Advice, Jobs

How To Write So You Won’t Be Ignored

This year, you will write something that almost nobody will read. You will probably write several things that nobody will read. Write with the assumption that no one wants to read what you’re writing: convince them that they should.

A lot of people do not communicate effectively. In all offices, in all organisations and all sectors you will receive hundreds of written documents that are confusing or boring (this includes emails!) and, in the end, don’t actually achieve much at all. It can be very frustrating.

This is not something that particularly afflicts interns – many managers and supervisors suffer the same issue – but it is an excellent asset for younger people looking to make an impression. Many people will tell university students to learn technical skills like data analysis or engineering or ICT knowledge. This is sensible advice. But I do think that it’s worth remembering simpler skills, ones that don’t necessarily require a stay in university (in fact, academic training is probably one of the main culprits for bad communication in the field of international development). After all, everybody complains about jargon and acronymitis – let’s do something about that.

I recently put together a short presentation on this topic as part of my fellowship programme with the Grameen Foundation. It’s a short series of tips and tricks that are well worth remembering.

We live in a world that is spectacularly, almost absurdly saturated with information. If you want people to pay attention to anything you are adding to this over-abundance, you’d better make sure it’s clear and easy to read.

This borrowed heavily from the terrific book I mentioned at the end, Writing That Works. I heartily recommend it to all the development interns out there. The long quote is well-known but, in my mind, unbeatable and was written by the great Gary Provost.

Standard
Experiences

Getting Lost At The EU-Africa Summit

It is easy to forget that Brussels is the second most powerful city in the world. The smell of frites fill the air, policemen stroll down the streets puffing on cigarettes and tourists huddle around a statue of a tiny, peeing boy. It is an unkempt, slightly disorganised town, not quite the capital city home to the European Union, NATO and, of course, the Belgian government. Then Obama arrived, closely followed by Chinese Premier Xi Jingpao. A week later around sixty Heads of State from both Europe and Africa follow suit.

Within a matter of days, Brussels exploded into a flurry of policemen and barricades. No longer could you park, unticketed, five meters from the Commission building. Snipers lined the buildings outside of the Council and helicopters patrolled the skies day and night.

It was for the Fourth EU-Africa Summit that I had managed to slip out of Oxfam for a couple of days under the guise of a journalist working for the Europhilic online paper CaféBabel to cover this event. My first summit as an amateur journalist would be one which would bring together a bizarre mix democrats, kings, polygamists and bureaucrats in the name of “People, Prosperity and Peace”. This was an opportunity for the populists to say something outlandish, for the political nobodies to huddle with the elites and, at the end, extol a new era as “a partnership of equals”.

History has entwined the two continents, but despite Europe being by far the largest donor of foreign aid, the Summit arrived at a time of tension. Migration and failed trade talks represent two of the key disputes, as well as the older issue of human rights emerging with new crackdowns on LGBT communities. The EU refused to invite a representative from neither Western Sahara nor Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, contributing to Robert Mugabe’s boycotting of the event.

In the jungle of photographers at the VIP entrance, the president of Niger briefly stopped for the camera’s to say “Europe doesn’t care about Africa”.

Expecting further anti-colonial sentiments and heated table-thumping I  headed for the press zone where hundreds of journalists from the global media frantically typed on their computers and consumed copious amounts of coffee. I felt entirely lost, out of my depth. It quickly became apparent to me that, unless you are from high-brow media, you were doomed to watch from the sidelines. Despite frantic requests for interviews with anyone from the King of Swaziland to the President of Latvia, CaféBabel held no swing with their press officers.

My image of stumbling across a story quickly disappeared; this was a job for the BBC or AFP, not a blog with a readership entirely disinterested by African development. Instead, I saw this as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about a continent I know little more about than a few well-constructed Oxfam sound bites.

With this is mind, I wondered across a press briefing from Madagascar. Now this is a country I know nothing about. As I waited for the conference to start, I looked up a few things. Madagascar: unstable political structure, President who resembles Kim Jong-Un, national language French. The last point was disconcerting for me, but I stayed put. In came the President to a room of around seven journalists, surrounded by a few officers, and delivered his speech in a language I could not speak. He looked happy, so I smiled at him, but the other journalists – primarily from African press – were frowning, scribbling frantically on their pads. It later transpired that he was desperately trying to convince us that “rule of law” was being restored in his country.

Outside of the sporadic press conferences, the leaders spent most of their time huddled round conference tables reading statements on issues as broad as trade deals to gay rights, climate change to migration. Naturally my press credentials didn’t allow me access to this room, so like most of the journalists we sat in the press briefing room watching it on a big screen (without translation and streamed online). I think in my mind I imagined walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders, watching their discussions live; not on a TV next to a passed-out cameraman.

