Staff articles

A recently published special issue of a major international communication journal features research from ComDev staff and partners. communication_theory
The Communication Theory special issue on Advocacy and Communication for Social Change features co-authored research by ComDev’s program coordinator Tobias Denskus as well as contributions by previous ComDev guest lecturers, including co-editor Karin Wilkins.
She writes in her introduction to the special issue:

These articles resonate with our call for theorizing the context of social change.
Conceptualizing social change intervention as an inherently political strategy means reflecting on our own academic work as well as program implementation and assessment.
The politics of promotion and funding structure the choices scholars make, as does the risk of legal action. One of the key concerns with contemporary development practice is an emerging privatization of this field designed to promote the public good: The trend toward privatization in global development serves neoliberal agendas of transnational elites in ways that limit the possibilities for effective and moral strategies.
But it would be a mistake to single out development as an industry without also recognizing how privatization may also be attempting to restrict academic discourse.

The special issues covers a broad range of case study and approaches, including contributions by Stuart Davis on Citizens’ media in the favelas, Mohan Dutta on Decolonizing communication for change, Rico Lie & Jan Servaes on Disciplines in the Field of Communication for Development and Social Change, James Pamment on Development communication and Public Diplomacy, Rachel Stohr on transnational feminism and women’s environment and development organizations and Silvio Waisbord on Three Challenges for Communication and Global Social Change.

The special issue also features an article by Tobias Denskus and Daniel Esser (American University) on TED Talks on International Development: Trans-Hegemonic Promise and Ritualistic Constraints which is probably the first research article that specifically analyzes TED talks on international development topics.

They conclude in their article that

TED talks (…) remain focused on dissemination, not activism; they spread ideas, disconnected with social change. While we must not discard the possibility that their audiences contain members who eventually leverage insights gained from either participating or watching these talks for social change, TED talks themselves do not possess this catalytic function as did, for instance, Twitter in the context of the Arab revolution. Linking new media such as TED talks to communication theories helps us put claims about supposedly ground-breaking potential of these media for social change into historical and critical perspective. Our findings indicate that structural issues undergirding current media discourses, from power to mediatization and ritual dynamics, are equally present in emergent forms of digital media.

If you do not have access to Communication Theory and require an article for your research or teaching you should contact ComDev or leave a comment and we will try to work out access issues.

90531-4_Hansen.inddLast week ComDev’s Oscar Hemer and Anders Hög-Hansen launched a new anthology, Memory on Trial, a collection based on papers presented at the 2013 Örecomm festival:

This book approaches the memory sharing of groups, communities and societies as inevitable struggles over the interpretation of, and authority over, particular stories. Coming to terms with the past in memory work, alone or with others, is always unsteady ground and the activation of memory will always relay imaginations of futures we want to shape and inhabit. The contributors all explore in different ways how citizens can actualize a public and how citizens and groups struggle with their pasts and presents – and other group’s understandings – in their work for futures they dream of, or envision. This implies an engagement with the notion of social justice, which in turn entails trial and revision of ideas and procedures of how to share the world. But to share also requires some kind of common ground and distributed power. The anthology thus engages with a range of cases that bring views and voices back in public, demanding justice, recognition, sometimes literally triggering new trials. Some of the memory work is done strategically, in the context of communication for development and social change interventions where NGOs, community-based organizations, governments or UN agencies pursue not just voice and views, but also very material demands for social justice and social change.

Social justice: A central notion of all contributions
photo 3The potentiality of citizen engagement around social justice is of importance in societal debates concerning what, how and for whom we remember, not least in transitional processes of attempted healing and reconciliation after incidents of massacres or mass-violence. Such traumatic events are most often concealed, and witnesses silenced or ignored, either to preserve impunity for the perpetrators, or for the sake of “moving on.” Yet telling the story in all its horrific detail may be a prerequisite for true reconciliation. Whether formally, through truth commissions and memorials, or informally, through grassroots initiatives or artistic interventions, memories of collective trauma need to be constructed and maintained, in order for a society to acknowledge and possibly come to terms with appalling and shameful parts of its history.

photo 10Living memory as a way to move forward
The story of how the people of Asaba in Nigeria try to make their history heard is discussed in one of the chapters of this book, which contains theoretical as well as case-study contributions. The common denominator for these theoretical and empirical explorations is to demonstrate how ‘living memory’ work can be crucial for citizens to move forward as plural collectives (or counter collectives) and create or revitalize publics that engage in social justice debates and change processes.

Malmö Folkets park and public memory
In relation to the Living Archives project, the final chapter explores a recent attempt to archive, and make publicly visible on the Internet, a productive historical era of popular folk-song writing in the city of Malmö. While introducing a local cultural association’s now over 500 song lyrics archive (Project Malmö Folk Song), the chapter concentrates on an analysis of a selection of songs from the archive and their portrayal of one of the oldest public parks in the world, Folkets Park (People’s Park) in Malmö. It questions how the park is represented aphoto 9s a place for different forms of public memory and citizen activity, socially and politically. The chapter also engages with the project’s various means of preserving and revitalizing a musical heritage as a ‘living archive’.

