Buhubalo: Using Instagram to support orphans in Uganda

Buhubalo Children’s Foundation – Instagram

I came across the Buhubalo Instagram account a couple of weeks ago and was fascinated at how they have achieved 243,000 followers in less than 18 months. To put that into context Save the Children UK have 134,000 and Oxfam UK have 84,000. For anyone studying media and development this is a great potential dissertation case study, I also expect an academic journal article will follow one day 🙂 However, for the purpose of this blog I have carried out a very quick content analysis to see if I could understand how they have achieved so many followers in such a short time. I did contact them for an interview, but did not manage to set one up.

The account started on July 21st 2021 with a random image of a group of children with no supporting text whatsoever. Many of the children have masks, but not all of them. There seems to be a couple of adults as well.

10 days later another image is added, this time of children and an adult holding a large piece of paper asking for support for food and masks. Again, no other context. Where are these children? Possibly you were aware from the title of the Instagram account – Buhubalo Children Foundation – but where is this foundation and what does it do?

In the third image we get to find out that the children are orphans – but we’re still not sure where from, until another similar post later that day where we find out the orphanage is in Buluguyi – a quick Google search would let you know this is in Eastern Uganda.

And on 1st September we have a picture of one child – Tom – looking up sadly at the camera, his t-shirt not quite covering his stomach with the text “Please donate any amount for Tom”. This is a fine example of the type of “poverty porn” images that have been widely criticised in both academia (see New Mediums, Better Messages? How Innovations in Translation, Engagement and Advocacy are Changing International Development for a recent publication) and the media.

But most of the criticisms of poverty porn often refer to images used in charity’s adverts produced by western organisations. These images are criticised for being inaccurate, over-simplifying the whole story, perpetuating a neo-colonial discourse, portraying individuals as pitiful victims and contributing to the white savior complex syndrome – amongst others. But these images are being posted by an orphanage in Uganda – is this acceptable? Are the images an accurate representation? Are they decontexualised? The first few certainly are. In Vossen’s (2018) analysis of Dutch, Flemish and British newspaper and NGO advertisments she coded images “as ‘pitiful’ when they depicted people were visibly suffering from malnutrition, illness or hardship: crying, bleeding or sick — but also of injured people in war and disaster areas”. I’m not sure if the image above would qualify as a ‘pitiful’ image or not?

Most of the images over the next few months concentrate on groups of children, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, with messages asking for contributions towards school fees, clothes, shoes, food etc. However, slowly the narrative changes as donations of clothes, shoes and teaching materials arrive and the images start to show these arrivals with supporting text thanking the donors. These posts all receive anywhere between 5 and 40 likes during this six month period, but on 30th January 2022 a reel is posted which receives 144 likes. 3 days later another reel with 281 likes and from then on every post is receiving 100+ likes and growing.

1st reel posted receives 100 likes

The reels are a mix of children eating, receiving donations and thanking people for those donations – the soundtracks are often faith based, but there is a Baby Shark track thrown in for good measure. The next step change is on 22nd April 2022 when a reel is posted of a boy dancing to a track called Calm Down by Rema which has 5,078 likes. Since then they have had several posts and reels which have had 100,000+ likes, with the most popular receiving 575,000 likes which shows a group of children receiving food. The music by the way, is a mixture. I told you this was a basic content analysis.

So why has this Instagram channel become so popular? Why have so many people donated to the orphanage? Is it because in the viewers eyes these photographs and videos are showing the raw reality of the children’s lives? As the channel matured there is a lot of context both visually and in the text. Donors can see where there money is being spent (or at least where some of it is being spent) and they receive thanks directly from the people they are supporting. But many of these likes – even the video with 575,000 – will merely be that – likes! We don’t know exactly what items have been donated and how much money has been donated. A report by the Charity Commission said

Trust in charities remains higher than in most other parts of society – a reflection of the value the public thinks that charities can bring and have brought throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. There is, however, a stubbornly persistent scepticism regarding how charities use their money and how they behave. This was true before the pandemic and is still true now.”

Charity Commission 2022

Does the Buhubalo Instagram page help alleviate this scepticism? Are these Instagram posts more accurate accounts of transparency and accountability? It’s hard to say. But there’s no denying that people “like” their posts and donations are being received. Buhubalo’s most popular reel has 575,000 and Save the Children’s has 119,000 (interestingly it’s Meghan Markle), but what’s also interesting is that their second most liked reel has only 11,300 likes. I am guessing from this that a lot of Instagram advertising spend was put behind the first Meghan Markle post and her next post a year later only had 5,959 likes. Or it could be the recent press coverage around her Netflix series???

