aid does not, in any way, change the normative social relationships in a society, nor does it address power imbalances or structural reasons for poverty, discrimination, or repression
I define social change in a different way. It is:
the movement of people toward the establishment of environmental, economic, and social justice and the redistribution of wealth, power, and resources as indicated by evidence of:
(courtesy: Appalachian Community Fund)
- Organizing and action led by people working to control their own lives;
- Educating communities about the root causes of oppression and injustice;
- Eliminating barriers to full participation in society;
- Focusing on efforts to change cultural, social, political, and economic systems and institutions that create, accommodate, and perpetuate social injustice;
- Creating and modeling democratic cultural, social, political, and economic systems;
- Connecting local issues with national and global concerns; and
- Networking, collaborating, and cooperating with others working toward similar goals.
Notice the word ‘power’ in this definition. It is a critical word in this definition that is entirely missing from all of the conversations heretofore. More on that below.
In short, and to sum it up in 140 characters, I am quoting @rolfkleef who said pithily about this conversation
from “marketing poverty for fundraising” to “catalyst for people’s power”:
2. What’s my problem with this?
My major objection to the ‘social media for social change’ term is that there is, in fact, absolutely no coherent theory of social change. And this is important.
Theories of change are abundant.
Even the most top-down theories of change go something like this:
In a situation that needs changing we can gather enough data about a community and its problems, analyse it and discover an underlying set of related problems and their cause, decide which problems are the most important, redefine these as needs, devise a set of solutions and purposes or outcomes, plan a series of logically connected activities for addressing the needs and achieving the desired future results, as defined up front, cost the activities into a convincing budget, raise the funding and then implement the activities, monitor progress as we work to keep them on-track, hopefully achieve the planned results and at the end evaluate the Project for accountability, impact and sometimes even for learning.
(courtesy Doug Reeler for that one - it’s not the one I subscribe to but it’s a paramount NGO model)
It used to be that NGOs and nonprofits were the locus of such change (or control, as the case may be).
Now, however, in the age of social media, anyone can elevate themselves to a ‘change agent’ and organize. That is, in theory, a great thing.
However, what I am observing is the following:
- self-promotion as the core rationale for projects disguised as ‘social change’ is sexy right now
- no understanding of the actual problem, cause of the problem, or appropriate responses - and thus, the danger of unintended consequences
- no coherent theory of change that is thoughtful and can be defended (not even a top-down one as outlined above) and instead a marketing and PR lens (see first bullet above)
- no analysis of structural issues inherent in issues like poverty, discrimation, and inequality, including an analysis of who has power and who does not
- a concomitant reliance on and promition of NGOs/charitable organizations/nonprofits to dole our aid, often at the expense of public infrastructures and activities that would make “governments more accountable to its own citizens, rather than to a bunch of foreign donors” (as quoted by a post on Aid Watch)
- no analysis of unintended consequences of charitable activities such as destruction of local markets, for example
- and lastly, one of the most galling aspects: the use and/or exploitation of stories, images, or video of people in very inhumane or distressing situations used simply to elicit an emotional response for the purpose of fundraising or marketing. This has been dubbed ‘poverty porn,’ by the way.
A quote on that:
For too long now, most of the communications we’ve all seen coming from humanitarian, development and non-governmental organizations have been what I’ve heard described as “poverty porn” — words and images that elicit an emotional response by their sheer shock value. Images like starving, skeletal children covered in flies. Overuse of the word “victim.” That kind of communication may get results, but at what cost to those portrayed? I believe that kind of exploitation is nothing less than a violation of human rights, especially considering what the impoverished, oppressed and marginalized have already had to endure.
(quote from photographer Roger Burk who advocates a different sort of story telling).
3. A Theory of Social Change (that takes power relationships into consideration - and why aid/charity does not fit into this theory)
So, I was rightly called upon to explain what the theory of change is in “social change,” as defined above. How do you analyze power, and more importantly, how do you change it? And how does this age of ‘social media’ where theoretically everyone (who is online and can write, of course) has a voice?
John Gaventa, chair of Oxfam who also hails from the Highlander Center (for which he received a MacArthur genius award) puts it this way:
Critical questions are to be asked. Does this new terrain represent a real shift in power? Does it really open up spaces where participation and citizen voice can have an influence? Will increased engagement within them risk simply re-legitimating the status quo, or will it contribute to transforming patterns of exclusion and social injustice and to challenging
power relationships? In a world where the local and the global are so interrelated, where patterns of governance and decision making are changing so quickly, how can those seeking pro-poor change decide where best to put theirefforts and what strategies do they use? …
All of these changes point to the need fo ractivists, researchers, policymakers and donors who are concerned about development and change to turn our attention to how to analyse and understand the
changing configurations of power. If we want to change power relationships, e.g. to make them more inclusive, just or pro-poor, we must understand more about where and how to engage.
One of the tenets of the power cube he presents (for a good overview, see here (pdf) is ‘claimed spaces’ - “spaces claimed by less powerful actors from or against the
power holders, or created more autonomously by them.”
My training is in community organizing and its very clear tenets of leadership building and power analysis. Jackie Kendall of the Midwest Academy has described “power analysis” as the
“Professional systematic gathering of political and economic intelligence….which is evaluated, interpreted and utilized by an organization to develop a plan for direct action.” To a trained organizer, the “power analysis” is the essential first step in a successful organizing campaign.
So let me put it all together: Social change includes a shifting in the power relationships in a society in favor of those who did not have it before. It includes an analysis of who has and who does not have power and why, and a consolidated effort BY those who are powerless to organize in order to better their lives. It does not include charity or aid or handouts of benevolent and well-off (and often white) people acting ON BEHALF of those disempowered and/or poor. (It also does not include micro-credit, by the way, but that is an entirely other conversation — see, for example, this paper on why microfinance misses its mark.)
I will elaborate further on why charity and aid are limited and possibly dangerous, and how social media then fits into this paradigm and theory of change in my next post, forthcoming.