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Airplanes, VPVs, Faith and Latent Networks
Ethan Zuckerman, 20 Aug 10

Earlier this week, I met with Evan Paul, a smart urban planner just out of a master’s program at MIT. He’s working with colleagues on a new idea – “Global Planning Partners,” a nonprofit intended to help urban planners in the North work with planners in developing world megacities. And while I love and respect projects like Dx1W that point to the challenges of asking students in the developed world to “solve” developing world problems, I think projects that connect professionals in the developed and developing world to encourage cooperation and skill transfer are significantly more likely to lead to good outcomes.

(I had a chance to talk with Martin Williams, a young economist who’s spending two years in Ghana, in Accra a couple of weeks back. He’s serving as staff economist within the Ghana Ministry of Trade and Industry… where he tells me he’s the only guy who’s building economic models to understand trade policy. He’s there due to the grace of the Overseas Development Institute, a UK think tank that provides economics support to developing economies. No doubt that Martin will be able to have a great impact while in Ghana, but it’s a little crazy that this is a function being provided by a recent Masters graduate in the country for two years. The reason isn’t that there aren’t trained economists in Ghana – there are, but the Ministry pays so poorly that they’re working elsewhere. Makes me wonder whether there’s more of a shortage of urban planners in countries like Ghana, or whether the economic incentives drive trained planners to work outside the country…)

So Paul and I were talking about the successes and failures of Geekcorps, the NGO I helped found in 1999 and walked away from in 2004. I tried to explain why Geekcorps had become so expensive and so hard to sustain – that putting people on airplanes, whether it’s to dig a well or advise a government, is incredibly expensive. Coming out of the Geekcorps experience, where raising money to support our volunteers led me to a partnership with USAID which ultimately ended up crushing the project, I found myself urging Paul to consider a problem that I’ve yet to adequately solve: how do you build relationships, share ideas and transfer skills without getting on airplanes?

Needless to say, I’m not the only person who’s tried to solve this problem. The UN’s volunteering program, UNV, has been working for years to establish a virtual volunteering arm that lets individuals take on tasks like research, translation, or graphic design to help development organizations around the world. Nabuur, an online volunteering community, tries to ground these sorts of virtual experiences in learning about the villages where these opportunities are based, and building connections between individual users of the system.

But much as reading lecture notes via MIT Open Courseware isn’t the same thing as dragging yourself across the MIT campus on a wet, grey February morning for a 6.042 lecture, assisting a Ghanaian primary school to write an application for grant funding isn’t the same thing as drinking palm wine with village elders. Not only does virtual volunteering provide a different set of rewards than participating in person, it means that it’s much harder for you to understand local needs and constraints, and easier to make bad design assumptions.

It’s possible to understand Global Voices (GV) as a “post-airplane” project, but that’s a misreading of how the network actually came about. After a few months of working on the project, Rebecca and I took advantage of a Berkman conference to bring dozens of international bloggers together at Harvard to build the relationships that led to forming Global Voices as a functional online community. We’ve spent absurd sums every two years to bring our community together in India, Hungary, Chile because we believe – correctly or otherwise – that face to face interaction is part of the magic that allows this project to run primarily on love, not on money. And the accumulated goodwill that comes from getting lost together in Zakir Nagar lasts between these biennial meetings and gives us a basis for collaboration in the interim.

I’ve started thinking of the GV model as “VPV” – virtual, person to person, then virtual again. People discover the community online, and connect based on their sense of shared identity and values with the people already participating. They come together, face to face, either at the biennial meetings we run or at the other people’s conferences (which we’re religious about invading and using to converge our network.) That, in turn, builds the trust and relationships we need to survive working together for the next months or years until we see each other face to face.

This form of social organization isn’t unique to the online age, of course – it’s the pattern scholarly communities have followed for years, with relationships developed through journals and individual communication, cemented by time visiting each others institutions and attending conferences. But the internet offers tools that can broaden and deepen these virtual ties. Reading a friend’s blog or following their twitter feed isn’t the same as being able to see them each day, but it can be a more immersive experience than exchanging the occasional letter or article. I know far more about the daily habits of some of the GV colleagues than I do about friends I’ve known in person for twenty years.

I think part of the key to making a VPV community work is starting with a group that has a common identity, belief or practice. The common identity that links GV is a pretty loose one – we’re all bloggers (though participating in GV has the tendency to make one blog less, not more). That, and a mutual interest in making sure the online media world extends beyond North America and Europe, is evidently sufficient to create enough of a collective identity that many folks are able to participate within the project before they’ve met another GV person face to face. (I don’t know that anyone has yet met our beloved Veronika Khokhlova in person, despite leading our efforts in the former Soviet Union since early 2006.)

