Digital culture demands relevance, change

Can The United Methodist Church survive in the digital culture? If so, in what form will it exist? How must it adapt to be relevant to life in this new cultural reality?

We talk about this a lot at United Methodist Communications. We just spent a day discussing the challenges we are presented by the new digital culture in which we work, and how this new environment is shaping the church we serve.

Technology changes how we think, act and perceive the world around us. How we access, store and utilize information influences the culture. Perhaps influence is too mild a descriptor. It shapes culture.

That’s the thesis M. Rex Miller advances in The Millennium Matrix, a new book about faith and communications technologies. It’s a thought-provoking look at how technology affects culture and in turn shapes our perceptions about faith.

As communicators, we exist in an institution shaped by print technology, and cultural change is coming to it as a disruptive challenge that causes some to wonder if it can survive. In our day together, we didn’t pretend we could answer that question, but we did talk about how we can engage some of the specific challenges we face in the digital age.

We know the information we provide must be relevant to the needs and interests of the user – that it must go beyond merely the messages the institution desires to push out.

We understand that we are engaged in an interactive conversation and not in a one-way flow of information.

We believe we must reconsider how to make information more accessible in many different ways, from style of writing to format to placement on the screen to hyperlinked connections to multiple languages.

We know our audiences are global, and we must develop a more robust network of communicators who can tell the stories of the church and support its global conversation more adequately.

And we know that information flows continuously today. It is not limited to our timeline. It moves in real time and often it is unfiltered and unrefined-as when a passenger on a ferry in the Hudson sent cell-phone photos of the US Airways jet floating on the river before the tower knew it was down. In events like this, everyone is potentially a journalist.

We also discussed the intriguing word Jon Pareles cited in a New York Times article about how digital technologies have affected the music industry-“disintermediation.” He points out that no one must rely on an intermediary for approval or distribution of media or content. We can do it ourselves.

Digital technologies have empowered people to become producers, commentators and distributors without the need for gates or gatekeepers. The conversation will happen regardless of institutional controls or desires. The gatekeepers have lost control of the gate through which information flows.

The most critical challenge of the digital culture, I believe, is to engage in the conversation with relevant information, provide the deep support that we all need to live fruitfully in this atomizing and fragmenting reality, and to compete within a marketplace of ideas and messages that come at us as a cascade of appeals for our attention.

Whew! It was a busy, interesting, exciting day. I’ll be writing more about this in the next several posts. And I’m particularly hopeful that you will respond to these reflections with your own insights. I think this is both an exciting opportunity and a critical moment in history, and I invite your conversation.

Somalia and Yemen

Stories about the Palestinian suicide bomber and the Nigerian who tried to blow up the U.S. Air flight stir memories of young men I worked with in several trips to Somalia several years ago. This was before terrorism and modern-day piracy. Many of them pleaded to leave with me–an impossibility for many reasons–and others asked me to carry their school records, letters of application, or other documents to the U.S. and some tried to exact a pledge that I would assist them to leave the country and enter a college in U.S. When I see the young pirates now menacing shipping in the Indian Ocean, I wonder how many young, uneducated Somali men have found pirating and other illicit means of employment a desirable alternative to the un-ending turmoil of anarchic Somalia.

A recent report from Kenya details a boom in construction and skyrocketing housing prices in that country due to an influx of Somali money, the proceeds of pirates looking to invest in a more stable economy. And other reports bring tales of more dangerous results.

A story about Yemen’s role as a training ground for terrorists states that "the Somali problem is merging with the Yemen issue." Yemen is a poor country torn by internal division and led by a corrupt government. The  report says 200,000 Somalis have migrated to Yemen, adding even more potential recruits for terrorist actions and certainly adding to the population of the economically disadvantaged.

Another story opens with the claim that  a decade after the bombing of the USS Cole, deep mistrust between Yemen and the U.S., plus a lack of political will to deal with Al Queda, has allowed the organization time to rebuild and regroup in Yemen. The two stories contribute to  a holistic view but probably could offer even deeper context.

