Reframing the local authority as a local facilitator of change

At a recent service design event in London, I was in a discussion about service design and local authorities, where I heard about the great work that Waltham Forest Council is doing in that area. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since, specifically about what was so different about the approach the service design teams were taking. I came to the conclusion that what they were doing was reframing the role of the local authority from an authority to a facilitator. This was happening both in the community but also inside the council.

Reframing the role of the local authority

In our modern world, it’s hard to imagine a world without institutionalised government, and it means that it’s also hard to remember the reasons why they were set up. When too many humans live together, problems cannot be resolved by everyone coming together, these collective problems were given to a government institution to solve. We elect officials to decide on our behalf what needs to be done, we pay our taxes to give them money. That way, we don’t have to think about where our rubbish goes or how high the flood defences should be. The local authority does it for us.

But at the same time, by not having to think about it, we’ve also developed a sort of apathy towards what the council does, only concerned by the amount of council tax we have to pay. We no longer feel empowered to lead or participate in the change we want to see in our community.

I see two drivers as to why this has to change:

1 – Local authorities are under increasing financial pressures due to continuing austerity measures and budget cuts. Now, more than ever, they are having to make sure that they are investing in the right things and will be seeking for quick-wins and cost-reduction strategies. Also, by involving the community in developing your services, you also develop buy-in from the start and reduce up-take costs, especially where you can tap into community influencers.

2 – The idea that government services have to first of all meet users needs, and be built together with the user, has become a standard at central government level, and is increasingly adopted across local authorities, who are signing the local digital declaration to commit to the principles set by the Government Digital Service.

Changing perceptions of the council

The team at Waltham Forest Council told us about the work they had to do ahead of actually being able to start their co-design and user research process. When the designers first approached people in the local community, the team found that a lot of people associated the council with either bin collections, council tax or parking permits. They often saw the council as a sort of punishing authority, rather than an institution that served the community. The designers had to do a lot of work to change that perception and win people over little by little, by explaining their service design approach, showing them how their input would lead to change in the community.

The distance between the local authority and its community could also be felt amongst people working in the council. Especially those that saw themselves as experts able to solve the problems faced by the community without ever talking to the local people. The service design team had to do a lot of internal influencing to get other parts of the council on-board with their approach. Particularly regulated areas such as procurement and finance were hard to convince of working in agile and iterative ways, but increasingly, these more traditional areas are equally being transformed, with more and more people championing approaches to agile procurement for example.

Going forward

Working together with the community and doing so in an agile approach, where you’re iteratively working to solve a problem, rather than implementing a solution, is key to transforming local government services. It means that councils will be able to provide services that better meet the needs of the community, and will be able to save costs by de-risking investment in new projects and focusing on the problems most important to the community. So what I would like to see is for the local authority to become the local facilitator of change, giving the community back the ownership of change.


How can we be better at data for development?

Last week I attended a data for development event with the ICT4D community here in London. It was a very thought-provoking evening with some great examples of how data is collected and used in a development or humanitarian context.

Data – one of development’s toughest challenges

When I hear about data for development, my first thought is about the lack of data and how many projects have been and are still undertaken without rigorous monitoring and evaluation (M&E). This may seem absurd as M&E is the only way to know whether an intervention was at all worth the effort and money invested in it. You could end up spending tens of thousands with little, or worse, negative impact, and never know about it.

However, collecting data isn’t easy. More than that it can be bloody expensive. If you want to undertake rigorous research, with a large enough sample size with qualified researchers, you’re going to need deep pockets. If you’re planning an intervention, a rigorous study can cost between 1/3 to 1/2 of the actual intervention.

With the increased pressure on charities to use every single pound for the beneficiary, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, needing to negotiate hard for M&E lines in their grant budget and still having to prove impact.

Business development – as in applying for funding – requires data as well. Forget about writing a grant application without some data about how your beneficiaries need the intervention. It doesn’t matter how well you know the on-the-ground situation, percentages just look good and will convince people in suits.

