All posts by Guest Author/s

People wait at a UN distribution centre in Haiti.

On cognitive dissonance: Local ownership & constant learning

Jonathan Favini’s recent WhyDev post on cognitive dissonance in development raised issues that are near and dear to many in the sector, from recognising aid failures to working in a flawed industry to receiving praise from outsiders. A recent college grad, Jonathan ended his piece with some thoughtful questions to more experienced aid workers.

How have you integrated recognition of the industry’s flaws into your professional identity? How have you learned to recognize development’s problems, while continuing to work in the field or advocating for its expansion? How do you motivate yourselves on tough days when you doubt the impact of your efforts?

We’ve compiled several interesting and insightful responses from people with varied experience in development (and blogging!). This post is the first in a short series of reflections on these topics.

Chris Planicka – Program Associate, EcoAgriculture Partners & Aid Blogger

“These types of doubts and questions help me to remain humble in my work. I try to present myself as a facilitator or enabler, one who helps people to achieve their own goals but whose own role is minimal. Most people I work with, especially at local levels in developing countries, appreciate this stance, as they can see the problems in development work all too clearly.

Indeed, I am quite aware of the many problems in this industry, and sometimes the doubts Jonathan described, and other challenges, can be overwhelming. To motivate myself in this work, I try to do the following: learn from mistakes and errors (both mine and others’) to avoid repeating them and to improve other work; make special note of success stories when I do find them and remember them for future reference; and never take myself too seriously, especially in interactions with people offering praise for ‘doing good work’ or ‘helping people.’ They may mean well, but they do not fully understand the work I do (and that’s not really their fault, either).”

Chad Bissonnette – Co-founder & Executive Director, Roots of Development

“I couldn’t incorporate the industry’s flaws into my identity, so I decided to start my own organisation. That way, I decided I could work within the field, but as ‘outside the industry’ as possible.

Like most in the field, I am constantly observing and analysing the flaws of the industry, and using my conclusions about them to form the approach we use at Roots of Development. Since most of our budget comes from individual donors, we have even greater flexibility to do it differently. Most individual donors trust us enough and believe in our approach enough to allow us to do it the way we feel we need to do it. They let us mold, form and change our programming based on the direction of the communities with whom we work and the lessons we learn from working with them.

I think the days you find yourself doubting the impact of your efforts are very important. I have learned to take those days and use them to analyse two things: 1) Look at the effort to try and see where we may have gone astray or strayed from our core principles. 2) Make sure I am not solely evaluating the impact through my culturally-biased understanding of it and of standards of success.

I believe that when you doubt the impact of your effort, it’s either because the effort is actually flawed or because you’re judging it from your cultural context. In the first case, it’s important to identify where you went astray and get back on track. In the second, it’s likely you need to remind yourself whom the effort is actually for, and find out how they are feeling about the impact.

It is once again a reminder to me of how important local ownership is in every aspect of international development and how important it is for me (us) to remain in a supportive role instead of a managerial one.”

Check back next week for thoughts from more of your favourite aid workers and bloggers – and share your own responses in the comments.

Children use a water pump in Rwanda. Photo by Charity:Water.

Complexity, clarity, simplicity: Storytelling in global development

We’re talking about storytelling today in honour of the launch of The Development Element, a new and easy-to-use set of guidelines on communicating about global poverty.

By Daniel Lombardi

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” -Albert Einstein

How do you tell a complex story clearly? What if that story belongs to someone else? This is the very essence of development communications: telling other people’s stories.

I recently talked to three different communications professionals working in the development field (a public relations associate, a videographer and a photojournalist) about how they communicate complex stories about other people without oversimplifying. Their answers illustrated a model of communication in which stories must be simplified, to some extent, in order to make them engaging and clear to the reader or viewer.

I like to think of these three ideas as a gradient, with complexity at one end, simplicity at the other and clarity somewhere in between. The challenge is finding the right place on this gradient for a particular audience. Inevitably, you have to simplify some of the story, usually by leaving things out, to retain the audience’s attention.

