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We Must Include Leisure and Entertainment Services in Digital Humanitarian Solutions

By Guest Writer on June 29, 2023

entertainment digital humanitarians

Many digital inclusion interventions have been tied to specific developmental goals – enhanced education, use of digital financial services, greater access to information, among others. There is emerging evidence that challenges the notion that those targeted with such interventions prioritize connectivity for these purposes.

Rather, the agenda highlights leisure as a key driver for adoption of digital technologies, and a critical use case for such technologies that bring indirect benefits beyond the ‘virtuous’ aims of humanitarian aid and development programmes globally.

In the report, “The Digital Leisure Divide and the Forcibly Displaced“, UNHCR and Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) scholars document the evidence on digital leisure in the forced displacement context, highlighting issues unique to that context.

Why Entertainment Matters for Refugees

Beyond the infrastructural limitations that constrain connectivity and access among refugees, it is important to note that physical and digital spaces are key for more freedom in digital leisure and entertainment, and other online activities.  In this sense, providing opportunities for refugees and migrants to consume and produce digital content more freely is key to achieve various desirable outcomes such as:

  • self- actualization,
  • integration into the digital economy,
  • connection with their country of origin,
  • cultural archiving,
  • well-being,
  • self-expression.

In this sense, it is important to consider the unique ways in which Venezuelan refugees in Brazil use technologies and devices – including payback culture (notions around favours being returned) linked with sharing/lending practices – when designing and deploying humanitarian aid and programmes that involve digital spaces and may require privacy or individual access.

As evidenced in this report, refugees and migrants have a lot to say and are better-equipped than ever to tell their stories. It will be relevant, looking forward, to find ways to integrate community-based approaches to storytelling. What is said about forcibly displaced communities, and how, should be led by members of these communities and shaped by their desired formats and platforms.

We Must Reimagine Digital Humanitarianism

Information-based issues are still present across the fieldwork and in conversations with participants.

According to our data, word-of-mouth remains a key source of information that is considered reliable by the community; this brings both opportunities and limitations. Refugees rely on community-based information networks to understand and make decisions around, for instance, the best remittance system, what is happening in their country, and the safety or privacy of digital tools.  The importance of community- based trust systems should be considered when planning future initiatives or programmes aimed at reaching refugees in this region.

In short, we acknowledge the importance of current digital approaches – ones that became essential at the end of the 20th century, e.g., enabling computer access, CV preparation, job hunting – remain important use cases of digital technology. However, we pose that, in many ways, the humanitarian sector has not moved a long way from these despite user habits evolving and changing at rapid pace.

Now in the third decade of the 21st century, dynamics in digital spaces have begun to fundamentally reshape society further necessitating a reconception of what digital means in the humanitarian space. Digital technology can support individuals’ self-actualization, identity exploration, creating meaning through activities, storytelling, expression – with or without an economic incentive. A nuanced and “human” approach to digital leisure can serve to balance and complement current digital initiatives focused on efficiency and value.

14 Recommendations From UNHCR

In the this section are a series of recommendations based on fieldwork and observations of participants throughout the workshops, videos, focus groups, and interviews.

1. Physical spaces for digital leisure as essential for self-actualization:

Leisure is not trivial. It is fundamental to what makes us human. It goes beyond escapism and passing time. It is a critical pathway to self-discovery as it allows for experimentation, play, improvisation, and learning. It has become a key motivation for people to adopt new technologies and applications.

In terms of physical access, agencies should not just facilitate affordable access to data and devices but also invest in designing diverse and creative physical spaces where these activities can be carried out individually and collectively. Physical inhabitations can impact the choice and nature of digital leisure activities.

With little physical privacy, it is challenging to optimize the use of digital tools to foster intimacy and experiment on content creation without social judgment. Women and girls will particularly benefit from private and safe spaces, due to gendered norms on digital usage.

2. Digital aspects of access and connectivity:

In terms of the digital spaces for connectivity, social media platforms have become digital public spaces where institutions disseminate information and services essential for institutional building and governance. In this light, organizations need to situate digital leisure spaces and activities as central to their community-driven initiatives, if they are to foster sustainable solutions to chronic problems faced by displaced communities.

This is critical for displaced populations who face multiple and complex challenges in their everyday lives. Digital leisure helps them cope with displacement and integration challenges, enables them to reconnect with their loved ones, build community, re-invest in their identities, and explore potential livelihood opportunities through these networked structures.