So what can western NGOs learn from this account without upsetting academics and the media further? I’m not even going to start on responsible content creation, ethical storytelling and informed consent – but I’d love to know your thoughts….

Photography and Development – An interview with EveryDay Mumbai

I’m off to Mumbai next week to speak at a Conference on Social Media for Development, Innovation and Freedom. During my research I came across Everyday Mumbai and spent hours looking at some of the wonderful images that creator Chirag Wakaskar has curated finding the right accounting courses. So I contacted Chirag to ask him a few questions:

What inspired you to start @everydaymumbai

Back when I started this project (6th July 2014) there were probably very few working photographers from India on it and the pictures on the medium were mostly the typical oversaturated fluff of sunsets understanding pay stubs, mountains, beaches etc but there were a few western photojournalists on the medium sharing some interesting work and while I was on it with moderate success perhaps because photojournalism based content is not as popular in India as something that provides a much more departure from daily dreary lives such as a beautiful sunset or your favourite celebrity having fun is (I guess). I loved what @everydayafrica was doing and thought of having something on similar lines but since there weren’t really a lot of photographers around that I knew personally I decided on a curated platform rather than a collaboration. There was also a thought in the back of my mind of seeing the city through local eyes, which included a lot of non professional photographers who also contribute to the project. When it comes to incidents of violence, criminal charges in Denver area lawyers are there to help.

How do you select which images to curate? Are there certain issues that you deliberately focus on e.g. I noticed that there are many images documenting the LGBT community in Mumbai and also on pollution. What is the motivation for highlighting certain issues?

I generally look at photographs which have something to say beyond the visual. I often feel many times images of such issues are sidelined in mainstream media in India which is more focused around political news, celebrities and sports coverage. Even Instagram is primarily dominated by Bollywood & vanity. I hope to make space for highlighting various issues and making a strong case for photographers who document such issues.

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Do you think that @everydaymumbai can be used as a tool for development? If so, how?

I would like to think it can be used as a ‘model’ in Boston OUI lawyers because it reaches an audience through a medium that is easily accessible to them so that they can understand or know a little more than they usually would. I would love to see communities self documenting to better understand for themselves as well as others. I’ve actually written a guide and put it up on the website so that someone who wants to start off a project like this would know how to go about it. It can be found here – http://www.everydaymumbai.com/how-to-start-your-own-everyday-project-on-instagram-by-chirag-wakaskar/

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Have you ever been contacted by local government or NGOs about your work?

I have never been contacted by government. A couple of times NGO’s have reached out to share something. Though I have often proactively shared something I think would help share a good message or help someone out.

You mostly provide quite detailed supporting text – how long does this take?

The credit is all to the photographers. I will often egg them on to write more in terms of either jouralistic captions or even what they may think about what they have photographed. I also share with them resources such as  caption methodology such as AP or NPR so that they can get an idea as well or even some photography resources that I have found helpful. I maintain a small database of articles Ive liked – http://www.everydaymumbai.com/resources/

You receive lots of comments on the images that you curate. How long does it take for you to maintain the Instagram account?

I share just one photograph a day after looking at the hashtag and usually will message the photographer if I need to have any more details included. I have notifications off except for comments so that something inappropriate doesnt pass through. I’m generaly quite liberal in terms of comments and even with negative feedback but never outright for any hatred, lewdity, violence, etc

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Do you know if any of the photographers that work you curate have received photography commissions as a result?

This is a difficult one for me to quantify, but I do share the work of lot of young photographers with the hope that journalists, editors, curators who follow the project will commision them work or perhaps write articles about them particularly when they have some projects, exhibits, books & so on.

What is next for @everydayMumbai

I’m currently working on creating an offline exhibit in public spaces so that a wider audience can reached, particularly those who may not be on social media or even the internet. I’m also looking to reach out to mariganlized communities to help train them to document themselves and create social media based projects like these for their communities so more people can know about them.

Thank you Chirag for such an interesting and inspirational interview. I can’t wait to see some of the projects working with marginalised communities.

UNDP Kenya – Development Photography Project

I stumbled across the following tweet from UNDP Kenya back in March which alerted me to their fantastic new photography initiative.

Intrigued as to why they had commissioned three photographers to document their work I contacted Ngele Ali, their Head of Communications.