But be wary of oversimplifying, which could, among other things, mislead the audience and deny the dignity of the people in the story.

As an illustration, here is Carine Umuhumuza, a former communications associate at the Enough Project, describing how she communicates about conflict, mass violence and genocide in East Africa without oversimplifying.

“We work really closely with the policy analysts to make sure none of the substance is lost, and really focus on making sure jargon is eliminated. We also work hard to make sure we link the threads for our audiences and connect the ideas and points of our work to things they can relate to.

At the base of our work is telling the stories of families, women, men and children whose lives have been severely impacted by a series of events – bad governance, evil rulers, etc. That is something we can all relate to: we all understand loss, fear and the desire for basic human rights.”

Umuhumuza’s comments illustrate the Complexity-Clarity-Simplicity Model nicely. First, jargon is often unneeded and even detrimental. It creates unnecessary complexity, and removing it can clarify the story without oversimplifying.

Another easy way to add depth to a simple story is by hyperlinking. For online communications, linking to articles with more information is a great way to let the audience decide how much complexity they want. Given this possibility, the actual communication can serve as an entry point into a topic, rather than attempting to explain a story in depth.

I wanted to get some other perspectives on this question, so I also asked Charity:Water’s in-house filmmaker, Jamie Pent, about how she tells other people’s stories in a clear way:

“The audience that watch our videos are anywhere from five- to ninety-year-olds, so we have to make sure anyone can understand the message. Thankfully, the very basic concept we need to get across is that 800 million people don’t have access to clean water and you, the viewer, can make a difference. It really is that simple.

Obviously, things are far more complicated than that when you dig deeper. Internally, we have teams that work with the local partners to decide what water source is best for this region, where we can dig a well, how many water points in an area, the cost of the water point, etc. But for the purposes of the video, all we need to explain is that people need water and here’s how you can help.

The challenge for me is how to tell this story in a new way that will engage new viewers and loyal fans alike. Every place I’ve travelled to so far has been incredibly unique with as diverse stories as there are people, so it hasn’t been too difficult to find inspiration for how to tell the stories.”

It seems that, for Pent and Charity:Water, the clarity sweet spot is much simpler than it is for the Enough Project. Obviously their audiences and the stories they tell are quite different.

Knowing the specific sweet spot for your audience, and the goal of the communication, is key. Are you trying to raise awareness about specific conflicts and policies, like the Enough Project? Are you trying to raise money for a certain program? Are you trying to explain what your organisation does as a whole?

Phil Moore, a Nairobi-based photojournalist, offers a unique perspective on the question of simplicity. I asked him about how he tells a complex story with just an image:

“One of the advantages of living in the region where I work is that I am often afforded more time to spend on stories, rather than simply “dropping in” when a story is big in the news. For example in eastern Congo in 2012, I had spent months covering the M23 rebellion before it really made it big in the international news.

Being primarily a photographer, I often have little control on exactly how reductionist the associated article is, but by working for publications that tend to do quality coverage, one can predict how one’s work will be presented.

I would also argue that at times my work can be presented in a “simplified” manner, but depending on audience type. If I feel I have done in-depth work on a subject—and the reportage is there—then I don’t necessarily have a problem with a “simpler version” of that work being presented in a publication that is not going to dedicate the space to a full story. Whilst I lament the general superficial nature of many publications’ coverage of the region, I also recognize that many people simply are not interested in these issues.

So if I can present a basic version of the issue and it inspires someone to read more about it elsewhere, and get engaged in a subject that they were previously uninterested in or simply did not know about, then that is fantastic. At times, it’s also possible to focus on a particular microcosm of a story and present its complexities through a narrower angle that people who do not have in-depth knowledge of a subject can understand and engage with.”