This paradox of spending on impact vs spending on proving the impact is probably one of the toughest challenges the development sector faces to become an efficient and effective enterprise to improve human life.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as really what we need to do is to make it easier to gather data, to share data between organisations, and to make sense of that data, and all that in a respectful and ethical way. The organisations present at the event were doing just that.

Be better at gathering data

There is the question of quality: In his presentation Simon Johnson from Humanitarian Data Exchange talked about the inconsistency of data gathered, especially in humanitarian emergencies, where data is collected in such a rush that the quality of the data is of secondary concern. Digital tools that spell-check and ensure that all fields on a survey are filled, enable to us to improve data quality.

Then there is a the question of cost: Face-to-face interviews for example are a costly process, that requires large budgets, often only available to the larger iNGOs. An increasing trend however, is to use digital tools to make data collection easier. This can start from using tablets to record interviews and surveys, to mobile polling, such as UNICEF’s uReport initiative. While these may reduce costs, this can open question of representation as highlighted by Amy O’Donnell from Oxfam. uReport got an overwhelming amount of responses to mobile surveys they ran in Uganda, yet they later found that majority came from educated, urban males.

However, as mobile phones are becoming more prevalent the representation question can start to be addressed. Yan Naung Oak from Phandeeyar (Myanmar) spoke about how the number of SIM cards owned has surpassed the total population of the country, as mobile phones have transformed the way people interact with each other.

Making data collection easier is a question of making it easier to reach people or even objects (e.g. pumps) we want to collect data from without compromising the scientific rigour of the study.

Be better at sharing data

The data collected by an organisation can be useful to other organisations, be it in the context of a humanitarian emergency where organisations have to coordinate quickly, or if it’s for small NGOs to have access to data about their beneficiaries, so that they can apply for funding and design an intervention that matters.

Mor Rubinstein from Open Knowledge International spoke about the Global Open Data Index, for which OKI encourages civil society across the world to share data about their governments’ transparency on a wide range of issues. OKI then collates the data  to create the Global Open Data Index. By putting countries into a ranking, they enable national lobby groups to reach out to the competitive nature of the government to be better at transparency.

BBC Media Action on the other hand used the results from their extensive M&E research on a variety of projects on resilience, governance, and media to create a portal for other organisations to access the data. These organisations can now use this data to inform their project design and their funding application. The data portal answers questions like ‘Are rural Kenyans interested in politics? Do Palestinian women trust the media?’.

A third example showcased at the event is Humanitarian Data Exchange. It is an online platform that allows organisations to upload and share data, particularly for humanitarian crises. So far, they have over 4.5K data sets from over 200 locations. More than providing a platform, they have also developed HXL – a language, as a code framework using hashtags, that allows them to compare and compile different data sets. The basic introduction to HXL even fits on a postcard.

Sharing data isn’t just about making it available for download – especially in unreadable format (e.g. scanned PDFs). It’s about giving others the ability to re-use that data as well.

Be better at making sense of that data

OneWorld UK showcased their work with USAID to make the data collected from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) more available to USAID missions and help them evaluate programmes and plan new initiatives and funding. By plugging into the DHS APIs they strive to automate a lot of the processes that goes into analysing and visualising the data, making it easier for USAID missions to also work together. They are thereby making it easier for people to make decisions without having to interpret the raw data anew.

However, while OneWorld’s tool has a clear purpose, there are many tools out there that don’t have that. Data is great, Yan Naung Oak exclaimed, just don’t build another mobile app or digital portal without a precise use case behind it. Luckily funding for apps without a clear purpose seems to be diminishing as funders are starting to realise that such digital tools require a distribution mechanism and be truly engaging and appropriate for the end-user. Until recently build-it-and-they-will-come was still a very real myth in this space. Yan’s organisation Phandeeyar is trying to do just that, bring together entrepreneurs, civil society and technologists to build digital services that make a real measurable difference. For example, they worked with a group who build the Yangon Bus Service app. For many people, the app is the first opportunity to view the entire bus network in the city.

Making sense of data, yes, building 10 000 dashboards, no. We need to be mindful of the need before building data visualisation dashboards and be careful not to oversimplify.