Why did you decide to document development in Kenya using photography? What informed the decision to commission this work was that, while we were telling our story and reporting about the impact of our work, the country office lacked compelling images of Kenya and Kenyans that could enrich our narrative. Our main aim was to document the breadth of development with authentic imagery that form part of our photography library. We deliberately went out to photograph and get stories informed by the SDGs, while exploring thematic areas aligned to UNDP work in Kenya such as: inclusivity, gender equality and youth empowerment, climate change, devolved governance, technology for development among others. We therefore went out in search of empowering stories and images of ordinary Kenyans at grassroots level who were doing remarkable work of transforming their lives and lifting themselves out of poverty; with the hope of giving the term development a face and to demystify the concept of leaving no one behind. We leveraged photography as a tool for storytelling taking inspiration from Andrew Defrancesco, to capture everyday lives of people, their personal perspective and achievements, that sometimes words don’t do justice. With images gathered from this mission we hope to build a library that is rich with a wide spectrum of powerful images encompassing of genuine human interest stories that may inform how we perceive and communicate on development matters and help shape our future interventions and interactions with Kenyan communities.

How long did the project take and how did you choose the locations?

This was a month-long mission where three Kenyan professional photographers were commission to work with the country team comprising of staff drawn from programme and communications departments. To capitalize on the time available, and to ensure we had images back in good time for various activities that were in the pipeline, the teams went out to the field simultaneously covering all the counties including those where UNDP has project on the ground. The idea of this project was to inclusively cover Kenya as wide as possible beyond our project areas as a forward-looking opportunity to scope for possible areas of future engagement and to ensure that we have a good collection of images that represent the face of Kenya in consideration to the fact that UNDP works with state and non-state institutions at national and sub-national levels.

Tell us why you chose the three photographers you commissioned?

The three were shortlisted from a competitive process that had invited photographers working in Kenya to submit their portfolios and proposed costs to undertake the assignment. The three were shortlisted from a pool of photographers following a rigorous review of portfolios based on experience of working on similar projects; demonstrated understanding of what was required of the assignment and knowledge of the terrain; and samples of work submitted.

How many photographs were taken?

Approximately 2000 final photos were submitted.

What is your favourite photograph and why?

Each photo has a unique story behind it but I particularly love photos from the marginalised communities as they are not the usual photos of abject poverty. The images that we got back paint a picture of hope, abundance and highlighting communities and people making a difference in a dignified and positive way. They are images that authentically celebrates Kenyan communities and their way of being.

What kind of supporting information did you capture for case study and caption material? Did this take a long time?

Information gathered was contextualised based on personal accounts and covered issues of livelihoods, family, future ambition, employment, state of being among others, which helped to frame each photograph in a unique way. This process was rigorous as it also included getting consent of the people we were photographing; The conversations were either written or recorded and later transcribed. Upon return to work it took at least another roughly four weeks for colleagues to complete captioning after the photographers made their final submissions. UNDP teams also submitted detailed back to work reports which is a standard requirement.

How will you be sharing the photographs with the people in the pictures?

We had release forms where we recorded details of the people being photographed. For those who expressed that they would like us to share with them the photos we will make necessary arrangements to do so – either directly or through our partner organisations working in those locations. Majority of those photographed were happy and satisfied to view their photos on screen after the sessions before we departed from location.

How do you plan to use the photographs?

The photos taken form part of the UNDP country office library; we intend to use these photos to support our conversations with regards to the development agenda in Kenya. This will be in our programmatic reports, annual report, factsheets, website, among others. None of the photos will be used for commercial purposes. The photos are also available for other UNDP/UN offices, development partners and donors upon request as long as they are credited accordingly.

Will you be using social media to share these images? If so, on what platforms?

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Exposure

What kind of problems did you encounter on the project?

Getting instant buy in to participate. Our teams spent a lot of time explaining what we were doing in some cases the people we encountered were not as friendly while others demanded payment for their participation. It took a while for members of the public to warm up to us and we only worked with people who were willing to participate freely. Working with local contacts helped in breaking the ice and gaining trust.

Language barrier – while Kiswahili is widely spoken across Kenya, in some remote areas, language was a hindrance and we heavily relied on local translators.  The distances between locations could be gruesome and exhausting especially in remote areas where the road network is not so good.

Are there any recommendations for other development organisations who might want to do something similar?

Logistics and planning is critical prior to the start of the project to ensure that your teams are well prepared and any concerns and questions are covered before departure to the field as helps in ensuring that all are working from the same perspective for desired results. We planned for this mission for at least 3 weeks before teams left the Nairobi office.

Always seek consent of the people you want to involve in your project. Taking a few minutes to explain the purpose of your mission and how you intend to use their images helps with members of the public feeling valued and the result is more enriching.
Work with professional photographers – professional photographers are a major asset for this type of assignment engage and work with them as part of your team. Let them understand your approach prior to the start of the project as this ensures that they understand what is expected of them and can deliver better results.