Like Moore says, simplifying a story is not always a bad thing – in fact, it’s often necessary. However, the ways in which the story is simplified are not insignificant. When news outlets aren’t willing to dedicate a huge amount of space to a story, the best development communicators can do may be to simplify very carefully. The backlash against a poorly-told or overly-simplified story can be tremendous.

The communicator’s job is to find the balance between complexity and simplicity that allows them to accurately tell the story in a manner the audience can clearly understand.

A few important and practical lessons emerge from these interviews: remove unnecessary jargon, hyperlink to contextual information and know your purpose and audience. Finally, accept some level of simplification as the price of getting the information out there.

Daniel Lombardi is a writer, photographer and filmmaker who produces creative media for humanitarian organisations. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.


Young humanitarians: Challenging the stereotype of Generation Y

By Agency team

Gen Yers who are reading this will be familiar with a battle we share. A battle we could probably fight and win, if we could be bothered to get up off our parents’ couches and tear ourselves away from the screens we apparently love…but, well… “Meh.” Plus, I’m way too much of a commitmaphobe to risk engaging in a battle.

In case you’re not picking up on my sarcasm, the battle I speak of is the battle against the Gen Y stereotype. And for those of us who don’t identify with this stereotype, the message that we’re “self-centred, irresponsible, apathetic leechers” is getting pretty old.

Like every generation, ours has its faults. And sure, some of us need to say YOLO a bit less often and start thinking more of others. But, at least in the circles I move in, there’s also an abundance of millennials who are looking outside themselves and are fully awake to the world around them.

We care about global inequality, politics and the environment, and we’re optimistic enough to believe we can leave the legacy of a world with fewer scars than the one we’re inheriting.

If you’re in Melbourne on 30 August, you could be lucky enough to witness a 250-strong group of said humanitarian millennials converge on the Royal Exhibition Building for Expanse, a conference that aims to give Gen Yers “the tools they need to start the fight for greater justice and equality in the world.”

Expanse is the brainchild of Agency, a creative studio working in communications and media, and brings some of the biggest charitable organisations in the world together in one room. World Vision, Oaktree, UN Youth and are all taking part, and they’re calling on “student leaders, advocates, speakers, thinkers and dreamers to join them.”

If you are a Gen Yer with dreams for a more just and equal world, then Expanse is the conference for you. You can use the Internet (coming out of the screen you’re glued to) while you read this to learn more and register for Expanse.

Oh, and in case you’re feeling anxious about it, you can check-in to the conference on your smart phone, and there will be hashtags and selfies-a-plenty, so you can ease your FOMO. We’ll just be using social media for social good, not evil.

Agency is a creative studio and social enterprise based in Sydney. The company works on branding, design, video and digital and interactive experiences for projects that further human development, foster human rights and drive social equity. You can check out their website or follow them on Twitter.

[Expanse is a one-day conference that uses interactive and engaging ways to teach young people about global issues and help them develop the tools to solve global problems. Organisations like WhyDev will be at the event to help participants understand global development networks and how they can participate in the community. If you're around (and aged 16-24), consider attending the conference, and be sure to stop by our table! We'd love to learn more about your interests and hear your ideas on how we can make WhyDev a better resource for young people. Use the code WD896 to get $5 off your registration.]


Starving for awareness

By Francisco Toro

Like most right-thinking people, I had decided to devote 1 July to football. After Argentina’s grinding, 1-0 defeat of Switzerland, I was getting ready to enjoy the USA-Belgium match, when a link on Twitter caught my eye. “As food shortages hit 800,000 African refugees,” warned the press release, “UNHCR and WFP issue urgent appeal.”

The story is entirely garish: the kind of too-awful-to-be-true story we’ve all gotten so adept at seeing-and-not-seeing. Due a budget shortfall, UN agencies had to cut food rations for refugees throughout Africa. In some cases, people are getting as much as 60% less to eat. The new rations, The Guardian warned, come to scarcely 850 calories a day.

