To compete or to collaborate? Social media is the answer

Have you ever tried having your voice heard in a crowded and noisy environment? If the answer is yes, you know what it takes to do so!


Keep the image of making your voice heard in a crowded milieu in your head….. Now imagine having your voice heard in the development arena crowded with a multitude of development organizations, United Nations agencies, International Financial Institutions, multilateral and bilateral agencies, research organizations, think tanks, Non-Governmental organizations, farmers’ organizations, civil society and foundations.


I am sure you will appreciate the challenge. As development workers to have our voice heard, we need to show the relevance of our work. We need to show the impact of our work through human stories and hard facts. We need to show value for money, show that we are worth the investment and that for every taxpayer dollar spent in our operations there is multiple return and that this money is being spent judiciously, wisely and has the desired impact.


This means, that to have our voices heard, to make sure we access the finite development funds and resources, we have to compete with each other, pitch and position ourselves.


Now close your eyes and think of a scenario where the competition against each other becomes collaboration with each other.


Eight years ago the early technology adopters in the development arena by embracing social media discovered a way to turn the table and transform the competitive environment to one of collaboration. The advent of social media brought the development community closer and became a catalyst for knowledge sharing and cooperation.


This semi-miracle happened because we suddenly discovered that this new communication paradigm not only allowed us to share our individual messages, but more importantly we came to the understanding that by amplifying each other messages we were raising awareness about the comprehensiveness and the integration of the various aspects of development agendas. By sharing a post or retweeting a tweet from a sister agency, we showed that we were not working in silos, rather that our work complemented each other and as a result managed to show the multidimensional aspect of development.


I think it is fair to say that social media is now part and parcel of our daily lives. And like any technology, it has, to some degree, changed the way we conduct business and interact with each other.


Over the last eight years, the early social media adopters and development workers have collectively been advocating for mainstreaming this new communication paradigm in our business and core processes. This has led to well established social media channels and more importantly resulted in bridging the gap between development agencies and the general public.


For example, through live reporting of events, we have managed to bring our business closer to our traditional audience and as a result managed to extend and expand our audience base. By complementing the official channels and traditional means of communications – products such as our reports, publications, press releases – with telling the back story of a major publication through a blogpost, or pulling out the salient facts and figures of our dense reports in the form of an infographic or DYK (do you know) posts, we have managed to unpack the wealth of our respective organizational knowledge.


Colleagues across the United Nations Agencies, the International Financial Institutions, the NGO community and grassroots organizations have used these channels to raise awareness about the challenges and opportunities facing people in developing countries. In doing so, they have put the THEME, the TOPIC, the ISSUE in the forefront as opposed to the organization.


On the occasion of UN’s Sustainable Development Summit, almost all of the UN family mounted campaigns to showcase the universality and importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In doing sIo, we tried to show how all the SDGs are inter-related, how all of them carry equal weight and why delivering on them is not a “nice to have”, but rather a commitment and an obligation. The skeptics may argue that the cacophony of #globalgoals, #2030agenda, #post2015 and #sdgs campaigns fell on deaf ears. This may be true a prima facie, however, five months later, seeing citations and references to these campaigns shows how collectively we managed to raise awareness about a theme, topic and issue and not necessarily about our individual organizations.


This radical change in our mindset led to well designed and well choreographed social media strategies and campaigns which allowed the development world to raise awareness about, and fundraise for crisis such as the Haiti earthquake, drought in the Sahel, Ebola, etc. It allowed us to join each other campaigns and provide a united, comprehensive and cohesive front.


This change in paradigm allowed us to better engage with the audience, to harness the “wisdom of the crowd” and allowed us to learn from each other.


One of the many uphill battles that we fought together, was convincing our colleagues to use social media channels and their personal accounts to talk about and share snippets of their work. Thanks to the work and commitment of the wonderful folks who embraced social media, today the United Nations is more UNITED than ever. A decade ago, asking UN agencies to collaborate and contribute to each other’s campaigns may not have been a trivial undertaking.


A decade ago, the development community would have embarked on campaigns individually. This meant that we hardly ever benefitted from each other’s experience, let alone the “wisdom of the crowd”.


Today, when the development community embarks on a campaign, the various agencies chip in and participate. This is made possible thanks to well-crafted social media strategies, including the license to adapt the messages based on individual organization’s mission and goals.


This means our activities and campaigns are indeed GLOBAL. They are global because we share and cooperate, because the “lead” agency brings everyone together and equips all concerned to share facts and figures about specific issues. As a result, each agency is able to show their contribution to the issue at hand and consequently we are in a better position to amplify each other’s messages, avoid doing propaganda and reach out to a diverse audience.


As a result, in a time and age where we need to deliver more with less and where there is a pretty tight competition for resources, mainstreaming social media in our core business has allowed us to amplify each other messages, raise awareness about different developmental issues, broaden our scope, engage with existing and involve new audience.



By cooperating with each other to raise awareness about issues, we’ve managed to show how the work of the entire development community is relevant and how we all depend on each other to achieve the complex, complicated and challenging overall development community’s goals. And in doing so, hopefully we can also show how development is not about providing resources to EITHER this or that agency, rather it is about providing resources to ALL agencies so that together we can tackle all and the many complicated, complex and challenging dimensions of our beloved business.

Roxanna Samii

Chief Digital Strategy at UN Environment

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