Our findings suggest that agencies need to further acknowledge that digital leisure spaces are multifaceted and complex, and it is necessary to go beyond current reductive perceptions of social media as mere information spaces. Moreover, as reflected by our fieldwork, social media platforms reflect a depth and multitude of interaction and sociality opportunities.

Refugees are watching TikTok videos to learn about beauty, dance, and languages. They are taking advantage of the smaller data and space requirements of short videos and music files, and they are bonding with their long-distance loved ones through games and other digital communities. These existing community practices can be expanded by humanitarian agencies to achieve relevant development goals.

3. Leverage on content creators for sustainable outreach:

Over the decades, one of the few ways leisure has been legitimated in development initiatives is through “edutainment” programs, with varying degrees of success. The balance between entertainment and educational content is hard to navigate and requires skilled content creation to sustain engagement.

While many such programs have been top down, in the recent decade, partnerships have emerged with NGOs and refugee-serving organizations to create engaging content. This study takes this further by allowing the people we serve to be generators of their own content. Tuning in to the diverse storytelling going on within social media platforms is an organic and effective way for aid agencies to inform themselves of the different concerns, aspirations, and opportunities of communities.

Further, identifying influential content creators among displaced populations and partnering with them can help to amplify important information from agencies regarding their programmes and, simultaneously, ensure they are informed about community perception of such programmes, forming an essential feedback loop.

Our research evidences and expands on the importance of initiatives such as UNHCR’s background note on Community Based Social Media Influencers, which describes the relevance of connecting with community nano-influencers (those with 1,000 to 5,000 followers) who can help humanitarian agencies reach communities in ways that are more significant and person-centered.

Our research and leisure-based approach suggests influencers’ social media content doesn’t necessarily need to be instrumentalized or have a direct social benefit. Allowing content creators more freedom and creativity may lead to positive outcomes, such as experimenting with monetizing their content, ushering in alternative livelihood opportunities, development of unexpected digital skills, serving as role models, etc.

Aid agencies need to shift from being content creators to enablers, mediators, and nurturers, by providing easy access to digital connectivity and legitimating the spectrum of creativity that emerges through leisure as these communities strive to figure out future possibilities in places of precarity.

4. Content creation allows sharing of expertise and storytelling in their terms

Expertise through sharing of niche skills online even if not monetized can generate respect and self- confidence. The idea that despite dire circumstances, refugees have something to offer the world, feeds into self-worth and may generate the confidence needed to build their lives again in their new countries. Moreover, these digital storytelling efforts help re-humanize their communities for the global public – breaking away from common stereotypes of refugees as victims and perpetrators.

Refugees’ creative adoptions of technologies can potentially mobilize resources beyond their own personal uses and needs and shape the future of their own communities. This has already started in initiatives such as UNHCR’s Project Unsung, which collects stories by creative collaborators at the global level in different formats such as non-fiction essays, science fiction, poetry, art and illustration.

Digital spaces provide additional modes to tell refugee stories with music, video, and interactive elements to expand existing initiatives such as Project Unsung. In other words, our research suggests that a shift is needed where the narrative of forced displacement ceases to be dominated by humanitarian actors and these narrative spaces are returned to the communities, who have become better equipped than ever to tell their story. We need to move towards refugees telling their stories their way, on their terms.

5. Music as a data-efficient leisure activity for mental health:

Music can be downloaded on a pen drive or to a personal device and needs far less data than videos. Our research shows that, for these reasons, it is a particularly popular leisure pathway for connecting with others.

Our participants report the power of music for social connection, reducing depression, and enabling coping during adverse circumstances. Christian music preferences push us to reconsider the role of religious organizations in the effort to promote refugee well-being and community support.

The fieldwork carried out for this project suggests that some digital leisure activities can be taken forward with lower levels of investment. Music emerges as a low-cost leisure activity to improve emotional state, maintain cultural connections, and strengthen well-being, self- expression, and personal identity.

6. New forms of governance for inclusive and fair digital connectivity:

When it comes to the provision of free access to digital connectivity for displaced populations within camps and shelters, questions about who the access to digital connectivity is for, where it comes from, how it is established, and what data is collected while using these services become relevant.

We argue that digital connectivity initiatives in refugee settlements should not serve to further reinforce vulnerabilities and inequalities in these locations. Humanitarian organizations should be cognizant of how governance decisions around communal facilities can impact the power inequalities between themselves and communities, and among members of the communities they serve.