… and all that in a responsible way

Finally Amy Donnell from Oxfam presented the responsible data forum, a collective of organisations coming together to decide what responsible data means. She highlighted a myriad of different ways in which you can look at responsibility in the field of data for development. Here are some of the questions she posed:

How do you ensure privacy? What do you encrypt and how do you do it?

Are you creating real value or are you duplicating a similar study?

What does consent mean? How do you explain consent?

What does dignity and respect mean in the context of data collection?

Is representation ensured?

What biases do we have when looking at data?

The responsible data forum uses these questions and many more in their handbook to guide practitioners to collect, share and make sense of data in a more ethical and responsible way.

If you have made it this far in my article, I would like to congratulate you! I struggled to keep my post short as the topic is very broad, and I only feel like I am starting to scratch the surface. I would like to thank the ICT4D meetup organisers for this stimulating evening and encourage anyone to join us in London.

Why NGOs never fail

Ask any NGO workers about failures in their organisation, it’s likely they are going to struggle to come up with an answer. Especially if they are business development people, they probably won’t tell you about a failure. However, many NGOs fail, and often. But the way the system is constructed doesn’t allow for the concept of failure. No, NGOs don’t fail, they learn lessons.

Don’t mention the F-word

Most NGOs depend on funding from their donors. Whether it comes from big international organisations or individuals, NGOs must show that they are doing ‘good things’ with the money they have been given. But there is something really nice about the phrase ‘good things’ – it’s incredibly vague. So are often the commitments of NGOs. If you say that you commit to build the capacity of 200 women in business skills; that sounds like a real thing. Yet often it’ll be measured in the number of people attending a course – rarely in measuring the actual capacities of the women – and even when they measure it, academic rigour isn’t always the norm.

When you depend on showing results to keep your business going, but results are really difficult and therefore really expensive to get, making your results vague is a good way to continue getting funding for the work you believe is doing good.

If you are being vague as to what you want to achieve, chances are you’ll be able to write a positive report regardless of what happened. If your vague results really aren’t great, then you are going to do what the NGO sector loves: you’re going to learn lessons. But make sure they are lessons you have overcome or are in the process of overcoming.

The increasing pressure – both financial and political – on NGOs means that they are cutting corners. Don’t get me wrong, they are still pursuing their good work –  this is in no form a critique as to what NGOs are doing (that’s for another time!). This is simply a critique of the reporting and accountability mechanisms.

If an NGO fails in a project – e.g. doesn’t meet its expected target – they will be worried about getting further funding. To ensure that more funding is secured, they won’t frame it as a failure. They will instead explain the reasons they didn’t achieve what they wanted and explain how they adapted their programme or will change further programmes. And it’s true. Military coups happen, floods happen, ebola outbreaks happen (these are all real examples).

However, a lot of the time, the reason why NGOs don’t meet their targets is because they set unreasonable goals. More and more NGOs compete so they have to overpromise to get a grant – and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission to reduce your targets. Forgiveness is also a lot easier to ask for when you’re learning lessons from your mistakes.

Why failure can be a good thing (even if society is saying it can’t)

The start-up sector is all about ‘failure’ – if you haven’t failed once, can you really call yourself an ‘entrepreneur’? Of course you can, but the start-up sector is well known for learning from its mistakes. Quick product development cycles means quick shipping, means quick failing means quick re-building – all very lean.

For people outside the sector may have difficulty understanding the value of failure, because it’s engrained in our society that failure is bad –


I can tell which Mum I’d prefer…

I think we need to revisit the whole structure of the NGO sector. Accept that failure is ok – but constant mediocrity is not. I don’t think that investing more in evaluation is necessarily the solution, because it only means that for every million you spend on a project, you pay a million and a half on an academic study. I may be exaggerating here, as I don’t have the exact figures. However, what is key is that it’s not simply a question of evidence – it’s about how donors allocate money, how NGOs work together and how much duplication could be avoided if the NGO sector wasn’t a political competition for resources but rather a concerted effort for creating good in the world.