We’re all supposed to be grown ups, able to read-but-not-read a story like that, right? And yet, this time, I couldn’t. As I tried to concentrate on the USMNT’s valiant-but-doomed stand against the tactically superior Belgians, my mind kept drifting back.

“850 calories. How can you even live on that?”

One day's rations
One day’s rations – 150g sorghum, 30g lentils, 25g oil, 5g salt, 5g sugar

I think most people who go into advocacy have a moment like that, when a story not so different from the ones you’re used to just passing over stays with you, tugs at you, worms its way into your every thought, becomes unignorable. That night, I found myself up at 3am, turning it over on my mind, re-reading the UNHCR story, looking for extra information (of which there wasn’t any).

I guess I’m pretty green on these issues, because I really thought over the next few days I’d start to see this story crop up other places. I mean, this is a famine brewing inside UN facilities, affecting people living under the international community’s protection. Surely the story had legs.

The days went by, and I found myself first confused, then dismayed, and finally shocked to be disabused of this hope. The story about the food crisis inside UNHCR refugee camps was going absolutely nowhere. It came, it blipped, it disappeared into the digital oblivion of a public sphere saturated with football and Hobby Lobby and downed Malaysia Airlines jets.

“These Africans sure picked a lousy weak for the UN to run out of money to feed them,” I mused darkly and tried to move on. But I couldn’t move on. I was stuck.

“How would you like it if you had to live on…” I found myself ranting at my wife. And at that moment, the idea came to me.

By the end of that week, a first draft of 850 Calories was online, and I was frantically trying to figure out how to get people to join me. I bet if people experienced for themselves what it’s like to live for even one day on African refugee rations, they wouldn’t be comfortable to know this is happening to 800,000 people whose only “crime” is fleeing from conflicts that threatened their lives.

So there’s indignation, of course, at the wellspring of the campaign, but there’s also analysis. There’s a reason UNHCR and WFP face the kind of funding gap that’s left them no choice but to drastically cut back on African refugees’ food rations. And it comes back to that complete information gap I saw in the days following their joint appeal. Nobody’s heard this story, so nobody cares to tell this story, so nobody writes this story – with some very few, fantastically brave exceptions.

Refugees in Central Africa are suspended in a vicious cycle of Western disengagement and international neglect, the cost of which is measured in stunted children, anemic mothers, child brides and community breakdown. The Western politicians who ultimately control the purse-strings find it eminently easy to ignore the agencies’ pleas for money, because none of their constituents have ever heard this story, and they’re thus under no pressure whatsoever to act.

This, I think, is why 850 Calories is different from things like One Day without Shoes or the infamous Kony2012 campaign. Those are cases where the fact of Western awareness, of it “being a thing,” didn’t necessarily do anything to solve the problem. Shoelessness is an intractable problem, and Boko Haram is a war machine the West would struggle to face down even if it made military commitments many orders of magnitude larger than what hastagtivism can accomplish.

But the food crisis inside UNHCR’s camps is different. Here’s a situation where, in fact, just making it “a thing” would produce pressure for Western politicians to solve the problem. If people start to take the 850 challenge, post about it, tweet about it, get their friends doing it and get them posting and thinking about it, the problem could go from total invisibility to cultural ubiquity a lot quicker than folks realize. That would create the kind of environment in which politicians have strong reasons to fund the UNHCR-WFP appeal, and the funding is all that’s missing now. After all, the camps are already there, the refugees are already registered, the logistics are already in place, the only thing missing is the money. Well, the money, and the will.

850 Calories is just starting, and I have no idea if it’ll ever have its “viral” moment. Experts tell me that, with its absence of a clearly identifiably bad guy and its focus on a largely unheard-of crisis, it may not.

It may be that we just let refugees in Central Africa starve to death slowly under our “protection.” That’s the crude reality – the least we can do is face it squarely.

I’m just one guy with a keyboard in Montreal. It may be that there isn’t really anything I can do to stop that. But Thomas Friedman’s been boring us to death for years now about how we’re all “hyper-empowered” thanks to the net and, personally, I’d much rather give it a shot and fail than never try at all.