All elements – including any third parties, such as NGOs or private sector connectivity providers – need to carefully consider designs that promote social participation, rather than hinder or restrain it. This can be achieved through meaningful dialogue with communities directly about governance of such facilities, as well as through practical measures that can be put in place to reduce central control and oversight that may have privacy implications (e.g., practices to wipe data and restrict capturing of unnecessary data from users).

7. Building participatory approaches to digital leisure for refugee wellbeing:

The findings and insights provided in this report can serve as a framework that can be adopted by organizations beyond development agencies who wish to build out digital programming with a humanitarian, development, or social impact component.

We demonstrate that participatory approaches and a focus on user preferences and needs, per the methodology of this research, play a vital role within humanitarian programming within and beyond digital leisure. This bottom- up approach can pave the way forward for recognizing the potential of digital leisure literacies and practices among refugees to provide support to their community and beyond.

8. Digital archiving as a form of cultural preservation:

The lack of storage space on mobile devices is a common problem experienced by refugees, which forces them to make tough choices about what elements of their everyday life to archive. As people are displaced, leaving behind memories, sometimes digitally capturing those memories on their device is all they can do to retain to tell their story to future generations and to remind themselves of their heritage.

This problem can serve as an opportunity for aid agencies in partnership with cultural organizations and digital storage providers to support and initiate digital memory projects as a form of cultural preservation and even revival. For important and sensitive information, current solutions include RedSafe, but that platform only covers documents such as IDs and other official digital files.

It would be interesting to expand these services to other functions, such as cultural archiving and personal memories, which are critical for identity building and belonging. These initiatives can also include providing information about free and low cost storage options online. Here, researchers and practitioners should also consider how attributes such as resilience, coping strategies, aspirations, and migration experiences can be reflected in refugees’ digital memory archive projects.

9. Rethinking traditional methods of information gathering:

Typically, researchers analyze social media interactions, download applications, and store audio- visual content on mobile phones to understand people’s digital lives. However, these methods are flawed and inappropriate for marginalized groups, including displaced populations, due to shared mobile devices, gendered norms that self-censor the nature of online engagements, and a lack of data storage capacities.

If we want to gain a more truthful understanding of these populations to build sustainable programs and policies, we should create opportunities that can stimulate ways to bring out a wider spectrum of enactment beyond the typical frameworks and approaches offered.

Interview techniques deploying “What if?” questions capture people’s aspirations – which is arguably a fairer benchmark to measure their capacity than their current status quo. Aspirational media maps in this study proved to be an effective tool for understanding refugees’ relationships to technologies beyond simplistic and utilitarian forms of use and access. Where consent is given, a deeper analysis of user habits may give more depth of what truly matters to them and what kinds of memories feed into their digital media portfolios.

Participatory workshops – like the one conducted for this research on “How to be an influencer” – is just one technique of contributing to the payback culture that is prevalent within communities, by forming a fair exchange value for the time and effort they spend to educate us on their needs and wants. Workshops and other human-investment approaches to doing development research shifts these efforts from being extractive to enhancing.

After all, it is well known that people in human mobility situations often face survey fatigue and get little insight on how their contributions have shaped policy, programmes, and their everyday lives. Moreover, bottom-up, participatory designs like that of the digital leisure approach proposed here, are more in line with the need for accountability outlined in UNHCR’s Accountability for Affected People Operational Guidance toolkit.

By investing in participants by creating value in terms of community building, upskilling, and other meaningful pathways, we can learn about them in an ethical and more holistic manner.

10. Recognizing payback cultures when designing connectivity programs:

Where connectivity interventions have been undertaken to enhance personal device access or use, these have commonly equated one device with one owner, one user. The data gathered for the present report suggests that different forms of shared ownership and usage of devices need to be further understood in the design of future projects.

In such contexts of limited resources and connectivity, efforts made to increase opportunities for individual ownership are seen as social progress. However, among displaced populations and other groups living in situations of persistent precarity, even when some individuals make headway socio-economically, there is a payback culture that continues to foster the lending of devices, even beyond the family unit.

Acquaintances like tent mates, colleagues, and neighbors become proxy family members and should be incorporated into our imagining of collective ownership and digital engagement. This complicates how we should view individual versus shared ownership and connectivity.

It is important for humanitarian organizations to acknowledge the inevitable reality of device sharing and lending, among other dynamics, and adapt programming according to this reality. For instance, bespoke applications may need to be installed/uninstalled on transfer of device from one individual to another, meaning web-based apps may provide for greater continuity.