Why UX design matters in ICT4D interventions

UX design

Joe Dollar-Smirnov, UX Trainer at General Assembly, defines user experience (UX) design as the act of designing an intuitive and rewarding product or service around the needs of the end user. When working on products at OneWorld, I keep two objectives in mind: When interacting with the technology, the user needs have a successful and a positive experience.

To fulfil the first objective of creating a ‘successful experience’ is a pretty straightforward element of ICT4D interventions. Each ICT4D intervention has (or should have) a clear objective as to what the technology is supposed to achieve. This can be providing information on crop prices for farmers or giving community health workers access to their patients’ health records. It is key to the ICT4D intervention that the user experience of the technology is successful, as this will mean that the intervention is reaching its objective.

It is however also important to create a positive experience, because it means that the chances that the user will come back and recommend the product to their friends, family and neighbours are much greater. Bad first user experience will put users off. In the case of data collection interventions, this may also lead to incorrect or incomplete data.

Additionally, it is important to work closely with your users, because you aren’t creating a product you would use yourself – at least in most cases. When you are designing for users who have a different relationship with technology, you need to spend considerable amounts of time testing and retesting. Else, you can easily fall into the trap of creating a product for the elites, who are more technologically-able and therefore more adaptable to new technology. Spending time and effort on user experience design will make sure that your product fits with your target audience.

A successful and positive user experience means that your product is more likely to have a larger reach, engage people and be meaningful, and is not a token product that ticks the ICT box.

If it is so important, why aren’t we talking about UX design in ICT4D interventions?

It is quite easy to convince engineering and management teams to create successful user experiences, since it’s essential to the objective of the product. But what about tweaking and adapting your product through series of user testing to create a positive user experience that leaves the user with a good feeling that means she’s likely to come back and recommend the product?

The eternal iceberg of development interventions – funding models – is a major obstacle in this case as well. With restricted funding and often-unrealistic expectations from funders as to how much time it takes to fine-tune a technology product, bug fixing and actually making the technology achieve its primary objective overrides any attempt to create positive experiences. While funders are easily impressed by products that fulfill their objective, they fail to see the importance of really good UX design in order to create meaningful products, that are constantly improved.

I really don’t want to name and shame some of the products I’ve seen out there, because I know a lot of hard work has gone into them and there are probably people at these organisations frustrated just as I am that they weren’t able to spend more time to improve these products. But if I see one more mobile data collection form with 20 drop-downs, I may change my mind.

I believe it is important that we talk about user experience in ICT4D projects and that we should build a community of practitioners who care about good UX and share the learnings from the for-profit technology sector with development practitioners. We need to increase the amount of training on UX design available to project and field staff, and put pressure on funders to allow us to improve products.

What about the men?

ICT interventions to prevent violence against women more often than not work with… women

In the last decade Information and Communication Technology (ICT) went from being a buzzword to representing an essential tick-box in the development community as more and more donors and NGO professionals see opportunities in ICT to add value to their existing projects, to ‘conquer the last mile’ and to scale up projects faster than ever before. Projects addressing violence against women (VAW) are no exception. There is indeed a plethora of ICT solutions that aim to fight VAW. A recent post by Hera Hussain on ICTWorks talks about some of the missed opportunities to address violence against women and also about some of the projects that are addressing VAW. Her article however highlighted to me an essential problem: too many of these projects target women.

I understand that women need to be informed of their rights, because they need to know that violence – in the household and elsewhere – is always unacceptable and that there is legal and social help available.

In the same way, creating better ways of notifying support services or the police can be helpful for survivors of violence against women.

Finally, gathering data on VAW helps to inform policy decisions and to increase awareness.

But all this will not change the fact that there are people perpetrating violence against women – many of them men. Yet most projects that are involving men to reduce levels of violence against women remain at the community-level. They often come in the form of training, workshops and peer education. They also require a long-term commitment.

While ICT is not the magic bullet some make it out to be, I think that the one missed opportunity in addressing VAW using ICT is the fact that men are not involved enough as part of these interventions. I find it a shame because it’s been widely acknowledged that we can’t address VAW without men on our side – whether that is for addressing rape culture on university campuses or intimate partner violence in the household.

