19 November 2015

Do not use your newfound knowledge of the world to shame those who stand with France.

On Monday, I spoke to a good friend who grew up in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Like me, she has worked in international humanitarianism throughout the world. On the night of November 13th, she also joined me in the set of people who have been personally touched by a tragedy that the mass media deemed of international proportions. In my case, the tragedy was the Virginia Tech Massacre of 2007, in which I lost a few friends and knew several others who were killed. In the algorithmic world of social media, both of us had seemingly whittled down our Facebook news feeds to those with whom we more or less agree on major social issues. Strangely, a sad phenomenon crept up in both of our feeds following the attacks in Paris – some people thought it was appropriate and necessary to shame those who mourned for Paris with articles, images and status updates about other, less heard tragedies.

Being in a field that is often defined by massive and heartbreaking losses of life, I had a visceral reaction to the sudden outpouring of “care” for other international tragedies. At least in part, this is because of the hypocritical superficiality of this so-called alternative narrative. The fact that so many people posted in an effort to “call out privilege” or to “put mourning for Paris in check” made me sick.

Is there privilege inherent to an American posting a picture of their vacation to Paris to show solidarity with France? Yes, absolutely. Is there a media bias that favors coverage of 130+ people dying in Paris over Beirut or Kenya or Burundi or Somalia or another economically developing country with people of color? Of course. But this is neither the place nor time to use these as weapons to demonize those who are trying to find an outlet for their pain, to stand with their French friends or to simply support a foreign country.

Privilege comes in all forms and, in fact, social media is largely designed to showcase that privilege. When my straight friends post pictures of their anniversary and talk about how they married their high school sweetheart, they are mired in privilege, because as a gay woman, I never had the luxury of dating someone I was attracted to when I was that young. When I post a status update about my upcoming work trip to Africa, that is mired in privilege, because I had the economic means to study and make a career out of what I love doing. As someone who has devoted considerable time and energy to correcting those imbalances, as my colleagues distribute food in war-torn countries, or set up a new public health system, or as local activists empower their own people to speak freely for the first time, we know there is a way, a time and a place to call out privilege. We also know that if a person chooses to acknowledge the pain and suffering of an event that that does not mean this person does not care about others.

Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world. It is one of the most socioeconomically diverse cities in the world. It is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Paris is a city that has offered a lot of people a piece of itself, and for this reason, an attack on Paris is something that resonates globally. Yes, there are vicious and heinous attacks on many parts of the world. The media needs to do a better job of covering these issues, but people need to do a better job of caring. This means not just passively caring or caring when it’s in vogue. This means caring in a way that is productive, helpful and acknowledges that one person’s fight may not be same for the next person.

The semester of the Virginia Tech Massacre, the people I knew best that died worked tirelessly with me to help raise campus awareness of what was happening Darfur, Sudan. After the Massacre happened, the support online, through the phone and in-person was such a valuable lifeline when I most needed the help. That support told me it was okay to break down crying in the street, or question why such amazing people were killed or that the events would forever alter who I am. Our capacity to love and support is not limited; my capacity to care about Darfur and mourn for my friends was not mutually exclusive. Our capacity to mourn Paris and Beirut and Somalia and Burundi and the other tragedies of the world in a healthy, pro-active way is not limited.

Do not use your newfound knowledge of the world to shame those who stand with France.

24 April 2015

LGBTQI in the context of ICT4D

Note: This summary is also available on the Technology Salon website and Linda Raftree's blog.

Click here to download the Word or PDF version.

By: Mala Kumar and Linda Raftree

Our April 21st NYC Technology Salon focused on issues related to the LGBT ICT4D community, including how LGBTQI issues are addressed in the context of stakeholders and ICT4D staff. We examined specific concerns that ICT4D practitioners who identify as LGBTQI have, as well as how LGBTQI stakeholders are (or are not) incorporated into ICT4D projects, programs and policies. Among the many issues covered in the Salon, the role of the Internet and mobile devices for both community building and surveillance/security concerns played a central part in much of the discussion.

To frame the discussion, participants were asked to think about how LGBTQI issues within ICT4D (and more broadly, development) are akin to gender. Mainstreaming gender in development starts with how organizations treat their own staff. Implementing programs, projects and policies with a focus on gender cannot happen if the implementers do not first understand how to treat staff, colleagues and those closest to them (i.e. family, friends). Likewise, without a proper understanding of LGBTQI colleagues and staff, programs that address LGBTQI stakeholders will be ineffective.

The lead discussants of the Salon were Mala Kumar, writer and former UN ICT4D staff, Tania Lee, current IRC ICT4D Program Officer, and Robert Valadéz, current UN ICT4D staff. Linda Raftree moderated the discussion.