Francisco Toro is a Montreal-based journalist, blogger and activist. He blogs at Boring Development, and you can follow him on Twitter.


Complex? Nah, just a Tuesday.

By Katherine Gilbert & Rebecca Spratt

Complexity is the latest buzzword in development, but with good reason. Our work is complex, not just because of the kinds of issues we work on or the contexts in which we work, but also because being an international development practitioner is a complex thing.

Whether we are staff of an NGO, an academic or an independent consultant, we are continually playing multiple roles and meeting multiple, at times conflicting, demands. Every day, we work across cultures and through multi-layered relationships of power that we must learn to navigate and that frequently challenge our values, beliefs and assumptions.

Unfortunately, there are no simple, universal instructions on how to manage these complexities. Reams of butcher paper and megabytes of PowerPoint presentations have been used to provide guidance on being a good development worker. Our personal experience is that the conversations with our colleagues (typically over a drink, often in dingy hotel rooms and airport lounges) have been the most valuable.

Our best source of professional development and support has been the opportunity to share experiences and perspectives, to challenge and be challenged, and most importantly to laugh at ourselves.

With this in mind, we are running a series of conversations in Melbourne on the second Tuesday of every month, beginning 12 August (ahh, now the name makes sense!). The series is aimed at middle- and senior-level international development practitioners, from across the NGO, academic, consultancy and volunteer sectors.

With the help of a few of the leading voices on development practice in Australia, we will reflect on the complexities that we face in our day-to-day work, how we manage them now, and how we might do better in future.

Melbourne Development Futures
Last year’s Melbourne Development Futures event

If you like the idea of some structured ranting, accompanied by Shebeen’s excellent selection of beverages, come along! The sessions interlink, and we hope that over the course of the sessions you will feel increasingly comfortable to speak openly and honestly.

To contribute to this kind of environment where people will feel comfortable, we ask that you register for all five sessions, although we know you might not make it for all of them. A small contribution is requested to cover the venue fee.

For more information and to register, visit our Eventbrite page.

Katherine Gilbert worked on strengthening social service delivery and improving aid effectiveness with the UN in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Haiti for seven years. Over the past six months, she has worked as a research fellow at a Melbourne-based university on a health sector study in the Solomon Islands.

Rebecca Spratt has worked in international aid and development for over ten years, mainly in the areas of education, civil society strengthening and advocacy. Rebecca is currently based in Melbourne as an independent consultant, having previously worked for government, NGO and private sector agencies in New Zealand and Australia.


10 tricks to appear smart during development meetings

This post originally appeared on Medium and is reprinted here with permission.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than meetings. Particularly meetings with the donor, who’s the person who’s supposed to sign the checks that make sure you have a job for just a little bit longer. So while you may work for the good of the people of [fill in the name of the pile of smoking rubble you’re standing on that people insist is still a country], you actually work for the donor.

And donors love nothing more than holding meetings. Some common varieties are:

  • Synch meetings
  • Coordination meetings
  • Working group meetings
  • Budget meetings

And the dreaded, avoid-at-all-costs:

  • Pre-meeting

This last one’s the one you have before the really big meeting, so you can all go over what you’re going to talk about at the actual meeting. That meeting will usually involve multiple donors all brought together for some kind of conference or seminar or something else equally mind numbing. Those meetings generate things like “action plans,” which are promptly forgotten or subtly sidetracked because coordination means someone’s going to have to share with others, and that’s not how development work is done.

But rather than just surviving these meetings, here’s a handy guide for coming out of those meetings looking like someone who a) genuinely cares about the work you’re doing, and b) is a recognized thought leader among your peers. (Put that last one on a LinkedIn profile…it’s CV gold.)

Development meeting
Surefire ways to impress everyone in the room

1. Ask for milestones

This is a great way to get a lot of nods and approving noises from those around the table. It’s also a great way to throw a peer under the bus, and if it’s not a peer, good times can be had by all as you watch that person scramble to explain the various milestones in their amazing five-year plan.