One of the few examples I heard about was from GoJoven Belize at the YTH Live conference last April in San Francisco. They partnered with the Center for Digital Storytelling for a project called ‘Youth Leaders Speak‘, where young people are trained to create their own videos on a variety of issues linked to adolescent sexual health and rights. The presenter worked with a particular group that reflected on male values and masculinities in the community to create their own videos, which they then showed to their community to start a dialogue.

I would love to hear about more ICT projects addressing VAW prevention that also involve men! Are there maybe:

-> eLearning modules for groups of men and boys to learn about concepts of masculinities and VAW?

-> eLearning modules for parents to rethink the values they are passing down?

-> support groups and call-in numbers for men who display aggressive behaviour?

-> SMS advocacy campaigns to raise awareness about values, gender roles and culture?

If you know of any projects, I would love to hear about them!

How can mobile technology improve health in LMIC? (UCL conference)

Today I attended the first day of the mhealth conference at University College London on ‘How can mobile technology improve health in low and middle income countries?’. Here are just a few thoughts based on the presentations and discussions I heard today!

Some key points from the day

– Account for disabilities in mhealth interventions: they can be easily overlooked, even low eyesight which we may not think of as a disability needs to be addressed in text-based interventions

– Governments and Ministries of Health are key players – especially good if ‘early adopters’ are in charge

– Motivation to get people to use mhealth tools in the long term can be increased through:

  • Incentives (monetary or other)
  • Feeling valued and trusted (e.g. by giving them the mobile device)
  • Regular checks, especially when data shows there is drop in usage
  • Empower some as ‘experts’ or ‘supervisors’ to help others with technical aspects

– We need to get better at describing what exactly interventions do in research papers – and if any of the people who voiced that concern are reading this – could you give examples of studies who do it well?

Further thoughts

Content vs. tech evaluation: There were quite a few questions about the content of some of the mhealth interventions that were presented (e.g. motivational messages for community health workers (CHW) or the maternal health messages for families in Bihar). Both speakers made it clear that their messages had gone through a lot of testing and, for the messages in Bihar, had been approved by a government committee. Sandeep Ghosh from BBC Media Action also made the point that their intervention has shown very positive results, which in a way shows the success of the content. While this is great, and I’m sure that for both projects, they had very capable people (and the budget to get these people on board) where is the learning for other organisations and charities, who want to replicate this type of project? I think that additional research specifically on content would be beneficial.

Health outcomes: Throughout the whole day, it became clear that the focus on health outcomes is crucial in the field of mhealth evidence, as process and usage data only gets us that far. However, I see that if you are a big research institution like UCL, focussing on health outcomes is great. Yet, what can smaller NGOs do when their M&E budget doesn’t allow for a sensible sample size to measure all these health indicators? How can research institutions reach out more to NGOs?

Health communication: I felt that a lot of the discussions were about mhealth as a way to strengthen health systems, while health communication wasn’t center stage. I think it would be interesting to look a bit more at health communication interventions which use mobile devices, and their evidence.

Mapping the World

Last week I attended a Mapathon with Missing Maps at King’s College. A map-athon is a group of people getting together to create maps.

While we already have all sorts of maps online, this mapathon was to create maps for OpenStreetMap – an opensource map of the world. It is often described as the Wikipedia of maps; anyone can contribute to it! Check out your own street on OpenStreetMap – is everything mapped?

OpenStreetMap started as a crowdsourced experiment in 2004. A huge aMissing Mapsmount of people have contributed to the map since, but there are still a lot of missing bits. And the answer to this issue isn’t Google, because many of these areas are missing on Google Maps too. The key missing maps are of informal settlements, urban slums, which is where organisations like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the Red Cross work in humanitarian relief. To effectively track the spread of diseases like Heptatis A or even Ebola, these organisations need accurate maps. They therefore approached the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). Together the three organisations get volunteers together to work on a piece of this earth that remains unmapped. As a result of these mapathons, MSF and BRC are seeing the first ever maps of some of the areas they are working in.