Unpacking LGBTQI

The first discussant pointed out how we as ICT4D/development practitioners think of the acronym LGBTQI, particularly the T and I – transgender and intersex. Often, development work focuses on the sexual identity portion of the acronym (the LGBQ), and not what is considered in Western countries as transgenderism.

As one participant said, the very label of “transgender” is hard to convey in many countries where “third gender” and “two-spirit gender” exist. These disagreements in terminology have – in Bangladesh and Nepal for example – resulted in creating conflict and division of interest within LGBTQI communities. In other countries, such as Thailand and parts of the Middle East, “transgenderism” can be considered more “normal” or societally acceptable than homosexuality. Across Africa, Latin America, North America and Europe, homosexuality is a better understood – albeit sometimes severely criminalized and socially rejected – concept than transgenderism.

One participant cited that in her previous first-hand work on services for lesbian, gay and bisexual people; often in North America, transgender communities are prioritized less in LGBTQI services. In many cases she saw in San Francisco, homeless youth would identify as anything in order to gain access to needed services. Only after the services were provided did the beneficiaries realize the consequences of self-reporting or incorrectly self-reporting.

Security concerns within Unpacking LGBTQI

For many people, the very notion of self-identifying as LGBTQI poses severe security risks. From a data collection standpoint, this results in large problems in accurate representation of populations. It also results in privacy concerns. As one discussant mentioned, development and ICT4D teams often do not have the technical capacity (i.e. statisticians, software engineers) to properly anonymize data and/or keep data on servers safe from hackers. On the other hand, the biggest threat to security may just be “your dad finding your phone and reading a text message,” as one person noted.

Being an LGBTQI staff in ICT4D

Our second lead discussant spoke about being (and being perceived as) an LGBTQI staff member in ICT4D. She noted that many of the ICT4D hubs, labs, centers, etc. are in countries that are notoriously homophobic. Examples include Uganda (Kampala), Kenya (Nairobi), Nigeria (Abuja, Lagos), Kosovo and Ethiopia (Addis). This puts people who are interested in technology for development and are queer at a distinct disadvantage.

Some of the challenges she highlighted include that ICT4D attracts colleagues from around the world who are the most likely to be adept at computers and Internet usage, and therefore more likely to seek out and find information about other staff/colleagues online. If those who are searching are homophobic, finding "evidence" against colleagues can be both easy and easy to disseminate. Along those lines, ICT4D practitioners are encouraged (and sometimes necessitated) to blog, use social media, and keep an online presence. In fact, many people in ICT4D find posts and contracts this way. However, keeping online professional and personal presences completely separate is incredibly challenging. Since ICT4D practitioners are working with colleagues most likely to actually find colleagues online, queer ICT4D practitioners are presented with a unique dilemma.

ICT4D practitioners are arguably the set of people within development that are the best fitted to utilize technology and programmatic knowledge to self-advocate as LGBT staff and for LGBT stakeholder inclusion. However, how are queer ICT4D staff supposed to balance safety concerns and professional advancement limitations when dealing with homophobic staff? This issue is further compounded (especially in the UN, as one participant noted) by being awarded the commonly used project-based contracts, which give staff little to no job security, bargaining power or general protection when working overseas.

Security concerns within being an LGBTQI staff in ICT4D

A participant who works in North America for a Kenyan-based company said that none of her colleagues ever mentioned her orientation, even though they must have found her publicly viewable blog on gender and she is not able to easily disguise her orientation. She talked about always finding and connecting to the local queer community wherever she goes, often through the Internet, and tries to support local organizations working on LGBT issues. Still, she and several other participants and discussants emphasized their need to segment online personal and professional lives to remain safe.

Another participant mentioned his time working in Ethiopia. The staff from the center he worked with made openly hostile remarks about gays, which reinforced his need to stay closeted. He noticed that the ICT staff of the organization made a concerted effort to research people online, and that Facebook made it difficult, if not impossible, to keep personal and private lives separate.

Another person reiterated this point by saying that as a gay Latino man, and the first person in his family to go to university, grad school and work in a professional job, he is a role model to many people in his community. He wants to offer guidance and support, and used to do so with a public online presence. However, at his current internationally-focused job he feels the need to self-censor and has effectively limited talking about his public online presence, because he often interacts with high level officials who are hostile towards the LGBTQI community.

One discussant also echoed this idea, saying that she is becoming a voice for the queer South Asian community, which is important because much of LGBT media is very white. The tradeoff for becoming this voice is compromising her career in the field because she cannot accept a lot of posts because they do not offer adequate support and security.