Virtual communities work well when there’s an assumption of good faith from other participants. Online communication is hard; we’ve got far less information about someone’s intention and emotion than we have in other forms of communication: no body language, no tone of voice. If we’re looking for evidence that the other participant is biased, inconsiderate, stupid, it’s often possible to find that evidence in the text he or she has posted. In real life, we tend to cut people slack and assume that a comment wasn’t made to offend. It’s harder to let things slide online – not only do we lack the non-verbal cues, but often it’s a mistake to assume good faith, to assume that your online conversant is interested in dialog rather than in a fight. (The comments on many newspaper websites can show you what conversation in absence of good faith looks like. Or you can just look at conversations within the US Congress at this point…)

If you can assume good faith long enough to establish real common ground with someone – preferably face to face – you can often weather the missteps that characterize these narrow channels of communication. Which isn’t to say that VPV communities always work out well – there are debates, like that over GV's Israel Flotilla coverage, that show that trust can be a scarce commodity even within a community of people who’ve had a lot of face to face interaction. I suggest that assumption of good faith as a precursor to building trust is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition to building lasting online relationships.

Which brings me back to this question of cross-cultural interaction without airplanes. If trust comes from assumption of good faith, and that assumption comes, in part, from a common practice or identity…maybe it’s time for activists to take a closer look at churches.

I spent Wednesday afternoon with Dylan Breuer, a theologian and lay leader in the Episcopal Church (the church that I’m a not-especially-active part of of.) She and I have been in touch over the years about political and social issues in East Africa, where she’s traveled extensively, working with local congregations. (Much of our conversation has had to do with what the Episcopal Church could do to support gay and lesbian rights in Uganda.)

While it’s an consequence of outdated, colonialist models of proselytizing that the Episcopal/Anglican church has presences in every corner of the globe, I’m wondering if it makes sense to think about church networks (in which I include mosques, synagogues, temples and any transnational religious institutions) as “latent networks” where the possibility of presumption of trust is higher because of a common identity and practice.

Which is to say, if we’re interested in building online relationships that cross borders of nation, language and religion, maybe the first step is to look closely at the networks that are already crossing these borders. And that an organization like the Episcopal church, which Sarah helpfully points out, does have (ritualized) weekly meetings to talk about social justice, might provide some of the infrastructure for online volunteering or other forms of VPV social change.

I realize that this is an open invitation for readers to respond with an emphatic “duh!” and perhaps the observation that American academics would benefit from spending more time in the religious institutions of their choice. Fair enough.

There’s a blind spot many development professionals have as well about faith based organizations. Eight years ago, I was in Dakar, Senegal with a colleague from USAID, working on a White House initiative. We’d had a very long week of meetings, and were chilling out on a Friday night before he returned to DC and me to Boston, eating at a beach restaurant. We were the only non-locals in the place, until a group of 40 Americans (the southern accents made it pretty obvious) walked in, led by a man whose deep tan and locally made shirt suggested that he wasn’t an interloper.

We held off our curiosity for about three minutes, then broke down and introduced ourselves. The group was a set of nurses organized by a Baptist church in South Carolina, and they’d been working in the south of the country, led by a missionary who’d been living in Senegal for a decade. Hearing that we were working with USAID, he explained the literacy program he and friends in his village had developed over the past years. It involved printing stories in French and Wolof on large sheets of paper, which were sold to market women to wrap loaves of bread. Kids were encouraged to collect the sheets, which could be redeemed, a hundred at a time, for small prizes. And a local radio broadcast led them through the stories – some of which, yes, were bible stories – teaching the children to read aloud. As we left the restaurant, my colleague observed that the literacy plan we’d heard about beat the crap out of most he’d been pitched at USAID, and wondered whether there was a way to match new USAID program officers with people with deep community knowledge… including missionaries who’d lived and worked in communities for years.

I don’t mean to trivialize the ways in which evangelism can be deeply disrespectful of local cultures. The people our friend in Senegal was preaching to were almost certainly Muslim, as most Senegalese are, and I’m uncomfortable with the fact that his literacy program is, on some level, designed to draw people from one faith to another. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize that much of the contact between people from different nations comes through religious institutions. As someone who cares about building understanding, relationships and communication between people, it seems like a blind spot – my blind spot – that I’m not paying much attention to these networks.

This post originally appeared on Ethan's excellent blog My heart's in Accra.

Image courtesy of Flickr photographer Olastuen under a Creative Commons License.

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