11. Incorporate parents into child-centered initiatives:

In the last decades, popular initiatives from Sugata Mitra and Nicholas Negroponte have led to a burgeoning of child-centric models for digital development.

Current programmes often focus on formal education structures to engage with parents and children but it is important to consider how digital spaces blur the limits between formal and informal spaces – and the key role of families in supporting more holistic approaches to digital inclusion that consider safety as fundamental.

In displaced contexts, for instance, parental control over devices is an effort to achieve normalcy in family life. It is an essential coping mechanism and helps appropriately socialize their children to digital norms in spite of the adverse circumstances. To invest in children, we need to invest in the family, given the extensive negotiation over when and how devices and data are shared and used.

12. Facing misinformation by being present and empowering the community:

Since social media platforms including but not limited to WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are key portals of misinformation, grant agencies should focus on being present in these digital spaces and operating in ways that empower the community members they serve. This can be done by engaging with refugee leaders and influencers, in line with UNHCR guidance on Using Social Media in Community Based Protection, and generating partnerships that enable collective checking of contents that raise suspicion among the community, in collaboration with fact checking and other information-based organizations.

Some platforms, including WhatsApp, provide guidelines in various languages to prevent the spread of disinformation, a greater focus could be given to forcibly displaced people and the information that is relevant to them. Previous interventions by companies such as Google have focused on educating the general public on disinformation about refugees, while fact-checking organizations such as Poynter have proposed systematic processes to identify and counter disinformation about refugees as well as a global database on refugee-related disinformation.

More initiatives to tackle information aimed at refugee communities in collaboration with the communities themselves would represent an important development. There are various factsheets and guidelines to minimize the sharing of misinformation among refugee communities, but these focus mainly on external actors who play a role in sharing information to these communities.

It is necessary to expand these to initiatives to include community members in a more significant way. Aside from bringing direct benefits to the community, inclusive, refugee-centered interventions can help elucidate the mechanisms behind fake news spread and how to address it among the affected communities.

13. Word of mouth, misinformation, and information practices:

Digital leisure activities often converge with the consumption and sharing of information. In this sense, our fieldwork suggests that a lot of refugees’ digital practices are shaped by their beliefs and trust structures. Refugees find it challenging to get news about their hometown or to try emerging technologies that may make their lives easier, such as cryptocurrencies. Refugees use the same platforms for leisure and information – for instance, WhatsApp is used to communicate with loved ones, consume videos and music, and to get trusted information about what is happening back home.

It is important to note the guidelines provided within existing UNHCR policy documents – such as the Using Social Media in Community Based Protection Guide, specifically the factsheet on “Influencers and how to choose them” – and expand the implementation of these practices across different refugee contexts. The suitability of different models to track and counter mis- and disinformation should be considered.

For instance, the establishment of stand-alone rumor tracking systems would be beneficial in cases where rumors have a key role in information-seeking practices. This system relies on a network of trusted people that are influential in the community to “reinforce and support existing information nodes”. The first step for aid agencies is acknowledging the importance of misinformation emerging from refugees’ countries of origin and the impact of such misinformation on the digital habits of communities in host countries. The second step is to find ways to facilitate and contribute to reducing these while noting the complex network of actors involved..

14. Increase awareness of digital risks:

Refugees use different social media platforms and apps to make sense of their new surroundings and navigate their hosting environment on their own terms. However, many are not aware how their data is collected by the digital platforms they use, including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

In line with the UNHCR Using Social Media in Community Based Protection Guide, it is important to carry out risk assessments that contextualize the case of refugees coming from specific countries and their information needs in their new locations. There is an opportunity that researchers and aid agencies need to meet by engaging refugees in discussions about data collection via their mobiles phones and social media platforms.

Rather than only training refugees how to use their social media accounts, websites, or digital devices, the goal is also to provide people with access to relevant information that can enable them to critically reflect and make informed decisions about their own digital and data practices.

Lightly edited recommendations from The Digital Leisure Divide and the Forcibly Displaced

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One Comment to “We Must Include Leisure and Entertainment Services in Digital Humanitarian Solutions”

  1. Edmond says:

    Thank you for an excellent post, especially in terms of its representation of refugee wants and needs in relation to digital spaces and spaces for digital use, and for highlighting non-refugees assumptions about device ownership and use.