Several participants and discussants offered their own experiences on the various levels of hostility and danger involved with even being suspected as gay. One (female) participant began a relationship with a woman while working in a very conservative country, and recalled being terrified at being killed over the relationship. Local colleagues began to suspect, and eventually physically intervened by showing up at her house. This participant cited her “light skinned privilege” as one reason that she did not suffer serious consequences from her actions.

Another participant recounted his time with the US Peace Corps. After a year, he started coming out and dating people in host country. When one relationship went awry and he was turned into the police for being gay, nothing came of the charges. Meanwhile, he saw local gay men being thrown into – and sometimes dying in – jail for the same charges. He and some other participants noted their relative privilege in these situations because they are white. This participant said he felt that as a white male, he felt a sense of invincibility.

In contrast, a participant from an African country described his experience growing up and using ICTs as an escape because any physical indication he was gay would have landed him in jail, or worse. He had to learn how to change his mannerisms to be more masculine, had to learn how to disengage from social situations in real life, and live in the shadows.

One of the discussants echoed these concerns, saying that as a queer woman of color, everything is compounded. She was recruited for a position at a UN Agency in Kenya, but turned the post down because of the hostility towards gays and lesbians there. However, she noted that some queer people she has met – all white men from the States or Europe – have had overall positive experiences being gay with the UN.

Perceived as predators

One person brought up the “predator” stereotype often associated with gay men. For this reason, he and his partner have had to turn down media opportunities where they could have served as role models for the gay community, especially poor, gay queer men of color, who are one of the most difficult socioeconomic classes to reach.

Monitoring and baiting by the government

One participant who grew up in Cameroon mentioned that queer communities in his country use the Internet cautiously, even though it’s the best resource to find other queer people. The reason for the caution is that government officials have been known to pose as queer people to bait real users for illegal gay activity.

Several other participants cited this same phenomenon in different forms. A recent article talked about Egypt using new online surveillance tactics to find LGBTQI people. Some believe that this type of surveillance will also happen in Nigeria, a notoriously hostile country towards LGBTQI persons and other places.

There was also discussion about what IP or technology is the safest for LGBTQI people. While the Internet can be monitored and traced back to a specific user, being able to connect from multiple access points and with varying levels of security creates a sense of anonymity that phones cannot provide. A person also generally carries phones, so if the government intercepts a message on either the originating or receiving device, implications of existing messages are immediate unless a user can convince the government the device was stolen or used by someone else. In contrast, phones are more easily disposable and in several countries do not require registration (or a registered SIM card) to a specific person.

In Ethiopia, the government has control over the phone networks and can in theory monitor these messages for LGBTQI activity. This poses a particular threat since there is already legal precedent for convictions of illegal activity based on text messages. In some countries, major telecom carriers are owned by a national government. In others, major telecom carries are national subsidiaries of an international company.

Another major concern raised relates back to privacy. Many major international development organizations do not have the capacity or ability to retain necessary software engineers, ICT architects and system operators, statisticians and other technology people to properly prevent Internet hacks and surveillance. In some cases, this work is illegal by national government policy, and thus also requires legal advocacy. The mere collection of data and information can therefore pose a security threat to staff and stakeholders – LGBTQI and allies, alike.

The “queer divide”

One discussant asked the group for data or anecdotal information related to the “queer divide.” A commonly understood problem in ICT4D work are divides – between genders, urban and rural, rich and poor, socially accepted and socially marginalized. There have also been studies to clearly demonstrate that people who are naturally extroverted and not shy benefit more from any given program or project. As such, is there any data to support a “queer divide” between those who are LGBTQI and those who are not, he wondered. As demonstrated in the above sections, many queer people are forced to disengage socially and retreat from “normal” society to stay safe.

Success Stories, key organizations and resources

Participants mentioned organizations and examples of more progressive policies for LGBTQI staff and stakeholders (this list is not comprehensive, nor does it suggest these organizations’ policies are foolproof), including:
We also compiled a list of resources on the topic here.