Several factors contribute to the wasting of opportunity for these young people. The deterioration dates back decades and is rooted in the way Somalia was created as a nation by European negotiators. Land use patterns and tribal differences were not managed by the Somalis in the same way Europeans manage nation-states but the European governance model was imposed on the territory never the less.

In the post-colonial era a strong-arm government held competing tribal interests together after a fashion but insurgency and open warfare with its neighbors kept Somalia in a state of instability.

The superpowers in the Cold War played Somalia and Ethiopia against one another, and at one point Russia and the U.S. flipped sides and created alliances with their former enemy states. Siad Barre , a military officer, toppled the government and ruled by dictate until his government fell under its own corrupt weight. After the Cold War Somalia seemed so remote and inconsequential it slipped from world  attention until famine brought international response and the presence of the U.S. military.

Rule by warlords, regionally powerful tribal leaders who constitute their own militias and rule by force illustrates the lack of any social or political capacity to pull Somalia together. Many creative and street-savvy Somalis are working to make life better. But they labor in one of the most unique social situations I can imagine. This fragmented power contributes to on-going instability.

The absence of a formalized civil society means a generation of Somali young people have known rule by force and tribal governance but not standardized education nor elected leadership or governance. The Somali migration from one of the poorest countries in the Horn of Africa to one of the poorest in the Middle East is telling.

The long-term neglect of human well-being and internal tribal fighting in Somalia is now manifesting itself as a threat to global security. Corruption, tribalism and economic neglect are paying dividends to terrorists. A population of young Somali males is a recruiting pool for terror.

Right now options for people of good will are limited. The World Food Program has suspended operations in the southern Somalia due to armed conflict. However, the world can learn from Somalia. Hunger and lack of development breed instability. This opens the door for those who seek political control by manipulating unstable conditions. We can encourage the Obama administration to support the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative as one means of prevention, and a proactive step toward preventing instability elsewhere. Other  options for dealing with Somalia seem limited to peacekeeping and diplomacy.

Change the World

As followers of Jesus, we are a people who know change individually and collectively. Jesus embodied change and called his followers to be changed because they live within the embrace of a loving God. To know Jesus is to be changed—in a redemptive, soul-renewing way.

Recently I sat in a meeting in which people discussed unselfconsciously and with a sense of realism how to change the world by eliminating malaria, a disease of poverty. I spent the day bouncing between awe and amazement. It was emotional because they have already made substantial progress by creating a movement called Nothing But Nets which is an effort to provide bed nets to people in malaria affected zones, mostly in Africa.

It was not a theological discussion, but I reflected upon it from the perspective of my own faith and it provided me with a humbling set of learnings, plus a call to deeper commitment. So, as I look forward to a new year, I reflect on this partnership and what I can learn from it.

The first learning is that as followers of Jesus, we live in the hope of a changed world, a world in which every child has the opportunity to live the abundant life God intends for us. No child need die from a preventable disease. We work toward a world in which we identify the “leading causes of life,” to borrow the wonderful phrase Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray have given us. And we seek to bring life where death imposes its presence with such terrible results as malaria, HIV/AIDS and the other diseases of poverty.

The second learning is that if we come to the table as a community of support with others who share similar concerns and work together, we can, under God’s grace, partner with God and others in an ongoing action that leads to life. We are created for relationship with God and with others, and we are called as disciples of Jesus to bring the life-giving light.

And the third learning is that we can do remarkable things if we forget about who gets credit and get on with carrying out the work we are called to do. It is God’s world, and we are at best weak reflections of the power and redemptive possibilities of God at work in the world. But we are reflections. The changes we seek do not result from our own doing, but from the presence of a redemptive and loving God who precedes us and beckons us to come into those places where God is already at work.

There are those who are writing and speaking of the past decade as one to forget. That’s understandable. The stresses and suffering of these past years are painfully real and have caused great hardship for millions around the globe. We should not minimize this nor let it pass unnoticed and unattended. But it’s not enough to conclude that this is the way world is and it can be no other. Nor that this is the whole story.

As a journalist and a person of faith, I came to believe some years ago that there are many small, dramatic stories that reveal world-changing qualities but they don’t have the conflict or drama that draws attention. The challenge of journalism is to tell the stories, large and small, in which the human drama is played out.