Disheartened, I went to a jargon-filled briefing on Europe’s imminent intervention in the Central African Republic; interesting, but uninspiring. I had no story, just a few quotes already broadcast and published online. With little to write about, I headed for the exit. But chance was on my side again as I stumbled in on another press conference; this time with Hollande and Merkel. It was genuinely exciting and the atmosphere was buzzing. It might be true that, for a first time journalist, a summit might not give much room for original thought, but as the two prominent heads of states entered the room, I realised that it didn’t matter. I was sitting in a room with some of media’s biggest European correspondents, watching the President of France and the Chancellor of Merkel deliver their vision on Africa’s future; it might not excite everyone, but it fascinated me.

 

Standard
Learning

Age of Sustainable Development: Introduction

This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.

If you are passionate about international development, you’ve probably heard/read the name Jeffrey Sachs more times than you can count. Whether you disagree completely with his proposals or you absolutely adore his ideas and intend to follow his footsteps (see these Foreign Policy articles for overviews of Sachs’ view and his opponents’ views), reading him and judging is probably a given if you want to get into global development.

So, as a form of rite of passage from a development-curious person towards an opinionated development intern, we’ve (that is, Holly and Michelle) decided to take Sach’s new online course “The Age of Sustainable Development” on Coursera.

Part of what attracted me (Michelle) to the course was coherence. Sachs proposes a multidimensional approach for development and yet, he seemed unreachable for a regular student outside of the New York area. Joining the Coursera team shows commitment to the idea of trying to make education more accessible to people around the world, as one of the challenges within the societal dimension.

The course itself has a simple design. The lectures, split into manageable chunks of between ten to fifteen minutes, were interspersed with questions ensuring that any listener would remain focused. Each session is then followed by a quiz, that focuses on what should have been learnt from the lessons, along with building participants’ awareness of information tools such as gapminder.com or data.worldbank.org/indicator. The quiz is designed to encourage the use of both qualitative and quantitative skills, asking you to interpret graphic data and calculate possibilities. Finally, the course website has a forum feature, which allows you to create and respond to threads, opening the possibility of discussion on a particular topic of interest from the lesson with other users/students.

The first session was enjoyable. As enjoyable as looking at shocking statistics about the current state of affairs is, of course. It is true that some of the facts that were introduced were not new to us; however, they served to set the context we will be working on, in and outside the course. An example of the more well known facts with which he opens up the subject were:

  • 7.2 billion people currently inhabit the world, out of which more than 1 billion live in extreme poverty.
  • In a world with greater economic production, the population has risen alongside that – it more than tripled in the 20th century. We are expected to reach 8 billion people by 2024 or 2025.
  • Half of this expanding world population lives in cities, designed to support a certain(…ly far smaller) amount of people. By 2030 the percentage will rise to 70%. An important part of human development will thus depend on sustainable urbanization, smart cities, smart architecture, smarter technological systems, etc.
  • Misguided technological advancement can physically (i.e. environmentally) hurt the earth. Not only are the CO2 emissions affecting the ozone layer, but they affect the chemistry of the ocean, making its water more acidic. The way we put nitrogen based fertilizers into the soil, in such large amounts, changes the normal nitrogen cycle.

This definitely gives you something to think about…

But while all of the technical information was very informative there were two main ideas which showed why the course will be a great time investment. The first one being that Sustainable Development is not only analytical but also a normative for an ethical approach. What is a good society? From this basic question Sachs presents his idea about the triple-bottom-line approach, economy, society, and environment. And, of course, the list of words that compose the ‘development jargon‘ these days: socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, good governance – the list goes on.

The second idea stems from all of the topics presented: at the essence of Sustainable Development is problem solving. A starting point towards defining sensible goals for a crowded, interconnected planet. This problem solving focus is strongly emphasised by Sachs.

If we keep these two ideas in mind while watching the video-lessons, we might actually be able to understand the concept of Sustainable Development objectively. Building on what is said (in, admittedly, Sachs’ well-known perspective) but without limiting ourselves to it.

Standard
Learning

“The existing measures of [state quality or capacity] have a number of limitations. There is an inherent weakness in expert surveys, especially when trying to create time-series data. Since the concept of [good governance] is not well established, different experts may intend different things when responding to the same survey question.”

Francis Fukuyama, 2013

If you replaced the phrases I have put in square brackets with practically any from the jargon heavy grammar of development, you would be making an equally valid point.

Worth thinking about the next time you read a report or (even worse) some article proclaiming to indicate the consensus on such issues.

Read the full paper here

Terms of Development

Quote