What can we do moving forward?
  • Engage relevant organizations, such as Out in Tech and Lesbians who Tech, with specific solutions, such as coding privacy protocols for online communities and helping grassroots organizations target ads to relevant stakeholders.
  • Lobby smartphone manufacturers to increase privacy protections on mobile devices.
  • Lobby US and other national governments to introduce “Right to be forgotten” law, which allows Internet users to wipe all records of themselves and personal activity.
  • Support organizations and services that offer legal council to those in need.
  • Demand better and more comprehensive protection for LGBTQI staff, consultants and interns in international organizations.
Key questions to work on...
  • In some countries, an African government owns telecom companies. In others, telecom companies are national subsidiaries of international corporations. In countries in which the government is actively or planning on actively surveying networks for LGBTQI activity, how does the type of telecom company factor in?
  • What datasets do we need on LGBTQI people for better programming?
  • How do we properly anonymize data collected? What are the standards of best practices?
  • What policies need to be in place to better protect LGBTQI staff, consultants and interns? What kind of sensitizing activities, trainings and programming need to be done for local staff and less LGBTQI sensitive international staff in ICT4D organizations?
  • How much capacity have ICT4D/international organizations lost as a result of their policies for LGBTQI staff and stakeholders?
  • What are the roles and obligations of ICT4D/international organizations to their LGBTQI staff, now and in the future?
  • What are the ICT4D and international development programmatic links with LGBT stakeholders and staff? How does LGBT stakeholders intersect with water? Public health? Nutrition? Food security? Governance and transparency? Human rights? Humanitarian crises? How does LGBT staff intersect with capacity? Trainings? Programming?
  • How do we safely and responsibility increase visibility of LGBTQI people around the world?
  • How do we engage tech companies that are pro-LGBTQI, including Google, to do more for those who cannot or do not engage with their services?
  • What are the economic costs of homophobia, and does this provide a compelling enough case for countries to stop systemic LGBTQI-phobic behavior?
  • How do we mainstream LGBTQI issues in bigger development conferences and discussions?
Thanks to the great folks at ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing a lovely breakfast to us! Technology Salons are carried out under Chatham House Rule, so no attribution has been made. If you'd like to join us for Technology Salons in future, sign up here!

02 February 2015

Transforming the Basics through Technology

“A weak ICT ecosystem,” I replied.
“ICT Ecosystem? What does that mean?” said a man across the room.

I took an extra second to gather my thoughts before deciding how to respond. A few moments prior, this man had asked the goliath of all questions,

“What do you think is the greatest challenge to implementing Project Kiramama?”

Simply speaking, I find the biggest challenge to Project Kiramama – a RapidPRO (SMS-based) project designed to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates in a province of the central African nation of Burundi – to be a weak ICT ecosystem throughout the country.

As a New Yorker, when I have a question I look up the answer on Google. If I want to try to a new restaurant, I have three mobile apps to consult. If I need to communicate with someone, I can phone them on their mobile, email them, send them an SMS/iMessage or find them on an upwards of ten different social media platforms.

With low mobile penetration rates, a very low electrification rate, and extreme poverty throughout the country, this same mode of thinking, of turning to technology for a solution is not pervasive in Burundi. This lack of thinking has both yielded and is the result of a weak ICT ecosystem of software developers, computer programmers, graphic artists, even basic Internet users in the country. So how then does one implement a technology-based project when the common user does not intuitively know how to use technology to solve their problem?

The answer is: by demonstration.

A few months ago, I did a field visit to a health center that will be directly part of Project Kiramama. As with most health centers in the province, supplies, electricity and personnel are lacking, though the willingness to learn new techniques is strong.

After answering a series of questions, the head of the health center showed me around the different rooms. In the corner, a drawing one of his staff had done caught my eye.

It was a simple flowchart to help health workers determine the correct diagnosis for respiratory problems in patients. He was perplexed I found the drawing so fascinating; little did he realize that I had just found a very simple solution to a very large problem. I whipped out my phone and showed the head of the health center a picture generated from RapidPRO.

I explained to him that we also create flowcharts to help health workers diagnose patients. The only difference is that we use SMS’s to guide health workers through the flowcharts and computers to automate the process and store the data.

As we continued on the tour of the health center, I pointed out other examples in which Project Kiramama uses computers to better existing processes. For instance, converting paper records to electronic spreadsheets and databases:

And turning maps into something interactive and easy to modify:

As I continued to show him specific examples of how phones and computers could better the day-to-day and emergency operations of the health center, I slowly saw a look of recognition take root in his face. Though he had personally never seen such a computer-based system at work, a verbal explanation of how a computer could transform what he already had in place piqued his interest. By the end of the visit, I knew I had a technology-based solutions believer before my eyes.

Of course, to do this same set of demonstrations in every health center that will be part of Project Kiramama is not possible without a massive team. Alas, ideas are not finite, and I knew as I left the health center that this new believer would soon spread his newfound knowledge to other team members in the health center. This one believer could soon turn into two, which turns into four, and so on. To overcome a weak ICT ecosystem in the country, Project Kiramama will need to create a chain reaction of knowledge.

Project Kiramama is just one of many solutions to lowering rates of maternal and infant mortality in Burundi. Working with other initiatives, Project Kiramama will help health workers better diagnose patients, better use and dispatch existing equipment, and better determine what is needed where, when and why. Through continual support and real-life examples, projects like Kiramam work alongside health workers of Burundi to introduce health workers to a new approach. Projects like Kiramama help introduce a new way of thinking.