And the challenge of faith is to understand that it is because of our brokenness that we are called to engage in serving others and being the light of change in places of darkness where people struggle, suffer and endure. We are not called to give in to the forces of evil but to overcome them.

I look to the coming year with great hope, energized by the thought that we in the church can be a part of a world-changing, life-sustaining movement that could very well end a disease of poverty by 2015. So I look forward to telling the stories of life, big and small, that point to the potential for, and the reality of, change. To know Jesus is to be changed and to work toward a changed world.

Poverty is About More Than Material Well-being

A responder to my blog post about the relationship between religious extremism and poverty asks if my argument holds when a young, educated, affluent, elite such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab , the Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Delta airliner over Detroit, turns to violence. Why do young people who have achieved advanced degrees and attained levels of material comfort want to blow up other people?

While individual motivations remain distinct, a composite is emerging that offers some clues.

It reveals that assimilation into majority cultures isn’t accomplished in short time periods but over generations and, in fact, assimilation doesn’t accurately reflect the give-and-take that is more likely necessary in this age.

Racial sensitivities are not eliminated by affluence and can be aggravated by subtle social distinctions and overt acts of racism.

Cleavages occur within ethnic communities as well as between these communities and the broader culture and can cause some individuals to feel isolated, a condition that among some festers into simmering rage.

There are extremists trolling for those experiencing this social anomie and they are skilled at recruiting and exploiting them for terribly destructive political purposes.

The Internet makes recruitment easier as extreme views and social disaffection can coalesce globally.

There is an unsettling fear afoot not only in the U.S. but across Europe and other regions about loss of community, social influence, economic security and identity that contributes to social discrimination against ethnic communities and conflict between ethnic and majority communities.

Global interconnections and mobility brings people into contact with others who bring new social values and cultural practices that sometimes feel threatening to majorities.

In short, poverty isn’t just about material well-being. We can experience a poverty of affirming relationships that can be as devastating as lack of material necessities. Affluence doesn’t treat poverty of relationships.

This isn’t an excuse for violence but recent events in Switzerland, France and the UK all point to a sense of unease with immigration and assimilation, particularly affecting Muslims, that reveals a more complicated social mix than religion alone. Religion becomes an organizing principle and proxy for this milieu of anomie.

Recently the Swiss banned minarets from building design, the French banned headscarves worn by Muslim girls in public schools and the UK sacked a Muslim female teacher who wore a veil when working with boys banned female students wearing veils . In each case controversy stoked resentment and fear on all sides. It also heightened resentment among young Muslims.

Conversely, fears of economic insecurity, cultural differences and loss of national identity surfaced among those in the majority culture.  Religion is the focal point but wider social dynamics are at work.

In addition, the disputes also lay bare the disconnect between generations within the ethnic communities. Abdulmutallab’s father reported his son’s extreme views to the U.S. embassy and the grandparents of one of the 2005 London bombers told an interviewer she couldn’t believe her grandson’s extreme views and disavowed them sorrowfully.

If there is learning in this, I think it is that we need to work intentionally to create greater understanding, not only between faith groups but between communities through opportunities for conversation, interaction and acting together on things that bring mutual benefit such as public education, jobs creation and community development. We need interfaith dialogue. We need political leaders who speak with diplomacy and concern for the good of the whole, not for narrow political gain among their partisan bases. We need reporting that provides context and does not separate individual isolated events as if they occur apart from this greater social dynamic. We need churches, mosques, schools and journalists who see the world through a global perspective and who interpret our interconnections more holistically and less provincially.

Whether we understand it or not, we are more interrelated today and our relationships and understanding of each other are more important than ever. Poverty is about more than material well-being. Poverty is also about the quality of our relationships and we are seeing how poverty of relationship leads to damaged individuals and damage to the community.

Real Religion Would Never Tell Anyone to Burn or Kill Others

"Real religion would never tell anyone to burn anything or kill others. We condemn them (Islamic extremists). And we’re afraid of them," a Malian imam told Washington Post writer Karin Brulliard.