Memory on Trial: Media, Citizenship and Social Justice. Edited by Anders Høg Hansen, Oscar Hemer, and Thomas Tufte. Published by Lit Verlag, 2015.

This post uses material from an earlier Living Archives post with the permission of the author.

As the ComDev autumn term was coming to an end, I had a discussion with a student about development work, career paths and the changing organizational landscape of the global aid industry. But it was actually on my bike ride home that I started to think more about my encounters with one particular, and often criticized, type of them: Large, traditional, bureaucratic organizations. I am talking UN system and international organizations, well-known INGOs or traditional bilateral donor agencies and national ministries. I have encountered them for almost twenty years. As early as a pre-university internship, throughout my research and professional work in the past 10-14 years and, even though it is not a development organization per se, through my academic employment at a Swedish university with more than 1,600 staff members. In the current climate of ‘Do-It-Yourself aid’, (social) entrepreneurial discourses, a start-up- and ‘maker’-culture, new philanthropic endeavors and something-or-other featuring ‘disruption’ it is easy to smirk at those dinosaurs, their bureaucratic procedures and organizational cultures that still block access to facebook and require approval by 2 managers to post a Tweet.
But when I thought about it further I came to realize that there are actually a few important aspects that those large organizations can teach us and that are worth experiencing first hand at some point in your career. Hence, I am arguing that as tempting as ‘field experience’ sounds for the next summer internship, or as enjoyable as your freelance career is at the moment it is worth engaging with one of the large tankers of the industry before dissing the white Land Cruiser culture, non-digital expense forms and global meetings where strategy documents are discussed by the sentence.

1. Large organizations can teach you valuable people skills
I do not mean skills like ‘sucking up to the boss’ or ‘circumventing protocol to finally get some work done around here’-only a few Michael Scotts (from The (U.S.) Office) work in large aid organizations. I mean genuine skills and skills that most of us would consider quite relevant for development: Empathy, listening skills, participatory approaches or working with sometimes stubborn bureaucrats. Our work and writing focuses a lot on ‘the action’, the field and helping others and administration is reduced to ‘overheads’ that any small organization wants to keep to a minimum because 99 cent of every dollar are supposed to go to program work…in reality, many days in the office are filled with small encounters where you can learn and apply good development skills, learn about compromise, persistence and power. That is why you chose to work in development and not in finance and that is why some colleagues put their family/children (or sometimes pets) before work. Learning to be a good citizen in this environment is actually not much different from being one in a refugee camp in Darfur or running a workshop in rural India.

2. Large organizations are more self-critical than you think
…they just don’t like to talk about it in public.

As development work has been absorbed by trade and foreign affairs departments in Australia, Canada or Denmark and US leadership at the World Bank is debated more openly than ever, large development organizations are aware that they operate in a changing global political environment. And it is a paradoxical environment-one that still believes that France and the UK are world powers in the sense of ‘permanent members of the UN Security Council’ and one that sees ‘development’ as a waste of resources in a globalized world where consumer capitalism is supposed to lift more people out of ‘poverty’ than any development program. Organizations change slowly-as does most of the rest of the world outside the innovation hubs in San Francisco, New York or Nairobi.
On an individual level, in many smaller teams and innovative country offices (see below) such changes are discussed, of course. As with most work places and organizational environments in the 21st century, the number of ‘lazy’ people who went into ‘internal emigration’ (I love the German ‘innere Emigration’) when Ronald Reagan was elected is shrinking; most global civil servants and bureaucrats are aware that their job may not disappear, but that their professional lives may become more uncomfortable if they do not put in a minimum amount of communication and ‘PR’. I believe that we will see more of these deliberations and debates in semi-public arenas in the future as large organizations become more transparent and approachable.

3. Large organizations have smaller filter bubbles
I am sure some will disagree. And yes, there are still broad mission statements in place and ‘corporate communication’ people who push a unified, sometimes apolitical message (see above) to the ‘members of the public’ and other stakeholders. But large organizations have eyes and ears in many places (which sounds a bit creepy in the our age of surveillance…) and they do have some diversity-staff affiliated to a previous government or leadership team and in international organizations diversity in backgrounds, nationality etc. This is a different culture from the Invisible Children approach to development or more generally when a small organization or company feels compelled to reinvent the wheel-often with a charismatic leader at the top who thinks that good intentions and a good idea are enough.
In the end, every organization has filter bubbles, but large organizations have at least more than one-they need to be attuned to the political machinery in the capital city/cities, but they also need to keep an eye on ‘the taxpayer’ or developments on the ground. As with my previous point, I hope that large organizations will become more transparent and willing to pinch some of these bubbles. The recent Save The Children discussion is an interesting example where global staff protested against the award for Tony Blair and ‘corporate communication’ pushed for a unified message.

