The Practical Radical

Whose Tweet Counts Anyways? A response to Malcolm Gladwell.

September 30, 2010
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Recently the twitter/facebooker/bloggers sphere has all been a-twitter about Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame’s slam of social media as a tool for advocacy. Seems Gladwell does not believe that social media creates very strong “links”, which especially effects those who would wish to use twitter as an advocacy tool. He states that the twitter revolutions that happened in Moldova or Iran were overstated; siting the fact that there are very few twitter users in these countries.He gives some detailed overviews of how REAL advocacy happens in the form of recounting key events in the civil rights movement.

I agree with him on some counts – technological advances in my mind are always overhyped – and there is nothing more hyped than facbook and twitter. Yet, I think that his analysis is flawed in one way -it is written almost solely from a developed world perspective. Yes, we in the developed world might be spoilt with our ubiquitous bandwidth, but it is not in the developed world that social media is having the biggest impact. It is the developing world, those places where millions upon millions of people are queuing to buy mobile phones, getting on the internet and social media, and using those phones for all there worth. I have written a few posts on the impact of mobile technologies which you can link to here.

So I have posted my response on the Social Capital blog (a great blog by the way). Here is a brief on the blog and my response to it.

Why the revolution won’t be tweeted

Posted on September 29, 2010 by socialcapital| Leave a comment
Twitter Revolution – Flickr Photo by FrauleinSchiller

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting column in the October 4, 2010 New Yorker called “Small Change.”

Gladwell asserts that claims of Twitter’s role in various uprisings in developing countries (like Moldova or Iran) have been exaggerated.  He cited Evgeny Morozov, a Stanford-based scholar who notes that “Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist.” And he cites Anne Applebaum who suggested in the Washington Post that the protest “may well have been a bit of stage-craft cooked up by the government.”  Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy wrote in Summer 2010 about Iran: “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events of Iran right…Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

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Mobile Phones Improve Health Services in Africa

September 9, 2010
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Having worked with youth to establish One Stop Youth Centres in Kampala, Uganda, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Nairobi, Kenya, and Kigali, Rwanda, I have seen the power of mobile phones both to convene people as well as disseminate important information. What I find really exciting is to see how quickly and to what success mobile phones are being adopted in the health field, especially around the prevention of HIV/AIDS, an issue so important to youth in this region.

Here are four posts from the last 24 hours on mobile phones and health from the Urban Health blog of USAID:

  1. Mobile learning for HIV/AIDS healthcare in peri-urban clinics
  2. Mobile phone-based interventions India
  3. Mobile direct observation treatment for tuberculosis patients
  4. Uganda – Challenges in Using Mobile Phones for Data Collection

Guest Blog: What happened in South Africa shouldn’t just stay in South Africa

August 18, 2010
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The following is (my first!!) guest blog from two quite cool people – Kevina Power and Ron Harris (aka Os12). I will leave it at that and let them explain the rest …

Guest Blogger: Kevina Power

It was late fall 2005 when we left Kenya for South Africa to host 2 World Urban Cafes (WUCs); one during the 1st African Hip Hop Summit, and one during the monthly Black Sunday event in Soweto. As I write this lots of memories are flooding back… WUCs, Hip Hop, Friends, Soweto… it all feels like a dream, a damn good dream.

First let me explain some background; how did we end up in Kenya? South Africa?  To many other places far far away? Well, back then, when I was considering working with Doug on the World Urban Forum project of the Environmental Youth Alliance, I remember him trying to explain his vision to me… it was on a napkin I think, sitting in some cafeteria in downtown Vancouver. If you know Doug, you know he speaks from a place where he calls ‘the bleeding edge’ and indeed this World Urban Café plan of his was certainly that. You see, UN Habitat, the UN agency charged with ‘improving the lives of slum dwellers’ was going to host their 3rd Session of the World Urban Forum in our city, VanCity, the next year.

When Doug asked to meet with me, I thought it would be just another long lunch with Doug, talking about our lives, our city, our vision for the future. Little did I know that this lunch would change me forever. Jumping forward, about 8 months later, here I am, living in Nairobi, Kenya, a place I had not even knew existed a year before, working with UN Habitat and the Environmental Youth Alliance on the World Urban Forum, specifically implementing this WUC Concept in the lead up to the 2006 Conference in Vancouver.