As news breaks of the attempt to destroy a Delta airliner by a Nigerian Muslim the imam’s words seem more pertinent. The New York Times reports the young man’s father was increasingly concerned about his extreme religious views. The characterization of Islam as a religion of violence and intolerance is inaccurate and unrepresentative, but the story will reinforce it anyway.

Brulliard writes that West Africa may be more buffer than gateway for radical religion. Writing from Mali, she points out the nation has long enjoyed a vibrant, open culture and its religious leaders have been moderate.The U.S. has courted Mali with aid and military training in an effort to support this moderation.

My experience working with Muslims in the region affirms this perspective. And I agree that Islam is not a monolith. Just as Christianity and Judaism are expressed in widely different ways, so, too is Islam. It’s inaccurate and a disservice to stereotype these religions by their extremes.

But the imam’s remarks plus Brulliard’s reports of changes occurring among some Malian youth could portend trouble in the future. Across sub-Saharan Africa borders are porous. It’s relatively easy to carry goods from one country to another. In fact, trading caravans are part of an ancient desert mercantile culture. Today, however, Brulliard writes camels have replaced by ATVs and the goods can as easily be weapons or cocaine as salt or bolts of cloth.

Mali, as most of its West African neighbors, is a poor country with a youthful population in touch with the world and aware of its material discrepancies. This mix has been exploited by radical religious clerics to recruit the young. This social context should be of primary attention. Among many youth in West Africa, material deprivation is accompanied by frustration, low self-esteem, lack of opportunity, powerlessness and a sense that forces beyond their control are determining their life’s direction and preventing them from improving their situation.

In this troubled soil the seeds of extremism can be sown by religious radicals. But Islam isn’t the cause. Poverty and its psychological effects are the pre-existing conditions.

Brulliard writes that Mali’s moderate history makes it unlikely radicalism can take root here. I hope that is so. Mali’s neighborhood in West Africa is experiencing instability and governance problems. Mauritania to the west has seen a military coup and Niger to the east retained its government in a disputed election. Cote d’Ivoire to the south is recovering from civil war and Morocco to the northwest is contending with charges of human rights abuses and calls for autonomy in Western Sahara.

It will take good governance, economic development and responsible religious leadership among other things to keep Mali on track. And it is as sure as the desert wind that some in the region would derail it. The imam’s fears are a useful precaution.

Are Fewer Children Dying of Malaria?

Are fewer children dying of malaria today? I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about this recently. On one hand, some say it’s helpful to show progress so that the effort to end deaths by malaria is not seen as insurmountable. On the other hand, some contend it’s urgent to remind people of the on-going toll and we must guard against complacency or slowing down, else we’ll lose momentum.

I entertain both of these positions with some lack of uncertainty. I see the need to create awareness of the terrible toll. And I see value in illustrating that the effort can actually be successful. So, there you have it. Both positions tug at my thoughts.

I found the report by the World Health Organization helpful, but not finally resolute enough to put these thoughts to rest. What do you think?

Entrepreneurs vs. Scale

Does entrepreneurial energy trump traditional development models reaching for scale? In their recent book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide , Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn draw a distinction between the older traditional model of development that attempts to reach the greatest number of people and the entrepreneurial model that concentrates on changing one life at a time, or empowering change in a small group of participants.

They acknowledge the polarities aren’t fixed, but in general they raise up the work of individual entrepreneurs as models. They also repeat the case made by others that large scale development hasn’t been effective nor long-lasting.

This is a common analysis and it needs scrutiny. There is no question that large scale development schemes conceived top down haven’t reached into rural villages and changed life for the better. On the other hand, without a commitment to scale polio would still be leaving a toll of human suffering in its wake that would be an ongoing tragedy. There are interventions where scale is not only desirable, it’s necessary if the problem is to be adequately addressed.

This isn’t to miss the point that Kristof and WuDunn make that empowerment of oppressed women is an effective avenue to change. The model has been around for years, but it hasn’t gotten the traction it deserved for several reasons. It has been the preferred model of many mainstream development agencies such as Church World Service, Lutheran World Relief and UMCOR. However, their efforts were pioneering, occurred under the radar of the media and didn’t have the charismatic asset of an individual entrepreneur. They were institutional models operated without effective marketing by bland institutions and they were often competing for media attention with the large scale efforts of the World Bank and UN agencies.

