There is an important and sensitive conversation that I think that this community needs to have, and it is about the role of funding and different types of funders in our work. Just two or three years ago blogging was often viewed as a harmless activity for people with too much time on their hands. Today many organizations, funders, and even governments see blogging – and other forms of online digital media – as the next great hope to create more democratic and just societies.
As this enthusiasm about citizen media has grown so too have the funding opportunities for projects that use digital, participatory media to achieve a variety of objectives. There has especially been an increase of funding opportunities for projects that use digital media to promote democratization in closed societies where democratic participation by citizens is limited by authoritarian governments.
For example, there were several emails on this mailing list about a grant competition earlier this month by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a part of the United States Department of State. This $5 million grant competition for digital media projects in the Middle East and North Africa is a central part of the US State Department’s “Civil Society 2.0” initiative, which Hillary Clinton outlined in Morocco back in November. The goal of the initiative is to bring together technologists, bloggers, and NGOs to increase the effectiveness of civil society in promoting civic engagement and democratization. Critics of the initiative, however, say that this is a way for the United States to spread its influence and interfere in the politics of other countries. (In my own opinion, I think that it is probably a little bit of both.) The United States is not the only government or funder interested in providing financial support to digital media projects that promote democratization. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency is currently accepting proposals for projects that support “actors for change, individuals, groups and civil society organisations working for democratisation and freedom of expression.”
Last week I was in Beirut for a meeting with a group of many of the leading bloggers, technologists, and digital activists from around the Middle East and North Africa. The individuals and organizations represented at this meeting are those that the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency are hoping to support. But during a conversation at the meeting about funding there was much concern that accepting money from foreign governments would have a negative impact on the credibility of local projects. Some felt that it is better for activists to work without any funding at all. Others felt that it is OK to accept funding from private organizations, but not from governments. A few felt that it is OK to accept money from European governments, but not from the United States. And there were also mixed opinions about whether or not it is OK to accept money from their own national governments or whether that too would hurt their credibility and autonomy. I highly recommend watching an interview with activist Nasser Wedaddy about the role of funding in digital activism.
What we do know is that next year $5 million will enter the Middle East and North Africa to support the work of digital activists. We still don’t know how this money will be used or what its impact will be, but I think that it is important to speak openly about it.
Back in October I attended a meeting with several others who are members of this mailing list about the role of funders in media development, with a special focus on digital media. For those who are interested, I published a series of articles about the meeting:
Another participant of that meeting was Anne Nelson from Columbia University who recently published a report on private funders of media development including the Knight Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Open Society Institute, the Omidyar Network, the Skoll Foundation, and Google.org. You can download that report here:
Just a couple weeks later Mary Myers published a report about international funders with a strong focus on European funders. That report is available for download here:
I know that it is ambitious to try to start such an important conversation when many people around the world are taking time off of work and spending it with their families, but I think it would be very valuable to hear some thoughts about this topic and, specifically, the following questions:
* Do citizen media projects need funding at all? If you have access to computers and an internet connection at a public library or public university, then all of the other tools for a digital media training project are free to use. Why do we need any funding?
* Does accepting money from foreign governments hurt the credibility and autonomy of local citizen media projects? Are some government funders less controversial than others?
* Should we all commit to being open and transparent about where our funding comes from, or are there occasions when it is better to keep our funders out of public view?
I hope everyone is well and I look forward to this conversation!