The newspaper editor described (by his own newspaper, at least) as being "at the forefront of the digital revolution" has launched a three year programme that will connect "the ideas, goodwill, resources and expert knowledge of 15 million readers around the world" and focus them on lifting an African village "out of the Middle Ages." Over the next three years, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote in Saturday's edition, the village of Katine in Northern Uganda will be mapped and recorded by teams of Graun hacks observing progress in this "catalyst for change."
Rusbridger's lengthy screed is in some senses merely a windier and more complicated way of saying "Give us your fockin money!". The actual work on the ground in Katine is being carried out by NGO AMREF, while seed money of £500,000 is being provided by Barclays, which is pledged to give a further £1 million to match readers' donations over the life of the project. The Guardian has chipped in £100,000, which we would hazard is somewhat less than it has budgeted for the coverage, and is about a tenth of what the good Rusbridger himself is likely to gross over the next three years.
AMREF (African Medical & Research Foundation) is a highly competent and experienced organisation that has been operational in East Africa for 50 years, and has produced a comprehensive plan for Katine. Barclays is also highly experienced as a corporate giver, so its place in the arrangement is also clear. And the Guardian?
In the bad old days of dead trees and meatspace newspapers had a role, and if it was not always a wholly honourable one (e.g. Robert Maxwell's 1984 'mercy dash' to Ethiopia), they had an impact. Key aspects of Saint Bob's Live Aid achievement are that he was able to recruit the bulk of the west's media to the cause, and has continued to beat money and mindshare out of the issue for the best part of 20 years. He's no slouch, and he hates email, so what's not to like? Rusbridger - just the one newspaper, no Geldof, and in search of a fresh angle - clearly has a challenge to rise to. So, enter the interactive project, the big conversation, fly-on-the-wall meets Web 2.0, to reinvent the disaster appeal for the digital age.
"Would it be possible," muses Rusbridger, "to find a way of dramatising an issue so that it held attention beyond Christmas, even for as long as three years? Of connecting the ideas, goodwill, resources and expert knowledge of 15 million readers around the world and focusing them on one problem?... Could there be a model for using web-based technologies - and the power to link and harness people - that could be developed by other western communities, whether businesses, schools or towns? Why twin your village with one in Belgium if you could twin it with one in Uganda?"
He is venturing onto tricky ground here, not least with the Belgians. Katine has no electricity, minimal healthcare and education, malaria, HIV and security and infrastructure problems. So aside from allowing the audience to link up with one another, the "web-based technologies" don't look like being a great deal of use in the immediate future. But the Guardian, continues Rusbridger, "can involve a huge community of readers and web-users around the world and find ways of linking them in to what we're doing."
Aside from money, he says hopefully, "just as importantly we need advice and involvement. Among our readers are water engineers, doctors, solar energy experts, businessmen and women, teachers, nurses, farmers. We absolutely don't need a stampede of volunteers, but we would like a technical know-how bank of people who are prepared to offer time and advice. We'll let you know how to get involved as we go."
And we'll look forward to hearing that because right now, try as we may, we find it difficult to see what it is other then donations, and publicity fuelling donations, that AMREF really needs from the Guardian's readership. Experts it has already, knowledge of the situation on the ground it has already, projects it has already, but it does need money.
We are however prepared to be surprised. So far at the big conversation's blog, mentions of cheap laptops are as yet minimal, and Rusbridger has (with some justification) been taken to task for categorising Katine as being trapped in the 14th Century. Links to the Guardian's coverage of Katine so far can be found at the end of Rusbridger's introductory piece. ®