Aid Blogging: A Cautionary Tale in Charts


A lot of people think pretty deep thoughts about the nexus of humanitarian aid and social media. I’m not one of them. Nevertheless, I started blogging and tweeting about international development and humanitarian aid a couple of years ago. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

1. Applied Creativity

I don’t know if creativity is a finite thing, but I do know that once I started blogging and tweeting, I began using a greater measure of it for things of questionable value.

2. The Big Trade Off

Choose how you use your time wisely. Somewhere along that line is a praxis sweet spot where action learning, reflective work, and contemplative activism takes place.

3. Snark Love

If you’re insecure about your positions, your social network following will likely plateau with your mom. You don’t really have to be snarky, but it helps to have an opinion and the ability to express it strongly and succinctly.

4. Following to Death

You can’t drink from a fire hose. There’s so many Twitter feeds, blogs, chatty colleagues and other sources of news and information out there, its very easy to end up with information overload. Don’t follow everyone who follows you; don’t subscribe to every blog on topic; don’t be afraid to unfollow people who live-tweet their pedicure. You have to put some filters on this stuff.

5. Expertise in the Mirror

Go to a new country and in three weeks you can write a book; in three months you can write an essay; in three years you have nothing to say. I was always so dismayed when my grandfather who had a PhD in theology would invariably answer every question I had about God with “I don’t know.” It’s starting to make sense now.

6. Inspiration

A few blogs are actually deeply informed by direct experience with aid beneficiaries – those that we often lazily referred to as ‘the poor’. And these are special things (think Owen Scott’s series on PlayPumps). But many blogs are simply opinionated responses to op-eds and articles and other blogs. It seems we write for each other about each other as often as not. It’s not so much navel gazing as it is cliquey aloofness. This post for example.

7. Anatomy of a Dog Pile

Dog piles are killer fun! They can also be effective at actually getting miscreants’ attention and changing their stupid behavior, whether they’re a BINGO or a lone individual. Granted, its like a month of aid bloggers falling over themselves to repeat what’s already been said or be the first to write a compendium of all the other posts. But, not every bad aid blunder gets a dog pile – it helps to be in the trifecta sweet spot.

8. The Inequality of Influence

Don’t feel bad if your Twitter feed doesn’t garner 10,000 followers or your FB page isn’t ‘liked’ to the tune of six-figures or it takes two years for your blog to attract 25,000 page views. Real influence is a rare thing – if you’re writing to garner or demonstrate influence, you’re probably self-deluded. Here’s a little game – grab some ice cream and locate yourself on this chart. Be honest. Be okay with it. Write on. Right on.

9. The Big Crowd Out

Professional aid work is already so cluttered with organizational demands, sometimes it feels like we’re feeding a machine rather than helping feed the hungry.  We have to take care that our social networking activities don’t further crowd out the doing of the real work for which we joined this sector. There are diminishing returns for how much of this you do. (Imagine an alternative chart for this.) What the donors and bosses don’t know about how a ‘real aid professional’ spends their day might not hurt them, but it may very well hurt our collective efforts to address famine, human trafficking, gender violence, educational quality, water scarcity, and so on and so forth.

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Categories: Aid Blogging, Whimsy

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34 Comments on “Aid Blogging: A Cautionary Tale in Charts”

  1. Chris Lee - Sydney, Australia
    June 28, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    Love your blog – and this one’s outstanding. Your free-hand pictures put the points across brilliantly – and show that you don’t have to have hi-tech illustrations to be effective. Please keep finding the time to keep your blog going

  2. June 28, 2012 at 10:54 pm #

    I don’t know where to start with this one Aaron. But yes on so many levels. My experience of co-founding whydev is that we aim to have a whole bunch of articles that are supposed to stimulate discussion, from the more academic to just the thought bubbles and ideas. We’ve grown quite a bit of a following, in relative terms. But our hands down number one most popular post, with over 25000 hits and counting is 52 reasons why you should date an aid worker (http://www.whydev.org/52-reasons-why-you-should-date-an-aid-worker/). I guess sometimes aid workers just want a little bit of reassurance ;)

  3. June 29, 2012 at 2:38 am #

    Brilliant, Aaron. And I agree. It’s one reason I have more or less abandoned twitter. And to a lesser extent blogging. I re-ordered priorities.

    Of course, I do dabble a bit: otherwise, why am I here?

    I assume by the way that you’ve seen the work of the creme de la creme of all venn-diagrammers, Jessica Hagy, whose wisdom knows no bounds:

    http://thisisindexed.com/

  4. Dave Wallace
    June 29, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    For the record charts 5 and 8 were my favorites.

  5. June 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    Reblogged this on snapgrabber and commented:
    Aaron Ausland has some interesting thoughts on aid blogging…

    • June 29, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

      Thanks for the head’s up. Interesting site you have.

  6. June 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    This is excellent!

  7. June 30, 2012 at 5:46 am #

    Thank you. This is very funny, plus also useful, plus also makes me feel a bit better about the various humanitarian/aid worker self doubts that chase after me most days like those transformer pink elephants in that one Disney film (Fantasia?). Anyway, good work. I appreciate your posts!

  8. June 30, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    Number 5 leaves me a little sad. Perhaps when you reach that point, it’s time to search for another angle to look at it or get inspired by someone else who does?

    • July 3, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

      Maybe you’ll like this revised version better. We need those old dogs full of critical doubt, questions informed by experience, and the ability to quickly snuff the joy out of an earnest but stupid idea.

  9. Katy
    July 2, 2012 at 4:54 am #

    I agree. But I have one question, what is the activity that counts as ‘saving the world’ in your last pie chart? I feel like if we could answer that question, we’d all be out of a job.

  10. lant
    July 2, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    loved it

    • July 3, 2012 at 10:28 am #

      Thanks Lant. btw, did you see the piece on the SOCCKET? I’d be curious to hear why you made the initial comment to Bill about it representing what’s wrong with development today.

  11. Darius
    July 2, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    You nailed it.

  12. Mona Mishra
    July 3, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    really very like!

  13. July 4, 2012 at 1:49 am #

    there’s a typo at point 8!

  14. July 11, 2012 at 1:29 am #

    Is the inspiration for this article about Tales From The Hood? If so its pretty spot on.

    That said, I think this is a little too cynical for my taste. I am guilty of #4 (following everyone) and maybe #6 (writing about other posts and op-eds). But that is the game, man. No one outside the world of international development cares at all about international development. Early on, I tried to hone in on a particular area – microfinance in Asia – and become a source on that. At the end of the day, I think sharing your opinion, however strongly you want, on whatever interests you (for me, it is international development, social enterprise, and world travel) is enough. If you have something good to say, people will listen. And it is not how many that matters, but who.

    Keep up the good work – your blog is great.

    • July 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

      Thanks Josh. I appreciate the encouragement. For what it’s worth, Tales was not the inspiration for the post – not really sure what was. I think I was just reflecting on two years of on-again-off-again blogging and wondering if I should keep it up or not. While I was walking to a place that sends international faxes, I was thinking about aid blogging and I started imagining some funny line charts and venn charts to illustrate my cynically-tuned thoughts. I usually carry around a small Moleskine notebook with me, and while I was waiting for this guy to fax a document for me, I started sketching away. By the time I got home, I had the whole post sketched out in my Moleskine.

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    • June 24, 2013 at 11:41 am #

      There should be a subscribe button on the right hand side of the blog just above the ‘follow me on facebook’ panel. Also, if you scroll down to the very bottom of the page, you also have the option to follow this blog through RSS stream, or through other social media like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Thank you for your interest.

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