Curation Culture: USAID and the Mashup

10/22/2012 06:30 pm ET | Updated Dec 22, 2012

"To begin with, the context in which we operate has shifted." -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the introduction to USAID's 2012 "Frontiers in Development" publication

In order to illuminate the contemporary conversation about foreign aid and policy we're going to have to talk for a second about mashups.

Mashups are what happen when, for example, contemporary rap soundbytes are layered over recognizable and well-loved general public bass lines, or "Singin' in the Rain" is cut up to a techno beat. It's a sonic re-contextualization. It can seem sacrilegious. It can also be a lot of fun.

Like it or not, context and re-contextualization are here to stay -- and not just on YouTube. We can start in the ivory tower, where contemporary theory in the humanities, specifically in those subjects that deal with rendering for an audience, tends toward an acknowledgement that context really is everything. This is true in my two favorite humanities discourses: translation studies (are we translating 1001 Nights for an audience of young students who need a way in to another culture, or are we hoping to preserve the subtle allusions and rhythms of the Arabic language for more mature readers?) and performance studies (are we hoping to show an audience how applicable the themes of Richard III are to today's election-obsessed media, or would putting the actors in business suits and motorcycle jackets defile the Bard's sacred text?)

"Context is everything" is also true in contemporary discussion around foreign policy and foreign aid --which are also activities inherently geared towards a specific group, or what literary translators would call the "target audience." While we're at it, we can also bring current network theory and information theory in on this, because context is first and foremost a concept, and as such, can continually be rendered in new spaces -- such as the Internet. When I first heard of Twitter as more than a "second Facebook," it was through a friend telling me about Andy Carvin, the "news curation guy at NPR" whom anyone interested in real-time verification of information about the Middle East and the Arab Spring is sure to be following. At that point it was still unusual to me for "curation" to be used in any way outside of museum curating. How can one curate news? I wondered. I remembered that former State Department Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter's Twitter byline includes the descriptor "foreign policy curator."

So what does curation actually mean? Curation implies a specific space, and when the space isn't a physical one, like a museum, it's a discursive one. Carvin manages a great deal of crowd-sourcing information from the ground, authenticating citizen journalism pouring in in 140-character increments from Tunisia, from Cairo, from Libya. The discursive space is that which revolves around the Arab Spring, and Carvin's a curator. Art curators find, acquire, and take care of objects, things. They decide which paintings go up. Foreign policy curator Anne-Marie Slaughter decides which policy articles are on-point, thought-provoking, and/or productive enough to pass on to her near-50,000 followers. There are now so many people out there proclaiming this or that that we depend more and more on these modern "gatekeepers" to tell us where to look -- but each of them is only the gatekeeper to a certain space. With so much information out there, no one person can know everything: Curators are only curators in certain contexts. Slaughter especially works to bring in people from very different fields to the conversation around foreign policy, and in so doing, not only singlehandedly ups the inclusivity of that discourse but represents a new kind of American on the international stage: one who a) understands that we need all hands on deck to tackle issues today; and b) isn't afraid to conceive of the role of a leader as a facilitator of a certain space.

Annnnd we're back to "context" -- a word that shows up over the course of USAID's "Frontiers in Development " thirty-one times. The first is in the above quote from Secretary Clinton in the intro; the last is in an essay by yours truly. And in between, the word is used by everyone from Admiral James Stavridis to Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin in nod after nod to the fact that a grasp of context is fundamental to any development effort that's remotely modern or innovative. Western literary translators working to render the Quran into English would do well to know about the "source text" that in the Islamic faith, God spoke the words of the holy text in actual Arabic and that the text of the Quran is not believed to be a symbol or translation of his words. Development community members working to render democracy tangible to the people of a post-conflict state would do well to know that economic formulas coming from developed countries ("source nations," maybe?) that fail to be context-sensitive won't work for emergent economies in fragile states (as Timor-Leste's Finance Minister Emilia Pires points out in her essay): They must work with the needs and views of the people who are meant to benefit from the effort -- in other words, they need to know the "target audience" they're translating the idea for. The current President of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, echoed this sentiment at USAID's Frontiers in Development Forum, the conference to which the book is a companion, in June when she spoke passionately about the need for the international community to partner with local institutions and regional governments in young democracies for any development effort to come to sustained fruition.

At the Frontiers conference, Rajiv Shah, a young Obama appointee who took up his post as USAID Administrator less than a week before the crisis in Haiti, spoke about the far-reaching "Forward Movement" USAID is implementing with partners from pretty much every sector (conference panel members included everybody from Mandy Moore and Christy Turlington to five current or former female heads of state to video salutations from Bill Gates and Tony Blair). Shah is serious about his remixing: In June he was on a panel with the vice president of Duke Energy and in the last weeks he's been all over the Midwest talking to land grant university undergraduates. At one point during Frontiers he lauded new applications of old ideas he'd never thought of before, even, he seemed to suggest, outlandish ones. Kind of like Talib Kweli mixed with Coldplay. Which actually sounds pretty good to me.