Humanitarian community weirdly silent on USAID “Cuba Twitter” fiasco | 

Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

If lack of public outrage is any indication, many in the humanitarian field appear to be just fine with the recent revelation that the U.S. government’s lead anti-poverty agency has been spending tax dollars to operate a secret project aimed at fomenting political unrest in Cuba.

You may remember when news leaked out in 2011 that the CIA had faked a vaccination program in Pakistan in its effort to find Osama Bin Laden.

It took a while for the humanitarian community to respond, and condemn, that scheme. But most did and the dire predictions that the CIA ruse would endanger aid workers (and undermine the crucial polio campaign in Pakistan) turned out to be tragically accurate. As Laurie Garrett recently wrote in Foreign Policy, the CIA scheme gave militant extremists all the justification they needed for targeting polio vaccine workers and the murders go on today – and polio continues to spread.

Now, thanks to an AP investigation, we learn that USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) has since 2009 been running a secret social media scheme in Cuba aimed at using cell-phone text messages to foster political dissent against the communist government. The AP reported that the project, dubbed “Cuban Twitter” involved creating secret shell companies and foreign bank accounts.

Bill and Paula Clapp
Bill and Paula Clapp
Seattle International Foundation

“So we’re back to the days of USAID acting like the CIA?” said an exasperated Bill Clapp, a Seattle-based philanthropist who with his wife Paula has been working for decades on a variety of anti-poverty and empowerment projects throughout Latin America. “If our goal is to promote open societies around the world, I’m not sure having our lead aid agency running covert foreign policy operations is the way to do it.” Continue reading

Revealed: USAID’s Twitter-like attempt to foment unrest in Cuba | 

Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

A report by the AP today reveals that a US-backed program attempted to develop a Twitter-like service with the goal that it would help spark political unrest in Cuba.

Most surprising is that it was backed by the humanitarian arm of the US government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). By channeling funds through offshore accounts and working with US and Spain-based contractors, USAID helped to establish ZunZuneo (a slang term for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet). At its peak, the text-message based application had more than 40,000 users.

There are already concerns that the revelation will cause harm to US foreign policy and future US humanitarian work.

ZunZuneo was built on the back of the state-owned mobile phone company Cubacel. The contract between USAID and Creative Associates International, was to build a system where people could connection on issues related to news, sports and entertainment. Data was to be collected about the users so that more political messaging could be shared, at the direction of USAID.

Taking a page out of Iran and other places where social media aided civil unrest, the hope was ZunZuneo would lead to “smart mobs” and other actions that may “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society,” as a USAID document obtained by the AP, states.

Continue reading

Which African city Tweets the most? | 

A new map shows the tweets sent out from Africa’s 20 most populated cities, in the period of 24 hours. Geo-located tweets were tracked over the last three months of 2013 to determine the trends. Coming in number one is Johannesburg with 344,215 geo-located tweets. The top five include Ekurhuleni (264,172); Cairo (227,509); Durban (163,019); and Alexandria (159,534).

The findings should not come as too much of a surprise. English, French and Arabic are the predominant languages and the highest level of activity took place on the day that Nelson Mandela died. Analysis comes from a business perspective for the Nairobi-based Portland Communications, the group that carried out the analysis.

Football (not the American kind) was the most discussed topic. Politics did not fare so well, but brands seem to be making some gains.

“The African Twittersphere is changing rapidly and transforming the way that Africa communicates with itself and the rest of the world. Our latest research reveals a significantly more sophisticated landscape than we saw just two years ago. This is opening up new opportunities and challenges for companies, campaigning organisations and governments across Africa,” said Allan Kamau, Head of Portland Nairobi, in a release.

Prince George goes to Africa (sort of) | 

The Royal Baby, also known as Prince George, is going to Africa. Well, not quite. His bedroom will resemble Africa with big game animals and bush decorations, says Father Prince William. His hope is to pass along his passion for conservation and the continent to his young son.

William, 31, told CNN that George’s room will be decorated with an African theme.