The link between maps and health isn’t new. At the start of every mapathon, Yvan Gayton from MSF recalls John Snow’s work on cholera in 1854. The English physician set out to map the cholera cases around London during a huge outbreak. Through his detailed maps, he was able to trace the source of the epidemic to a specific water supply and prove that cholera was transmitted through water systems. This revolutionised water and waste management system in London and later other cities.

Mapping for OpenStreetMap

The process of the actual mapping is rather simple. The mapper traces lines visible on a satellite image of the area selected by the Missing Maps team, one square at a time. The specific task may be about mapping houses, roads, buildings, areas, water… or all of them. This means drawing a lot of lines, squares and circles, trying to be as precise as possible and tagging each area based on one’s best guest.

The next step involves a team of more experienced mappers, who verify each square. Then, a team on the ground will check the validity of the data and put a name to each road and a description to some of the buildings. The end product is a map that is detailed to each house and can help the MSF or BRC teams respond to an emergency. Staff can map the origin of incoming patients to help the teams respond to the epidemic and contain it better.

What I love about mapping is that I can contribute to a larger goal from my humble laptop and help other people carry out their life-saving humanitarian work. So, if you are in London, join us at the next mapathon – just follow their announcements on Twitter – or you can join in remotely! And if mapping really is your thing, you could also help MicroMappers at mapping the remaining coconut trees in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.

HIV stigma is not over

On September 2nd I attended the launch of the report ‘HIV and Stigma: The Media Challenge’ by Sophie Chalk, Director of Campaigns at the International Broadcasting Trust.

HIV stigma reportBeyond the findings of the report, the launch also included a prominent panel, including Garth Japhet (Founder of Heartlines and the Soul City Institutes, South Africa), Winnie Ssanyu Sseruma (HIV activist), Anne Soy (BBC correspondent, Kenya) and Arvind Singhal (University of Texas).

Hereon is an overview of the main points discussed both in the report (which you should get your hands on!) and the discussion between the panel and the very well-informed audience.

Throughout the discussion, two main challenges were identified: the need to address young people in ICT4D and the media fatigue around HIV and the associated stigma.

Challenge no 1: The need for a clear focus on young people in ICT4D

Potentially every person who spoke, mentioned the need to address young people – both meaning teenagers and younger children.

Teenagers are about to or are already engaging in a sexual life. In countries where HIV rates are high, social taboos often make open dialogue around sexual and reproductive health difficult and the forbidden nature of sex exacerbates HIV stigma. There is a need for ICT4D (information and communication technologies for development) projects that address HIV stigma which are specifically tailored to young people.

Equally younger children can really benefit from learning about HIV at an early age, as they are in some ways blank canvases, who can be taught about HIV without prior judgment and prejudice. For example Garth Japhet mentioned Soul Buddyz, a network of clubs  for 8-14 year-olds developed on the side of the Soul Buddyz TV show, which grew extremely popular in South Africa, reaching over 200,000 soul buddyz. Children really wanted to join them because they were ‘fun’ – socializing with children their age around sports and creative activities, while also learning about life skills and HIV.

Challenge no 2: HIV is no longer a story

Media fatigue seems to exist both amongst news broadcasters, as highlighted by Anne Soy, but also amongst young people in Swaziland, as Sophie Chalk shared with us their sentiment of how bored they were with news about HIV. HIV was a story in the 80s and the 90s, but it seems to have lost its appeal in terms of newsworthiness.

It is incredibly difficult to report about the HIV epidemic without stigmatizing vulnerable groups or people living with HIV/AIDS. Journalists need both training as well as access to new stories. Anne Soy was telling us about Kenya, where local journalists have no budget to go out to rural areas and find today’s stories of HIV. This is where NGOs can help. They can provide training, sharing their knowledge and experience, and they can also physically take the journalists to the rural areas and connect them with people who are happy to share their story of HIV.

Journalists do play a role in the fight against HIV stigma, because through their stories, they can share the science; dispel myths of transmission, change people’s views around culpability and morality. They can create a cognitive dissonance against old prejudice about people living with HIV/AIDS, provided HIV is on the agenda of the editorial boards.