4. Large organizations treat development as a ‘job’
Why is the colleague from HR never at her/his desk after 4.15p.m and why do travel reimbursements seem to take forever? Maybe these are actually signs of a healthy organization. Development is an industry, we often discuss health and well-being of aid workers and on numerous occasions we are reminded that humanitarian and aid work is for professionals, not a hobby for do-gooders. Large organizations often offer a work-live balance, benefits and the good feeling that if your project comes to an end in 6 months time you will probably be assigned to a new one without re-applying and re-locating.
In that sense large organizations are reminders of the long-term, complex nature of ‘development’. As I wrote in my first point, large organizations are often reminders of our values that are supposed to drive the sector-and that includes a colleague working from home looking after a sick child and emails not answered on Saturdays. Such an environment may not work for everybody for an entire career-but it’s worth experiencing it to make more informed decisions how and where you want to be placed in the industry.

5. Large organizations innovate and preserve at the same time
I already drafted one of my next book reviews, Martin Barber’s Blinded By Humanity. I do not want to go into detail here, but among other things the book is an important reminder how the UN system has worked on standards, treaties, binding documents and coordination of humanitarian affairs-and yes, this actually sounds a bit boring. But it is a reminder that this is part of what large organizations do-and it is not just ‘paper pushing’ for the sake or creating a new coordination secretariat. New research on ‘organizational progeny’ in international politics also shows the role and power of international organizations and senior staff to shape global governance in both innovative and preservative ways. We are not talking about development saints here, but skilled professionals who make sure that innovation does not automatically turn into disruption and that preservation is not necessarily just to cement the status quo.
Luckily, there is no Uber for humanitarian law or the coordination of millions worth of aid (and some critics will probably say that there should be one…).
Large organization have some historical and long-term memory and many wheels have already been invented in development so careful innovation probably trumps quick disruption in many areas.

So what’s the ‘tl:dr summary’ of this post?
Look beyond bureaucratic stereotypes when engaging with large development organizations; these organizations can offer a lot of insights into the development system, are often better at ‘practicing what they preach’ and can teach you skills and views that are still essential in a ‘digital’ world; do join one at some point in your life and career!

ComDev in Stellenbosch

by Rebecca Bengtsson April 4, 2014 ComDev

Last week ComDev visited South Africa and Stellenbosch University as part of the Glocal Classroom project. ComDev’s Tobias Denskus shares some personal post-conference reflections that focus on three particular issues: First, the admin-teacher gap in the ICT and education discourses, second, the powerful presence of multinational companies and third, challenges of designing a digital learning infrastructure beyond university-wide […]

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New report: Life in Movement: Your Story Belongs to the Story of the City

by Rebecca Bengtsson January 9, 2014 Comdev News

On December 2 2013, more than 60 women gathered to share life stories and discuss experiences of being an immigrant woman in Malmö. All part of the project One Hundred Years With Immigrant Women In Malmö, run by Malmö museum and the network Feminist Dialog in cooperation with ABF and researchers,  including ComDev staff member Anders […]

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Book launch: Popular Representations of Development – in London on 13 January

by Rebecca Bengtsson January 7, 2014 Comdev News

ComDev staff member Tobias Denskus will be participating in the official book launch of Popular Representations of Development – Insights from Novels, Films, Television and Social Media on 13 January 2014. Tobias has written a chapter in the book together with Daniel E. Esser titled Blogs + Twitter = Change? Discursive Reproduction of Global Governance […]

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The Glocal Times/Nordicom Review special issue “Communication, media and development: problems and perspectives” available now!

by Hugo Boothby October 3, 2012 Comdev News

You can access the Glocal Times/Nordicom Review special issue online at Glocal Times and Nordicom Review. This journal is also available in a printed journal format published this month. This publication is the result of a collaboration between Glocal Times, the ComDev web-magazine and Nordicom Review, the refereed media and communication academic journal published by […]

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Two new books by Oscar Hemer

by Jake Hunter March 28, 2012 Comdev News

Comdev professor  Oscar Hemer is one of the contributors to the anthology Africa Inside Out – Stories, Tales and Testimonies (UKZN Press), which was launched last week at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban. The book, edited by South African writer and critic Michael Chapman, is the result of a call sent out […]

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New Book – The 1960s, Dylan, music and social change?

by Jake Hunter March 2, 2012 Comdev News

Bob Dylan 1961-1967. Kærlighed, krig og historie [in Danish], by Anders Høg Hansen (lecturer at ComDevat Malmö University and Ørecomm participant) explores early 1960s artistic, cultural and social change in the USA and the Western World through the lens of Bob Dylan songs and the musical and social context they appeared in. The book pays […]

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A Reading Room of the Civil Rights Movement

by February 8, 2012 Staff articles

An essay by Anders Høg Hansen The brand new documentary by Göran Hugo Olsson ‘The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975’ includes intriguing footage and interviews with intellectuals and artists involved in American Black Power and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, with an emphasis on Black Panthers. Footage hidden for decades in the Swedish […]

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