2. Use “sustainability” whenever possible

This ties back to the first one, because if something doesn’t have “milestones,” it’s probably not going to be “sustainable.” Asking any presenter if they have a sustainability plan usually yields the same fun as the milestones question.

3. Flip through the handout while the presenter is still talking

Nothing tells a room “I’m already thinking a few steps ahead” better than rustling paper and moving ahead through slides that haven’t been presented yet. Combine this with questions about sustainability, and you’re sure to get that next Chief of Party gig.

4. Make notes on upcoming slides

This reinforces the idea that you’re looking ahead, past the point that your presenter is making, and are about to make some kind of statement that should make the rest of the group start shuffling through the handout as well.

5. Say, “I don’t see a gender component.”

Letting the group know you care very much about gender issues is something that will endear you to peers and supervisors alike. Donors love people who are looking for the gender angle, even if the project is the artificial insemination of goats in the Andes Mountains. It also puts the presenter on the spot and usually means they get to scramble to make that point out of sequence with their other slides.

6. Start a few sentences with variations on “I’m worried that…”

Some examples:

  • I’m worried that we’re not reaching the children enough with this.
  • I’m concerned about the optics of that distribution plan.
  • I’m guess I’m not sure how that can be sustainably implemented.

Nothing shows insight in development work like vague concerns. And you’ll never have to explain that concern because someone else in the room will second your thought immediately. Since you’re already planning on leaving the meeting early to demonstrate how busy you are, you’ve just generated about 15 minutes of discussion, which means you won’t have to hear many of the rest of the slides.

7. Suggest a follow-on working group.

Once the discussion generated by #6 has gone on long enough, speak up and suggest that a follow-on working group be convened to deal with that particular issue. It sounds like you’re creating more work for yourself, but one of two things happen now:

  1. Everyone is secretly hoping this won’t happen since it will mean more meetings. So you can keep re-scheduling that working group until everyone who was at the meeting leaves the country.
  2. Someone wanting to make a name for themselves will volunteer to chair that group. And then they’ll execute the plan in #1.

8. Humorously reference the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy.

During the course of the meeting, which is keeping anyone in the room from doing any actual real work, make an offhand comment like, “Well, you how long THAT’S going to take.” This is a tricky one, since the people who actually slow your work down are probably sitting around the table at the moment, so use carefully.

9. Openly mock the standing government.

The only real barrier to your success as a development organization is whoever’s currently sitting in the presidential palace/mansion/hut/hovel. You and the donor are the most effective team ever assembled for this kind of work, and the plans you’ve collectively put together would be an unmitigated success if not for the policies of the president/king/high lord of all he surveys.

10. Leave early because of a field visit.

No one in a development meeting would dream of keeping anyone from visiting the field. This is effective for a few reasons:

  • A lot of the people in the room have never been to “the field,” so they will be suitably impressed and will see your value to the organization.
  • Your friends in the room (and there won’t be many) will be impressed with your temerity, since they know you don’t have one.
  • If questioned later, you can complain that security canceled the movement because they don’t understand the real work that’s being done here.

Gary Owen is a pseudonym for a Former U.S. Army Infantry and Civil Affairs officer with two tours in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom, who has been working in Afghanistan as a civilian development worker since 2009. A self-proclaimed “idealist with a mortgage,” his home on the web is the blog Sunny in Kabul, and you can follow him on Twitter. He’s also a semi-regular contributor to the Afghan Analysts Network and occasional writer for Vice News. Gary and his wife call Texas home, where they live with a couple of retired racing greyhounds and three overly needy cats.


Why travelling for work is awful, and the best

It happened the first time in Honduras, where my organisation had sent me to document programmatic success. We had rushed around all day, flinging wires and lights around, lugging our cameras and backpacks from interview to interview, scribbling notes and shaking hands. When we collapsed for lunch at 3:30 we were exhausted.