Drama as a solution to both?

One answer to both these challenges seemed to dominate the discussion – using drama for social change.

Dramas, like Soul City or Shuga, are a brilliant tool to target young people, as they move away from ‘preaching’ about HIV – abandoning the discourse around what people should do, by using dramatic stories to teach about what living with HIV/AIDS is like. This way, ICT4D can also combat the media fatigue – the science can be taught through the stories of dramas and television and radio soaps.

Interestingly, producer Kate Oates from the UK television drama soap Emmerdale was also present at the event and told us about how she created the storyline of the character Valery discovering her HIV status and the beginning of her life living with HIV/AIDS. Before putting the storyline through, Kate asked the actress whether she was comfortable with it. Kate explained that she felt the need to ask this, as playing an HIV positive character will often have an impact on the actor’s life, who will face questions about it in the media and possibly in their private lives.

Garth echoed this point of view, as he told us how some of the Soul City actors, who play characters living with HIV/AIDS, have become advocates against HIV stigma, as in some sort of para-social interaction, the public sees them as their character. Actors do play an important role in this respect and they can become role models when role models who are actually living with HIV/AIDS are effectively missing.

Someone asked the audience how many famous people living with HIV/AIDS we all knew, and probably most of us could count them on one hand – I definitely can! Some speakers felt that it was time for people living with HIV/AIDS to step up and become role models and inspire a generation! Anne Soy made an interesting point by saying that very few members of the higher social classes come out as HIV positive, whereas amongst the lower social classes, there is less disincentive to be open about one’s status, which exacerbates the idea of HIV/AIDS as a ‘disease of the poor’.


Though, drama isn’t the answer to everything, other media projects focused on young people often in combination with drama are doing tremendous work. These include projects using new media technologies, but also school-based activities as well as after-schools clubs. Fact is HIV stigma is not an old story, it’s very much alive and reports like Sophie Chalk’s are important to remind us of this fact and that efforts to combat stigma are still valuable and necessary.

Tell me about the slums

I like to watch what I call ‘popular documentaries’ about life in other countries. In my eyes, these are different from ‘regular documentaries’, because they appeal less to an intellectual elite, but to people who enjoy entertainment shows. Often they include a British reporter who goes on to explore a new culture and give us a glimpse of what life may be like in other countries, making generalising statements in an overly sympathetic voice. Over the past few weeks, two BBC programmes caught my attention, because they offered me a new approach to the popular documentary.

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 19.19.53

Welcome to Rio: Rocky

The first one was BBC2 ‘Welcome to Rio’ , a series of three episodes giving the audience an idea of what life in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas may be like. Over the different episodes we meet different characters, be it a funkeira, a scantily clad hip-shaking feminist performer, and her struggles with her family’s conservative attitude; Rocky, who can be described as the favela’s concierge, you will marvel as he carries your standard two-door fridge up the hundreds of stairs; a graffiti artist from the slums and his political statements, or the struggles of a savvy business woman who recycles material from the dumping ground but has to send her husband to negotiate, as their partners don’t want to talk to a woman. The series even takes us amongst the ranks of the (in)famous BOPE, the special police force in charge of ‘pacifying’ the favelas. These and many more testimonies enable you to immerse yourself in the favela, to make you feel at home.

The other example of slum representations is BBC3’s Slum Survivors. Three British young people are sent to spend a week in a slum (Lagos (ep 1), Jakarta (ep 2) and learn about a specific trade (mechanics, cookery). We follow their journey and see the slum through their eyes. We watch them witness difficult living conditions, the generosity and hospitality of the locals and how skilled and hard working the people they meet are. Indeed the young people in both episodes fail at many tasks set for them to the local standards. They are all in some way or another overwhelmed by the experience, which they share with us in frequent interview sequences.

Now, I must say that I much preferred the way ‘Welcome to Rio’ was made. For one, it didn’t include any teenage tantrums, but it was really the use of point of view that made it very interesting. Hence it is interesting to put the two shows side by side. One tries to put us in the shoes of the favela residents with a first-person-narrative, while the other lends us three pairs of eyes who discover the slums for us.

