09 November 2011

FWD>Day of Action: What can 13.3 Million Shares Do?

USAID is kicking its FWD (Famine, War, Drought) campaign into high gear. Today is no exception as they are calling it 'FWD Day of Action for the Horn of Africa.' The goal is to get people engaged through awareness and information sharing by reaching 13.3 million people (the same number of people at risk due to the drought in the HoA).

The goal is bold and USAID is pulling out all the stops by creating celebrity-filled videos, interactive maps (see below), a twitter hashtag (#fwd), and a SMS donation mechanism (text 'give' to 777444). Right now, there is a major lull in terms of news coverage in the Horn of Africa relative to the drought and famine. The attention is all on Al Shabaab and news being broadcast by the Kenyan military through twitter. The incursion by Kenya has only made things worse. Somalis are now dealing with a rise in fighting and insecurity in a region that is already unstable and highly food insecure.  The advocacy push could not come at a better time.

I had the chance to ask Matthew Johnson of USAID a few questions about the current situation and the FWD campaign. My first question dealt with the concern of security. I asked how efforts were affected by this and what USAID was doing to ensure that they were continuing to meet the needs of people affected by the famine. He said:
USAID takes seriously our responsibility to ensure the safety and security of our staff while working with partners to help ensure the safety and security of their staff as well. USAID's humanitarian mandate to save lives, alleviate suffering and mitigate the economic impact of a disaster is our priority, and our programs are designed -- to the best of our ability -- to do no harm. The ongoing conflict in Somalia means that we have to become more innovative in the provision of assistance, to assure aid not only reaches intended beneficiaries but does not fuel the conflict. So, for example, instead of sending convoys of food aid into areas of Somalia that are difficult to access, we are providing vouchers to those in need in areas where markets are still operational.
My second questions was in regards to the FWD campaign itself. My concern is that the low barrier to entry might prevent further engagement. It is clear that this is something on the mind of USAID and the FWD campaign based on his response.

For USAID, this campaign is a totally new way of trying to engage the American people. We’re trying to expand who we reach out to and how we reach out, but also trying to leverage our current networks in new ways. We’ve broken it down in to three different areas - inform, connect, and engage the American people. Inform people of what is going on in the region, connecting people to different resources and tools available, and engaging people by having different actions and activities to get involved. You’ll see with the campaign different “actions of the week” and new fresh content updated on the site. Our goal/hope with the campaign is to establish USAID as the convening organization for all development activities.
This push will be interesting to watch. I am curious to see if people send me messages through the campaign.  There are reasons to be skeptical and optimistic.  The maps are very nice, but could use even more detail.  When I spoke with Shah in September, he admitted that the site was put out before it was 100% ready, but waiting would have hampered the campaign and missed the opportunity to engage.

As a test, I am going to try out a few ways to see what is the most effective way to get people to act. I will report back my results on Friday. The plan is to use a mix of email, facebook, and face to face advocacy.

Part one of this test will be through this blog. I have Disqus track retweets and shares. In the comments section, write how you plan on participating today (or write why you are not going to participate). The most simple and effective way to act is to make a direct donation. Fortunately it is as easy as writing a text message. I will let USAID inspire you in their own words, "Fight the Famine, War, and Drought in the #HornOfAfrica tomorrow! #FWD the news and text “GIVE” to 777444 to donate $10."

Action is desperately needed and awareness will be a part of the solution. The question is what it will take for people to begin to understand the situation in the Horn of Africa in a meaningful way. Celebrities and neat graphics will work to some extent to get people interested. How people are then hooked in is what interests me most.