When actions DO speak louder than words

Winston Churchill once famously remarked that it was “better to be making the news than taking it. To be an actor rather than a critic”. But there are times when this simplifies, and trivialises, the complementary roles that ‘actors’ and ‘critics’ can play. Half-a-century on, modern technology has empowered ‘critics’ in ways Churchill could never have imagined.

In 1984 a BBC news crew, accompanied by reporter Michael Bourke, travelled to Ethiopia and brought news of a growing humanitarian crisis to the worlds’ attention. “A biblical famine in the 20th Century” and “The closest thing to hell on Earth” was how he described it. The international community were shocked into action, and the following summer saw Live Aid – Bob Geldof’s massive mobilisation of the music industry which helped raise hundreds of millions for the famine victims. Michael Bourke – ‘critic’ turned ‘actor’.

Today, modern-day blogging is creating mini-Michael Bourke’s the world over. Human rights violations, environmental vandalism, political killings, oppression against citizens, animal cruelty and unlawful detentions make the news from all corners of the globe, made possible by brave souls empowered by mobile and internet technologies. The line between ‘actor’ and ‘critic’ is becoming increasingly blurred, if it exists at all anymore. Recent events in Kenya – which have spurned the creation of Ushahidi.com – is a perfect case in point.

A few short days ago, good friend Erik Hersman (who Blogs as the widely read and highly respected White African) aired his frustration at the lack of news coming out of the country from the man and woman on the street. In “It’s Not About Us, It’s About Them“, Erik noted:

“While blogging, emails, Twitter and the internet are doing a great deal of good getting the news out of what’s going on in Kenya to the rest of the world, I find myself troubled. You see, the communication that needs to be happening is at the grassroots level. Everyday Kenyans do not have access to any of these services. Let’s put our minds and capabilities towards solving real problems for people beyond the technologically elite”

True to his word, just five days later saw the launch of Ushahidi.com, a site which allows Kenyans to report acts of violence via the web and SMS, incidents which are then aggregated with other reports and displayed on a map. Ushahidi – which means “witness” in Kiswahili – provides an avenue for everyday Kenyans to get their news out, and news of its launch has been widely hailed in the mainstream press (and the Blogosphere, funnily enough). Putting Ushahidi together is a textbook study in rapid prototyping and collaboration, and Erik takes a huge amount of credit for blurring the ‘actor’ and ‘critic’ distinction yet further by pulling his finger out and actually doing something. As he says, when all the dust settles in Kenya, he doesn’t want to be one of the ones saying “I should have done something”.

From a personal perspective, Bloggers such as Erik have been hugely supportive of kiwanja’s work, without which there would have been little chance of initiatives such as FrontlineSMS and nGOmobile ever getting off the ground. nGOmobile alone has generated interest from over seventy grassroots NGOs, all of whom are now in with a chance of winning equipment to run their own text messaging services. FrontlineSMS has empowered NGOs in over forty countries from all corners of the globe. Essential to this has been a dedicated band of supporters, including White African, ZapBoom, Tactical Tech, ShareIdeas, Textually.org, Ore’s Notes, Total Tactics, Black Looks, Saidia.org and 160Characters, among many others.

Whether or not we’re ‘actors’ or ‘critics’ – and whether or not it really matters – we all have a valuable role to play. Ushahidi shows us just how valuable that role can be.

3 thoughts on “When actions DO speak louder than words

  1. sokari says:

    You know it really doesnt take much when we all pull together and share our skills, knowledge and talents for a common purpose – there is always something that can be done and always something for someone to do no matter how small.

  2. josh says:

    I’m so stoked about Ushahidi. In the face of such a terrible situation, I think Ushahidi is a beautiful example of harnessing the tools at our fingertips in pointed and creative ways.

    Let’s hope it finds it’s way to the right hands.

  3. Tobias Eigen says:

    Hi Ken –

    Thanks for this, I really appreciated reading it and agree that it’s time to make things happen at the grassroots. And I agree with Sokari – it doesn’t take much when we all pull together.

    What I find inspirational about you and this remarkable group of “African technorati” that you are a part of is that you have the leadership, skill and creativity to come up with these amazing new ideas and then actually implement them – and quickly! You make it easy to support you!

    I think these various new initiatives speak to an approach I have been thinking about for the last several months, in fact since a call I had with Sokari about Web 2.0 and why African civil society organizations are not (yet) very actively using it in support of their missions. It seems to me that people want to take action and join worthwhile initiatives, and they do it when they are exposed to it in an accessible and human readable (read: Web 2.0) form. So is it 10% idea and 90% marketing? 🙂

    These nifty new initiatives are luring people in, subverting them, and breaking down their resistance to change. People are doing things in new ways because of you.

    This is harder to do on an organizational level because of the inherent barriers to change, so even though the individuals involved may “get it” they still won’t necessarily know how to take even the first step to exploiting these new tools within their organizations.

    The Kabissa 2.0 site up and running at http://www.kabissa.org since last Sunday is aimed at addressing this, and is designed specifically to promote organizations and encourage “horizontal linkages” between them and the people involved with them. And we are doing it not first and foremost through training, as we would have in the past, but through the more subversive means of simply providing a service that is so useful that organizations will be compelled to use it!

    It’s also a platform, so we can do map mashups (not working well now!) and theoretically add other features like mobile phone alerts, blogging by phone, and access to content via mobile phones. Perhaps we could collaborate on a Netsquared proposal for N2Y3 to do a nice mashup project?

    Anyway, a short comment turned into a long one. I’m excited – keep up the good work and let’s make it happen.



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