How “Hanging Out” Bridged One Online Intern’s Experience Abroad With Advocacy At Home

While studying in India and Africa, our July online intern Cathy saw first-hand how cross-cultural conversation is the critical link to successful community development programs abroad. Returning home, she turned to online hangouts like Google+ to root her advocacy in conversation with the people she was inspired to help. Here’s her story.

Throughout the course of my undergraduate studies, I have been incredibly fortunate to have spent over a year abroad split between time in India and eight Sub-Saharan African countries. On most days, I encountered extreme poverty and chronic hunger, for which I could promise no long-term solution as a young student on my own. As you can imagine, this was heartbreaking: I certainly could not promise a future free from hunger and poverty. However, I could offer a helping hand when possible, smile, start a conversation, and have a genuinely human interaction to convey the message that yes, someone does care and the world is not blind.
Perhaps more importantly, living in a developing country allowed me to have important conversations on how to best help alleviate poverty and hunger with people who actually experience it every day. It allowed me to discuss ways that we could help fight poverty and hunger together, sparking dialogue on how young people in developed nations could better help those in the developing world achieve their own goals and implement programs they think would serve their communities best.

The hardest part of witnessing extreme poverty and chronic hunger for me has always been coming home, and then remaining home. It becomes incredibly difficult to work together to design and implement interventions that actually work to benefit individuals and entire communities. Most of us are resigned to traditional advocacy, awareness, and fundraising support for interventions that we hope work, but for which we cannot ask individuals themselves who benefit from these programs how they feel about their effectiveness. From far away, I often feel a strong disconnect from those who I wish to work alongside rather than simply on behalf of. This feeling is often discouraging for many of us committed to social justice and alleviating poverty and hunger, problems that we have the resources to solve if we use them in the right way at the right time.

Even beyond the social media revolution, technology is beginning to transform the way we are able to connect to one another from even the most remote places on earth.  The internet now reaches places that have historically lacked mechanisms to communicate with the global community. These new rural and urban ‘hotspots’ often have bustling internet cafes  equipped with cameras and microphones for Skype and video chat use at an affordable price. The increasing access to internet has allowed people in the developing world to interact with organizations, media, and governments in developed nations in a whole new way. As social media has swept the world much like a forest fire, linking voices from Middle America to North Africa, Bhutan to France, and everywhere in between, we have the power to move beyond simply voicing our opinions on issues to actually opening dialogue between one another.

Upon returning home from my most recent trip, new technology has made this frustrating and discouraging gap easier to close. Inspired by a recent Google+ hangout hosted by WFP on the Sahel hunger crisis, I organized a chat with friends and colleagues in the US interested in international development and public health with friends I met during my time abroad. Using the Facebook Social Hangout application we set a time for all of us to log on and discuss ways in which HIV and nutrition are related. In the short thirty minute call, we introduced ourselves, discussed the essential link between nutrition and HIV, and how successful HIV treatment programs in the developing world must guarantee access to nutritious food for the people they’re helping.

For the first time since returning home, I felt as if we were really making a difference in helping to alleviate hunger and poverty simply because we engaged with one another. For those of us in the US, we gained a better sense of how we could support organizations that recognize this important link. We also envisioned exciting new ways of thinking about HIV and nutrition that we’ll bring to our own work and share with organizations we support. For those abroad, the hangout was a chance to voice concerns about what does and doesn’t work, and describe ways we can help each other achieve the common goal of alleviating poverty and chronic hunger.

The best part is that not only is organizing a Google+ hangout or a Facebook Social Hangout free and easy to arrange: it also links likeminded people around the world who want to do good. You can discuss topics that interest you and gain valuable insights into ways you can help make a difference together from halfway around the world. Social media tools like these can make your advocacy and fundraising events more meaningful as you now have a connection to those who are at the other end of organizational work. It’s also an incredible tool for showing those in the developing world that beyond the organizational logos and humanitarians in the field there’s a whole world of everyday people who care and want to make a difference.
How are you using social media to get people talking about hunger? Share your story with us by emailing it to ali.goldstein@wfp.org.  

By Cathy Kaplan, WFP Students July Online Intern