And there it was. Right across the street, with all of its 31 flavors. A Baskin Robbins. The kind of American chain I had promised myself I would never, ever patronise on a trip to another country.

A few months later, I was in Panama. And so was a Subway. I don’t know how to say “sandwich artist” in Spanish but I listened to the man in front of me say “con todo” as he gestured toward the row of excruciatingly familiar washed-out tomato slices and leaking pickles. So I said it too, and walked away with the sinking, guilty sensation that I was having the same groaning sandwich I might have had on any Wednesday in my hometown.

What was I becoming? I had gone to so many countries where I railed against being a tourist, and sought instead to be a traveler. Where I insisted on experiencing the culture, the food and the people, even at some cost to my ego, wallet and digestive tract.

And yet here I was after lunch, in a taxi in a country I might never return to, listening to the driver tell me the Panama Canal was five minutes away and hearing myself respond, “Just keep going, we don’t have time for that.”

Haitian girls. (Photo: David Snyder)
Haitian girls. (Photo: David Snyder)

As a communications writer for an international development organisation, I love that my job lets me occasionally travel the world. And yet it’s not the kind of traveling I love.

Instead of following a gap-toothed stranger through the curling stone streets of Lamu, Kenya to find the house of the man who sells heart-shaped labania, I check my watch from the backseat of a sedan without seatbelts and calculate the minutes until we are officially late to a meeting.

Instead of playing a game of pick-up soccer with barefoot neighbourhood kids, I’m silently urging the photographer to hurry up and capture their carefree smiles for the cover of our next case study.

As I rush around checking items off my to-do list, I rarely get the chance to cross things off my bucket list.

But maybe I’ve been writing down the wrong things. Sure, on that trip to Honduras, I never got to snorkel in Roatán or see the Mayan ruins near Copán. But I laughed with my local film crew over a bean-and-mayonnaise sandwich I didn’t quite mean to order, and felt inspired as I followed a grandmother around the barrio she was trying to save from gang violence.

I never got the chance to buy any of the famous metalwork when I went on a work trip to Haiti. But a local woman taught me all the gestures to a lilting folk song as we motored a small fishing boat into the Atlantic, and my mouth filled with decadent sweetness as I squished a fresh chunk of honeycomb that a young beekeeper slid to me atop his machete.

I never did visit the Panama Canal. I guess I’ll have to go back.

And when I do, these frantic trips spent focused on work will allow me to bring a deeper understanding than I would have gained from trying to find the most authentic experience on my own.

Jennifer with local environmental educators in Haiti (Photo: David Snyder)
Jennifer with local environmental educators in Haiti (Photo: David Snyder)

I’ll know that just around the corner a bunch of kids whose parents are in opposing gangs are playing a ping pong tournament together, and learning about nutrition from a volunteer husband-and-wife duo who dress up as clowns.

I’ll know that there’s an old woman in knee socks who comes to feed the pigeons out of a floppy woven basket in the square in front of the Iglesia de los Delores, and that a group of retired soccer referees meet on the Parque Central benches every Thursday morning to gab.

And I’ll know that when I get sick of bean and mayonnaise sandwiches, and when my job has left me haggard and overheated, there will probably be a Baskin Robbins just around the corner.


Jennifer Brookland is the Senior Writer and Editor at Creative Associates International. She has previously reported for Counterpart International, Devex, IRIN and News21, and has produced multimedia packages on international development from six countries. She always packs a headlamp. Jennifer has a degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, a Master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University and a Master’s degree in International Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School.


A challenging cup of tea

This was originally posted at the IDDS Tanzania blog and is reprinted here with permission. 

Every year at the International Development Design Summit (IDDS) participants form eight teams to work on technical solutions to eight priority challenges across four rural communities. Behind every great project there are community visits by the organising team to develop strong relationships, investigate project potential and hear of the community’s major challenges throughout the year. In Orkilili, a Masai village at the outskirts of Kilimanjaro airport, we spent time with Judith as we heard about her daily routine.

