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Missing in action, why CSOs must be solid social media influencers

Ms Nyanzi, a Ugandan and a trained medical anthropologist once said in a story posted by The New York Times “…social media is very elitist, by using it, i know we are excluding a huge majority of the population, but it scares the powerful…” Although Nyanzi was challenging a Ugandan ruler, civil society organisations (CSOs) which seek to challenge abuse of power by government and corporates must find resonance in her words. Considering measures taken to control the spread of corona virus world over – social distancing, self-quarantining and lockdown among others, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about missing in action for CSOs and why it is important to grow influence on social media. Last week, i shared an article that I wrote with a colleague – Lockdown not a time for CSOs to hibernate, but to reflect and to be creative. This article is profoundly shaped by my experiences as an activist and a social media influencer on mineral resource governance issues.

What motivates me to share my journey is the desire to challenge civil society actors to grow their influence on social media to reinvigorate advocacy initiatives. In the mining sector, whilst the action is location specific, the whole operations are denominated by global value chains (GVCs) – access to capital, finance, markets, goods and services. So, what does it take to ensure our voices are heard in those spaces thousand miles away from physical action? There are many stakeholders who are keen to keep track of the work that we do, how do we ensure that we are our activities are not picked by their radar screens? In an environment where space for civil society is shrinking, governments label our work as at cross purpose with national interests, how do constantly tell our stories as builders in society? We seek to build networks, create and grow demand for our advocacy messages in an era where there is an avalanche of information, how do we navigate this terrain? These are some of the questions that I seek to tackle, like I said, based on my curiosity and experiences.

Influencing the big guys from far away places

Mining operations are certainly location-based. Communities close to where mining operations are taking place, therefore, are saddled with environment, economic, social and cultural costs of extraction of minerals. While mining is location specific, the business is fastened on GVCs for access to capital, markets, goods and services. The community struggle for mitigating the costs of extraction and for amplifying local mining benefit must expand its scope to influence players along the GVCs, especially investors and the market. Big players in the capital market for mining are found in countries like USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and UK. Shareholders, financiers, asset managers and potential investors must be informed of the impact of their investment on communities were resources are extracted. I have come to realise that each time when I write a story on Zimplats and share it online. The story ends up being shared to Zimplats shareholders, investors and interested parties on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) where the company is directly listed. For example, my blog post Should We Celebrate The Government- Zimplats land Deal or Worry. In this post, I lamented corruption risks associated with the secrecy around the land deal and lack of competitive bidding in the disposal by government of mineral rights with high geological potential. This development was contrary to the aspirations of the Africa Mining Vision.

Missing in action

If CSOs are not careful, they can easily self-quarantine from their stakeholders whom they seek to influence. Only to interact with their stakeholders for what they deem essential to their agenda, conferences or meetings mainly. Social media helps to ensure CSOs are regularly touch with stakeholders. By so doing, CSOs are mitigating the risk of evanescent or quickly fading advocacy initiatives. There are instances when CSOs are accused of missing in action by stakeholders like communities, funding partners, media and legislators. In fact, some CSOs will be on the ground doing what they know best. Visibility is a huge challenge. most of the hard work done by CSOs is suffocated by poor communication. In the game of influence, advice can be borrowed from the legal fraternity – justice must not only be served, but is must be seen to be served.

When tragedy struck the artisanal and small scale (ASM) on 13 February 2019, at Cricket mine in Kadoma, known as the battlefields, was not missing in action. Representing ZELA, regularly using twitter, i publicly shared information pertaining to the rescue efforts. On top of twitter updates, I then published a blog to share lessons learnt from the Battlefields disaster. The blog was published in one of main daily newspapers in Zimbabwe.

The missing in action part is not only pronounced when disaster strikes, or emergence cases arise. It also pertains to topical developments in the area of interest in which CSOs are supposed to stimulate or enrich the public discourse. Because there is an avalanche of information, it is vital for CSOs to ensure that where known patterns of key developments exist in an area of interest, the voice of CSOs must not be missed. A case in point from my experience is the fiscal policy trail. One important lens of mineral resource governance is fiscal linkages. As such, my blog is clued-up on prebudget public consultations, national budget statements, midterm budget reviews, reports generated by the auditor general, and tax revenue performance reports generated by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA).

Build networks, create and grow demand for information

Nowadays relations can be created virtually using social media with like-minded organisations, funding partners, media, academia, public officials, and private sector players. Because i started and sustained a blog on mining and sustainable development since 2015, I used to get numerous requests from media houses who sought permission to publish what I posted. Some have sought to contract me to write weekly for a fee. Usually, my response was that my blog is an open source, feel free to pick what you like, so long you acknowledge the source. At times i don’t wait for their requests, rather i try to proactively share every fresh blog post via WhatsApp and twitter direct message, giving a soft nudge to journalists to publish the blog.

Not all blogs I generated get to be published by journalists, however, i have enjoyed an encouraging success with the press. Both private and public media often fish from my blog for stories. It is significant to flag, in Zimbabwe, generally, public media is viewed as aligned to the ruling party. Whilst views on private media oscillate between neutrality and being pro opposition. Having work which features in both private and public media can be taken as a sign of established credibility of my bog, for opinions and reports on key events in mining sector.