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Welcome to Rio: Ingenuity

Really immersing the audience into the slum environment may seem a more genuine approach. We are getting the real thing, the narration is from the residents’ point of view. Unlike the news, where a professional journalist helps us analyse a situation, there is no intermediary. At least so it seems. We don’t actually know who wrote script.

From what we can gather, the story is not told by somebody we can easily identify with – the British audience’s reality is very far from life in the favelas – yet we are immersed. We can see similarities between our lives and the lives the favela – not only through common family struggles but also through the framing: When describing Rocky’s son, the narrator explains that like in all families, a teenager gets into trouble, but in Rocky’s case trouble means the drug dealers.

Despite all the apparent honesty of the series, we cannot forget that we’re completely relying on the choices made by the filmmaker and the editing carried out on the documentary. We just have to wonder what the agenda of the producers is. Are they telling the whole story? They are certainly critical of the pacification process.

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Slum Survivors: episode 2 – Jakarta

In Slum Survivors, we are being told a story through an intermediary, but not any intermediary. These young people are a form of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’’, ingénues, who look at the world with their somewhat naïve eyes. Some of them have no idea where the place they are going to is – they are in fact asked at the beginning to point at it on a map. For some it’s the first time away from their families. We see the slum through their experiences, impressions and feelings. We are still subjected to the editing, however the young people’s responses and statements are (somewhat) uncontrolled by the producers of the show. In the first episode the young people go on to discover corporal punishment as a method to improve on the job – and interestingly we don’t see the usual vilification of culturally inacceptable practices.

Whichever point of view you may prefer, both are interesting and both shows are definitely worth a watch if you want to find out more about life in the slums! They also made me happy, because they are a breath of fresh air after travel documentaries à la Billie Porter’s ‘Secrets of Latin America’ and others, with their series of leading questions on their quests to ‘the truth’, often leave me somewhat unsatisfied.

Stigma and HIV reporting – a lesson from the BBC

Zainab Deen wrote an article in BBC Magazine on ‘Sex workers using anti-HIV drugs instead of condoms’. However, her reporting is everything else but neutral.

Her first paragraph reeks with stigmatizing rhetoric:

 “In Kenya 1.5 million people are living with HIV, and there are about 100,000 new infections every year. Despite this, some sex workers are having unprotected sex – and taking antiretroviral drugs afterwards to cut the infection risk. How reckless is this?”

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Then she continues, telling the story of some of Nairobi’s sex workers.

“”Let me tell you the truth about why many of us don’t use condoms,” says Sheila who has been a prostitute in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum for six years.

“We don’t have money, and when you meet a client who offers to give you more money than you usually get, you have sex without protection even when you don’t know his HIV status.”

Sheila says she and other prostitutes can go to a clinic the next morning to get emergency antiretrovirals – drugs which suppress the virus, if taken within 72 hours of infection, and in many cases stop its progression.

“We use this medicine like condoms,” she says.”

While this paragraph acknowledges that the women use preventive treatment for economic reasons, the author fails to look at these structural drivers of HIV/AIDS – no mention of poverty levels, of women’s empowerment in society etc.

The following testimony shows more of this apparent ‘system abuse’.

“”I had unprotected sex when I was very drunk one night and the following morning I didn’t go to the same clinic where I got the first PEP tablets… I went to a different clinic where they don’t have my records, and lied that I was forced into unprotected sex,” she says.”

After the reader is appalled by the ‘reckless behaviour’ of these women, he gets another set of information that will really enrage him – that is the price of these preventive drugs.

“In the US, PrEP costs around $14,000 (£8,700) a year at the full price, although people on low incomes can get it much cheaper, or even free.”

I think and hope that the readers of BBC Magazine are smarter than this and know that the story told in this article is one in a million and does not reflect the situation in Kenya. 26 million people in the world need AIDS drugs, 9.7 million had access to treatment at the end of 2012. Sensationalist and moralizing reporting should not get in the way of how much funding goes into providing these life-saving drugs to those who need them!