Give people an opportunity to tell and share their stories without influencing their thoughts. People feel appreciated and respected when allowed to tell their stories without the pressure to skew the narrative to suit your perspective.
Always take time to clarify any information provided and ensure it is as factual as possible. Request to use a voice recorder which you can play back when transcribing for clarity and ask the local fixer/contact for further clarification when in doubt.

Barbie White Saviour Complex

This semester I’ve been teaching on a Humanitarian Communication module for the BA Media and International Development degree at UEA. Whilst planning my lecture on social media and development, I can came across this hilarious new Instagram account – Barbie Savior. It has over 5,000 followers in less than 5 weeks and I’m sure that this will increase at a rapid rate. Big respect to whoever came up with this very funny parody of the White Saviour Complex. It reminds me slightly of the Humanitarians of Tinder site set up a couple of years ago. It’s great that people are taking the time to come up with inventive ideas to raise awareness of the potential harm of voluntourism. Shame that a couple of Bratz Dolls have made it into some photos. That’s just wrong.

Two of my personal favourites – Barbie #Slumfie

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Barbie Dancing

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DFID and their use of social media – 2015

It’s been nearly two years since I wrote about DFID and their use of social media. I met with Marisol Grandon, Head of Creative Content to hear about their latest initiatives. Marisol explained how their interaction via social media has transformed over the last year or two “One of our key improvements is the design elements within our social media output which has gone from strength to strength. We have recently been producing more short form graphics. Smartphones are increasingly available even on a tight budget and people want bitesize news in 15 seconds or less.  Many people these days are time restricted and also tend to consume these news clips without their sound on – visual news is perfect for these audiences. ” I’ve noticed myself over the past few months how DFIDs content is growing in terms of visual output. They are still very strong advocates of good quality visuals. One great example of this is their coverage of the Global Goals.

Personally I don’t generally like animated news bites, perhaps I’m showing my age. What I was pleased to hear about is their experimentation with Periscope. Marisol explained that it is still very much a minority audience, but for those that do engage they thrive on the immediacy and interactive nature. In June, Michelle Obama’s speech when she visited Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, was broadcast on Periscope with an audience of 2000 people. David Cameron’s speech about the Global Goals was similarly well received. In my opinion, the demand for live broadcasts will only increase as mobile data improves.

DFID’s core established social media of Facebook, Twitter and Flickr continue to be the most popular. In fact both Facebook and Twitter followers have more or less doubled since 2013 – Twitter has increased from 116,000 to 215,000 and Facebook 42,000 to 87,000.

Marisol feels it is important to explore the potential of new social media platforms. DFID launched its Snapchat channel this September at the first ever #YouthSummit held at DFID. International Development Secretary, Justine Greening said “Globally, over 1.8 billion people in the world are aged between 10 and 24 – the vast majority are living in less developed countries and face uncertain futures. These young people can be the leaders, teachers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. There is no question they must be at the heart of our efforts to tackle global poverty. The face of development is a young face and the UK’s first ever Youth Summit gives young people all over the world the chance to have their voices heard. But the journey doesn’t end here. Young people will be at the centre of our work to create a world that is healthier, safer and more prosperous for everyone.”

Snapchat is an ideal platform to talk to the UK’s youth. It now has over 100 million subscribers. The lo-fi aspect of Snapchat means that it is all about creativity with it’s stickers and lightness of touch. Sometimes communications people can find this aspect of their work difficult, especially in a Government organisation. I look forward to hearing whether DFID’s Snapchat channel is a success or not.

The area I enjoyed hearing about the most was DFID’s recent engagement with long form social media. Marisol said “International Development suits the long form treatment. It allows stories to be explained in a visual, compelling and nuanced way. Our followers are electing to learn more about complex issues and long form is the perfect vehicle for this. We have been using platforms such as Storehouse, Exposure, Immersive and Shorthand more and more.”

I confess that I have not really explored the possibilities of long form social media much, but I was very impressed with DFID’s Married at 3, Divorced at 7 article and the Medics Behind the Mask. which were both very educating.

Marisol ended by sharing her excitement for the potential of new apps and technologies. “I’ve been really impressed with some of the recent virtual reality films. I think with new advances such as Google Cardboard we will see levels of access rise dramatically. The interactivity of live video within apps like Periscope is what makes it so exciting and makes YouTube look almost slow and old fashioned.”

I’m slightly surprised by this closing remark as DFID have never really invested in their YouTube channel (which I commented on in my first blog), perhaps they foresaw the potential of VR before the rest of us. I sense we might see the first DFID VR film before my next blog post…..