Each time when I have a fallow period on my blog, two-three weeks or a month, normally I get request from public officials, peers and journalists on why i am so quiet. It is good sometimes, to take a break, to refresh, reenergise and reset to ensure my blog does not mis its punch. Aside from media, I have received requests from academics seeking to mine information from my blog. Some colleagues in civil society tell me privately that we may not acknowledge your work publicly, but we use the blog to get creative ideas for framing our interventions and for developing proposals. The blog has also served as an inspiration to my peers to start blogging.

Public accountability goes beyond contractual obligations with funding partners

Underpinning the mission statement of most CSOs is, to bridge the gap between government and its citizens, and to play a watchdog role on government and corporates from a rights-based approach. With funding partners, CSOs have written contractual obligations to fulfil. Among the contractual obligations, CSOs must account for the work they do – progress, challenges, lessons learnt and results. In real terms, CSOs have a social contract with citizens and stakeholders they work with when it comes to accounting for their action. Social media presents opportunities for CSOs to publicly account to stakeholders. Examples include, giving frequent updates on progress regarding interventions via social media, challenges, opportunities, results and most significant change stories.

Peter Sigauke, CEO Mutoko Rural District Council (MRDC) once remarked during one of the ZELA’s annual retreat “we also need opportunities to participate in international conferences where current trends on resource governance are shared. Even though we are missing out, we are grateful to get regular updates from Mukasiri Sibanda’s blog.” Chief Mapanzure, a traditional leader echoed similar statements that “the blog is playing a critical role to keep community members and other stakeholders informed on key developments in the sector.” When i write on my blog, I take time to share the post on various WhatsApp groups for communities affected by mining operations that we work with.

By so doing, even funding partners can see weight in the reports submitted by CSOs as the issues reported to them are not secretive, but open for public scrutiny. When I am entrusted with the responsibility to write a narrative report to a funding partners, usually, I use my blog to put links on workshop reports, contextual developments, challenges and successes. Certainly, there is always room for improvement. The feedback though has always been awesome.

Bridging the gap between perception and reality

Because of poor communication, interested parties can be in the dark in terms of operations undertaken by CSOs. In an environment denominated by suspicion, CSOs viewed as having a nefarious agenda to undermine national development interest. CSOs, in the case of Zimbabwe, get significant funding from countries that have imposed “sanctions”  or restrictive measures on Zimbabwe, depending on one’s view. Government, in some instances, has openly labelled CSOs as regime change agents. By openly communicating the work that CSOs do via social media, it narrows the gap between perception and reality. Those that have ulterior motive of labelling the work of CSOs as being at cross purpose with national development interests are easily exposed. Several times, I have been asked by officers from the President’s office pertaining to the work that we do as ZELA. Always, in my response, I do not miss the opportunity to proudly tell them that we are not an underground operation, our work is publicly shared online, via WhatsApp groups, twitter, blog, website, email lists and newspapers.

It is also interesting to step aside to borrow inspiration from the bible when it comes to communication issues. In Mathew 16: 13-20, Jesus asked his disciples, “who do the people say that I am?” And later, he asked his disciples that “who do you say that I am?” Suffice to say, on the first question, the responses were quite varied. Having a social media footprint allows CSOs to drip feed the public with information on what the organisation stands for hinged on the work that they do. Equally so, employees of CSOs is they lack a digital footprint, they fail to answer publicly to stakeholders how they view the organisation that they work with. The Director of Action Aid Zimbabwe, Joy Mabenge often remarks that “don’t be a none googleable individual (NGI)” when challenging civil society actors to have a strong digital footprint.

Not leaving behind communities

There is always a risk that CSOs can be a barrier to change by speaking on behalf of affected communities. Rather, CSOs must empower communities to own, articulate and drive the change they want to see. To counter this risk, at ZELA we piloted the community data extractors programme in 2015, which included a component on community journalism. Basically, the community data extractors programme seeks to empower community monitors with skills to extract, analyse and use data to cement their demands for change in the management of mineral resources in their localities. Tunatazama, administered by Bench Marks Foundation, a networking platform for communities affected by mining operations in Southern Africa, is anchored by stories generated from the community monitors that ZELA works with in Zimbabwe.

The likes of Sophia Takuva, a woman artisanal and small-scale miner have become powerful social media influencers through blogs and twitter. For example, using her twitter account, Sophia boldly challenged lack of transparency and accountability in the management of the gold mobilisation funds set aside for women miners. Remarkably, this set the stage for engagement with Fidelity Printers and Refiners (FPR), who administer the gold mobilisation fund. FPR refuted the allegations, arguing that there is more to the challenges that affect women miners than financial inclusion. Challenges raised include access to mineral rights, and violence among others.

This is not a full view, but an interesting angle, nonetheless.

My experiences do not represent a full picture of why and how CSOs must grow their social media footprint but an interesting angle, nonetheless. I am sharing my experiences, to show that one does not need to be a media professional to be able to document and write articles for public consumption. Social media has lowered the barrier of communication and revolutionised the roles at work. From my experience, the burden on communicating and influencing mineral resource governance issues is not for the communications officer alone to carry. With curiosity, passion and commitment, every professional can be a social media influencer. In this work, we must labour hard to ensure community data journalism drives the advocacy agenda. CSOs must not speak on behalf if the affected but motivate communities to tell their own stories.

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