I read Kristof’s and WuDunn’s narrative with great appreciation for their revelations of the awful oppressiveness of sex slavery. They tell the story with such effect that surely readers will sign up to provide micro loans or support other efforts they provide. And their explanations of culturally appropriate interventions at the grassroots are especially important for us to consider.

They also make a strong case for engaging in long term, sustainable development in contrast to short term one off charity. No disagreement here. The impulse to charity is positive but it, too, needs scrutiny and careful reflection. Charity can do more harm than good without this reflection.

I’m grateful for Kristof and WuDunn’s voices, commitment and willingness to enter into danger and hardship to tell us about the plight of oppressed, poor women. It’s powerfully motivating and illuminating. They lay out the practices of a new expression of humanitarian engagement, one that will surely grow and create necessary change.

But I’m not ready to give up on working to achieve scale, just yet. And I’m interested in seeing where the entrepreneurial models lead. I’ve seen entrepreneurial models that are as fragmented, duplicatory and wasteful as any other effort. The best effective example is the Grameen model and it has grown at scale and institutionally as well.

Never the less, the needs, as Kristof and WuDunn point out, are urgent and their call to action is welcome.

Nothing But Nets Third Anniversary

Just returned from a partners meeting of Nothing But Nets, the movement to provide bed nets to prevent malaria. It was an inspiring meeting, almost like a religious experience. Progress is being made in the battle against this disease that kills a child every 30 seconds. We’re at a hinge point in history. It is possible that these deaths could be significantly reduced, if not eradicated in the next five years.

Distribution in Ethiopia, Zambia and Rwanda shows that bed nets can significantly reduce cases of malaria. We must not lose the momentum. We have to keep at this task. The world got to this point once in the 1950s and relaxed, only to see the malaria parasite become more virulent and resistant. So we must celebrate the gains and keep working.

This progress itself is inspiring, however, and I came away feeling something equally compelling.

As I listened to various “champions” speak about their involvement in Nothing But Nets, I was deeply moved. The United Nations Foundation, with backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has sparked a movement toward life that is inspiring.

What this movement demonstrates is vitally important in this day of skepticism about global change.

When organizations agree to partner, they bring tremendous assets and creativity to the task far greater than any one can do alone.

When these resources are aligned and focused, they can achieve scale that is truly significant. In this instance, millions of lives can be saved, the heavy economic burdens of this disease on national economies can be reduced, and the significant drain on national health care systems can be slowed.

When organizations partner with mutual support and seek the good of the whole, everybody wins. The partners get the individual goodwill they need, the cause gets the benefit of broad support and messaging it needs, the constituents associated with the partners get the involvement they desire, and the people who are benefited by the cause get the services they need to improve their lives.

After hearing the personal stories of the various partners, I’m sure everyone left the meeting feeling a bit better about themselves and optimistic about the effort to bring life to children in malaria afflicted regions of the world. When we do good, we feel good about ourselves. This is a nice benefit but it’s not sufficient, however. We do good not simply to feel good, but to bring about meaningful, lasting, sustainable change.

Bed nets are one simple input that opens the door for this kind of change. They are not the whole solution. But they are a start. A simple technology that if used properly can lead to much greater and quite significant change. Ten dollars to save a life. What a bargain. What a movement.

Will Talk of Eradicating Malaria Lead to Failure to Control It?

Will talk of eradicating malaria lead to failure to control it? Will we repeat the experience of the 1950s when malaria was significantly reduced worldwide only to return stronger and more resistant than ever when the world slackened its commitment and failed to finish the task of eradication?

The disease, which is preventable and treatable if caught early enough, takes a million lives a year, ridiculously unnecessary.

These questions are bubbling through conversations among scientists who have long worked on this disease. Priya Shetty presents an overview in an article on SciDev network blog.

The concern is significant. The risk of losing momentum and falling back is too great to contemplate. And it appears this risk is even greater as the Obama administration scales back funding for global health.