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A lazy day in Istanbul

August 8, 2010
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Reflecting in a Funky café I

Istanbul, August 8, 2010

Lee-Anne and I were both lucky enough to get a few hours of wandering around Istanbul, Turkey before we began working on the conference we were invited to speak at. Though we were on about 4 hours sleep, we had a great, yet slow, time. Here are some photos.

Reflecting in a Funky Café II

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K’naan – The Dusty Foot Philosopher Steps up

July 5, 2010
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Most rappers would be considered a sell out if they let their song be used by Coke. Not K’naan.

“I have a lot of friends who are from either side, Mos Def and those guys who are in the conscious lane. I know other friends who are in the make-money lane. But for me, I see myself as someone who can speak to both audiences,” he said. “That to me is important, to never claim a position too smart for the listener. I think it’s important to reach everybody.” (read the complete CNN article Somali rapper bucks hip-hop code of violence). His interview with CNN as well demonstrates the basic humbleness of the guy.

I first got to know of K’naan when i was organizing the youth program for the World Urban Forum in 2006. What I learned was that he was both a principled artist and a pretty good businessman. He never did play at the WUF (unfortunate, as we had a great lineup and over 5000 people attending), but one of the EYAers organizing the WUF, Kevina Power, and a EYAer turned Hip Hop blogger/writer Tara Henley helped out on an amazing concert tour in Joburg and Soweto. (I don’t have many regrets in my life, but not attending this was one of them).

K'naan in Soweto, June 2005

I later was able to briefly connect with him at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (of all places) as part of my volunteer work on the media committee. Again, blown away by the guy and his amazing music and poetry.  This is a photo I took of him playing on the mainstage (with the mountains in background … surreal).

K'naan in Vancouver

What moved me about his Wavin Flag was the strong shout out (like my hip hop lingo?) to youth in Africa:

So we struggling, fighting to eat and
We wondering when we’ll be free
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day
It’s not far away, so for now we say

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag
And then it goes back, and then it goes back
And then it goes back

So many wars, settling scores
Bringing us promises, leaving us poor
I heard them say, love is the way
Love is the answer, that’s what they say,
But look how they treat us, make us believers
We fight their battles, then they deceive us
Try to control us, they couldn’t hold us
Cause we just move forward like Buffalo Soldiers

I love the in your face realism of his message – yes, we are proud; yes, we will move forward to a promised future; but damn the struggle is hard. Funny enough, this verse is not repeated in the official Coke song. I guess Coke isn’t THAT radical.

He has an earlier song (In the Beginning) that speaks to this message of the struggle – it is really beautiful and quite moving spoken word:

It’s better to light a candle than to curse the dark
In the eyes of the youth there are question marks
Like freedom
Freedom for the mind and soul
We don’t see them
See them for their worth at all
That’s why we lead them
Lead them to these wars and what is it we feed them
Feed them our impurities and who it is we treat them
Treat them like the enemy humanity will need them
Need them like the blood we spill and where freedom

Freedom for the hearts we fill
Mislead them
They hunger for the love we give
But we cheat them

The cops beat them when all he wants is his freedom
So they defeat them
Whatever spirit he’s got
Beat them

And they teach them that the rest of the world don’t need him
And he believes it’s a disease that he’s heathen
Put up your fists if all you want is freedom

You really have to listen to the song to get the full impact.

It is amazing to see that someone from such a background as his can hit it out of the park the way he has. Gives me some hope for the future.

ps. for those die-hards, here is Wavin Flag … one more time.


Digital Access for All: Broadband for the People … really

June 4, 2010
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When there is an increase in broadband speed in the North America, we can download more episodes of our favorite TV show (mine is 30 rock); when broadband speed increases in Africa, millions more people get online through mobile technologies.

Whole “development” leaps are being taken on the African continent – mind numbing and corrupt bureaucracy is in one click being overcome with government services going online; banking is being revolutionized with mobile “MPESA” banking;  “urban wilderness”, the unplanned settlements or slums, or being mapped for the first time. And I can go on – read my article on Bridging the Digital Divide.

Just saw this great article and video done by Declan McCormack on the impact of mobile phones and the internet in east Africa that i thought nails it in regards to what is going on. Enjoy.