“I’ll have toy elephants and rhinos around the room,” the new dad said in CNN‘s one-hour special, “Prince William’s Passion: New Father, New Hope.”

“We’ll cover it in, you know, lots of bushes and things like that. [We'll] make him grow up as if he’s in the bush,” he added.

William told CNN’s Max Foster that he hopes his son will one day experience the same Africa that he and Prince Harry did as boys on trips with their parents, Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana. The one-hour special – the prince’s first interview since his wife, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, 31, gave birth to their son last month – will focus on the prince’s love for Africa and his dream to save the world’s endangered species.

Below are a few reactions. Without commentary. Continue reading

Can Twitter help aid workers in a disaster? | 

Steve Garfield

It turns out that using Twitter may be an effective way to track and respond to public emergencies.

Twitter has become a polarizing tool in disaster situations. The speed with which information travels is seen as an asset and problem. Proponents point to the instance of the earthquake across the east coast roughly 18 months ago. People in Boston read tweets about the earthquake in Washington, DC before the rumbles traveled further north. It was not a significant earthquake, but it is an example of how people can act quickly if things were worse.

On the other hand are events like the Newtown shootings and the Boston bombings. Misinformation traveled as quickly as facts making it hard to know what was really happening on the ground. Continue reading

Twitter reveals what the blogosphere wants to make world a better place | 

The international community is trying to figure out what it — the world — wants to do next to make the world a better place. Social media like Twitter offers a look at what people, at least those who use Twitter, want.

The United Nations’ very cool project Global Pulse has analyzed keywords and ‘sentiments’ used by people who are talking on Twitter about what to to do after 2015 when we reach the finish line for the Millennium Development Goals, eight goals staked out in 2000 to set global priorities aimed at reducing poverty and improving health.

In general, Twitter says most folks want better local schools, a better internet connection and jobs. But go to the site and run the data for a sense of how the priorities differ between countries. Kenya’s top priority (again, according to Twitter alone) is better roads. Bangladesh’s top priority is freedom from discrimination and political freedom.

Global Pulse


Do the poor in Bangladesh need their jobs more than workplace safety? | 

Sari sweatshop outside of Dhaka
Sari sweatshop outside of Dhaka
Sabeen Virani

A deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh that has so far been estimated to have killed nearly 250 people is again raising questions about the role that US companies and consumers play in perpetuating dangerous and unfair sweatshops overseas.

Amid all the reports of this massive tragedy, Slate’s Matt Yglesias offered a counterpoint to the moral outrage — and, indirectly, against the pleas from some Bangladeshi workers - with a blog post arguing that we should accept reduced safety rules in poor countries.

Yglesias was responding to the case made by University of Rhode Island history professor Erik Loomis that the factory building collapse that killed at least 244 people in Dhaka shows the need for universal labor standards across all countries. He writes in the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog:

Ultimately, we need international standards for factory safety, guaranteed through an international agency that includes vigorous inspections and real financial punishments. Of course, we are a long ways from any of this. But we have to begin at least talking in these terms, demanding accountability for workplace deaths, whether in the United States or in Bangladesh.

News reports are coming out about the circumstances of the building collapse. The LA Times reports labor activists saying that as many as 2,500 people refused to enter the building over structural concerns. Visible cracks were reason concern for the workers, but assurances from managers and the building owner proved to be enough to get the workers inside only an hour before it collapsed. Continue reading

SEC Adopts Conflict Mineral Legislation; Activists Express Disappointment | 

The long journey through the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of Section 1502 in the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act has come to an end. A 3-2 vote adopted the provision that will force mining companies to detail their operations in conflict regions.

For consumers, this means that large electronics companies will be put on the spot to show that they are sourcing their minerals from conflict-free sources. The section has elicited a very strong debate and neither side was very happy with the final decision on Wednesday.

Supporters of the bill say it is a way to reduce the power of armed militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If companies are unable to trade in conflict regions the areas will be forces to make changes in order to enjoy the benefits of international mineral trade. The decline in power will provide more safety for the people who have been brutalized for years.

Continue reading