The challenge facing global health advocates is to communicate more effectively to a growing audience of constituents that the effects of the diseases of poverty can be reduced and this is beneficial in multiple ways and that we need a sustained global commitment to comprehensive approaches, not just a single approach to individual diseases.

Malaria is related to poverty so directly and intimately that the disease ought not to be separated from economic development and empowerment. If it’s true that a quarter of the adult workforce is disabled by malaria in some African countries at any given moment, then malaria is a tremendous drain on productivity and a significant impediment to a strong economy. To treat the disease in isolation from this context is myopic.

Similarly, if significant numbers of children miss school due to the disease it’s an educational barrier, and if mothers must care for their sick children and are unable to carry out other tasks, it’s detrimental to healthy families. How can one speak of these social costs apart from treatment, prevention and control?

There is also considerable discussion about social entrepreneurship as an approach to economic development that will replace traditional humanitarian bureaucratic responses. The storyline here is that traditional approaches are slow, unable to adapt when new circumstances present themselves, focus on scale to the loss of unique solutions to local needs, and wasteful. In contrast it is said that social entrepreneurs can move quickly, receive instant feedback, change and adapt.

This either/or thinking frames strategies and tactics by reducing possible solutions to a single methodology. This may work in some instances and be too limiting in others. Just as large bureaucracies lose flexibility, so too, may single solution approaches.

I would argue that we need to view poverty and the diseases of poverty with flexibility, recognizing that a multitude of approaches is needed. But what is not needed is destructive competition that sets one disease against another for funding, research and treatment. Nor competition for funds for control, research or treatment. They are all part of a whole as malaria is part of a social and economic context.

The debate should not be about whether the world supports bednets or eradication research. The challenge we must take up is to communicate to people of goodwill that these diseases and their reduction is part of a holistic approach to how we live in this interrelated global environment and we all need to be helping each other in concrete, specific ways because it’s in our best interest. And, a side benefit is that we’ll feel better ourselves if we do it well and even better when we succeed.

Nothing But Nets Third Anniversary

Just returned from a partners meeting of Nothing But Nets , the movement to provide bednets to prevent malaria. It was an inspiring meeting, almost like a religious experience. Progress is being made in the battle against this disease that kills a child every thirty seconds. We’re at a hinge point in history. It is possible that these deaths could be significantly reduced, if not eradicated in the next five years.

Distribution in Ethiopia, Zambia and Rwanda shows that bednets can significantly reduce cases of malaria. We must not lose the momentum. We have to keep at this task. The world got to this point once in the 1950s and relaxed only to see the malaria parasite become more virulent and resistant. So we must celebrate the gains and keep working.

This progress itself is inspiring, however, and I came away feeling something equally compelling.

As I listened to various "champions" speak about their involvement in Nothing But Nets I was deeply moved. The United Nations Foundation with backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has sparked a movement toward life that is inspiring.

What this movement demonstrates is vitally important in this day of skepticism about global change.

When organizations agree to partner, they bring tremendous assets and creativity to the task far greater than any one can do alone.

When these resources are aligned and focused they can achieve scale that is truly significant. In this instance millions of lives can be saved, the heavy economic burdens of this disease on national economies can be reduced, and the significant drain on national health care systems can be slowed.

When organizations partner with mutual support and seek the good of the whole, everybody wins. The partners get the individual goodwill they need, the cause gets the benefit of broad support and messaging it needs, the constituents associated with the partners get the involvement they desire, the people who are benefitted by the cause get the services they need to improve their lives.

After hearing the personal stories of the various partners last night, I’m sure everyone left the meeting feeling a bit better about themselves and optimistic about the effort to bring life to children in malaria afflicted regions of the world. When we do good, we feel good about ourselves. This is a nice benefit but it’s not sufficient, however. We do good not simply to feel good, but to bring about meaningful, lasting, sustainable change.

Bednets are one simple input that opens the door for this kind of change. They are not the whole solution. But they are a start. A simple technology that if used properly can lead to much greater and quite significant change. Ten dollars to save a life. What a bargain. What a movement.