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Pradical Blog: The Demographic Divide: Are Youth the Angels or the Demons of the New Millenium

May 10, 2010
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The Globe and Mail (Canada) ran a special edition on Africa which touched on the key issue of youth, but they missed the opportunity to put the issues into global context and look at next steps. Here is a bit more of an in-depth analysis.


In the 20th century it took decades for the international community to realize the value of women to the community – even though they were 50% of the population. We are in danger of this same thing happening with youth in the 21st century. Are youth angels, our hope for a new world, or are they demons who will rise up and bring our world crashing down?

Throughout history youth have been the leaders of revolutions and the fodder for generals. They are the victims of poverty and the engines of economy.

Africa is the youngest continent demographically. 70-80% of most African countries are under the age of 30. In developing regions as a whole, least developed countries are younger that the rest of the world and in 2005, the global median age was 28 years. In the 10 least-developed African countries it was 16 or younger.

Yet we need to look at the issues of Africa within the context of the larger demographic divide which exists globally.

In the North or developed world we have what can be characterized as the old geezers. The developed world population is rapidly aging, their productive (and reproductive!) capacity is slowing down, their needs are increasing. No longer can they depend on the entrepreneurialism of the boomer generations and its drive to conquer all, damn the consequences.

The South or developing world is youthful and in economic terms, in the prime of its life. Yet, they are living under deplorable, inhumane conditions and find the deck stacked against them, unable to fight their way out and up.

In the map below we can graphically see how the developing world, especially the African continent, is youthful. If we look behind the numbers we can also see an increasingly urban world, where it has been estimated that half of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, with almost all of this growth occurring in developing world cities and slums, and over 60% of those being under the age of 18.

So what does this all mean for the developed and developing world?

On the positive side, for much of the developing world this “youth bulge” could bring about, with the appropriate investment in education and training, an economic boom. According to the recent World Development Report 2007 the time has never been better to invest in young people living in developing countries … rich and poor countries alike need to seize this opportunity before the aging of societies closes it. Doing so will enable them to grow faster and reduce poverty even further. Education and training has been found to be the key determinant in youth having an equal opportunity to succeed (State of the Urban Youth Report). Clearly, many people believe, both in the ivory towers of international agencies and on the ground in developing countries, that there is hope.

Yet, there is clearly a darkside to this youthful demographic, stemming from the aforementioned inhuman conditions youth live within, and their inability to attain a proper livelihood. According to the ILO, of the 1.1 billion young people aged 15 to 24 worldwide, one out of three is either seeking but unable to find work, and has given up the job search entirely or is working but living on less than US$2 a day. Youth as well face a scourge of other issues: violence at a higher rate than the rest of the community, youth being both the victims and the perpetrators; HIV AIDs rates higher than the regular population; etc. Youth are more often perceived as a threat than anything positive. Think tanks such as the Brookings Institute are not welcoming the “youth bulge” as the chance for a new generation to advance their countries out of poverty and destitution, but  are more worried about this as bringing about the growth of terrorism. I have written about this challenge and possible solutions in papers I have delivered recently in the Middle East.

In regards to the developed world there is as well good and bad.

We can see the negative effects of an aging society with schools closing because of the lack of children and a growing drain on our social services because of an aging and needy population. Economically it is projected that due to our aging and unproductive society, by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s capital will be in the developing world, compared to just 7.7 percent today. Though it is well understood that we need to keep young people coming in to maintain a youthful and productive society, both policy nor society in general seems to understand this. Society’s response seems to be represented by either the growth of militia groups and  new anti-immigrant laws in the Southern US, or the continuing riots in the suburbs of Paris and other major European cities.

On the positive side there is a greater recognition of the dividend that diversity brings both socially and economically. There has been some excellent work done on this both by researchers and journalists.

In the end we need to look at solutions that recognize youth as assets to their community. Many international agencies are recognizing the benefit of engaging youth as leaders of today, not only tomorrow. The recently published World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series is a good place to start, but there are many more. If you know of any please post them in the comment section and I will put them up in a future blog.

World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series publications

  1. Youth Led Development in Sustainable Cities – From Idea, to Policy to Practice
  2. The Place Of Children – Poverty + Promise
  3. Youth In Urban Development – Bringing Ideas into Action
  4. One Stop Youth Resource Centres – Local Governments Response to Improving Youth Livelihood
  5. Space for Change

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