Photo 1
Fabio and Michael walk through the fields with Judith as she shares her story. Kilamanjaro sits just on the horizon.

I looked at the cup of tea that Judith had placed in front of me on the modest wooden table, surrounded by a few tattered sofas, in her living room. In Australia or Europe I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But here, in this rural Tanzania, after all our team have seen and experienced over the past few days, I couldn’t help but think about all it took to prepare this simple cup of tea. There were no less than three major challenges the community face on a regular basis represented by this unassuming hot beverage.

For this cup of tea to be present we first needed milk. Milking poses a few challenges for the Masai in Orkilili – especially during the dry season when the land becomes barren and water is scarce. A proverb in Tanzania says that, “Ngombe akikonda Masai amekonda.” Which translates to,“When the cows become thin the Masai become thin.” Suffice to say that this time of year is not only a challenge for incomes, which rely heavily on agricultural activities, but also for survival.

Luckily, when we visited the cows looked healthy, but the hardest time of the year is yet to come. We asked what happens in lowlands during the dry season when there is no grass for the cows to graze. Judith’s father explained that the children take the cows to the mountains or to graze on neighboring farms for a fee. Both these locations are far and the latter is a drain on financial resources during already testing times. Time and again the heard and land owners lamented, “if only there were a way to store the grass during the dry season.”

Now, when the cows are grazing close by, they are milked twice a day; once in the morning and once in the evening. Masai men often have multiple wives as well as many cows. Both are a measure of wealth and according to Masai tradition it is the responsibility of the women ensure the cows are milked. Judith and her sister-in-law, Angel, set to start their milking duties and beckoned us to join as the sun started to set.

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Judith milks one of the five cows – skillfully catching the milk in a plastic container.

Calves are normally kept separately from their mothers in an adjacent pen.  To prepare the cows for milking the women allow the calves in to feed – this softens the cows’ teats and make it easier to milk. Before they are able to satisfy their appetites the calves are pulled from their mothers with a woven sisal rope and secured to a nearby fence. When the mothers follow to protect their offspring they’re now in a position to be milked.

It takes the girls around an hour to milk the five cows. During this hour they collect around seven liters of milk. The next day they will collect only five. The girls complain sometimes of being kicked and the milk being spilt. They only milk enough for their families’ consumption and perhaps a few liters to sell on to nearby neighbours. It’s a time-consuming job for this family of ten – we could only imagine the challenges that would be faced by a family with a larger herd.

Judith and her family sit and talk in the kitchen as they prepare milk for morning tea.
Judith and her family sit and talk in the kitchen as they prepare milk for morning tea.

The second step in making tea is the challenge of heating the milk. Although Orkilili has a reliable and consistent electricity supply, unlike in neighbouring villages, households rely on firewood as their primary cooking fuel. A quick glance over the landscape surrounding the family home reveals few trees and the group enquires, “So where does the wood come from?” A shake of the head comes as the first response from Judith who tsks and replies, “Ah it’s difficult.”

Unsustainable practices for collecting firewood has taken its toll on the land and left families anxious about how they will continue to complete even the simplest of tasks: cooking.

Earlier in the day, we’d spied a group of young girls climbing the trees lining the road toward the village high school. Judith explained that they were collecting firewood. Back at Judith’s home we foraged for smaller sticks to get the fire started but the family are reliant on the purchase of firewood for the bulk of cooking activities. It cost the family 7,000TZS (which equates to $4.20US) for one piece of wood that lasts three days – the equivalent of nine meals for a family of ten. That’s the equivalent of two and a half days income for the average Tanzanian (source: World Bank).

During our interactions and conversations with the community we noted and discussed opportunities for technical improvements. A way to dry and store grass during the dry season so that families can keep cattle grazing close by? Or what about using the manure produced by cattle and agriculture waste as an alternative fuel source for cooking? And low-cost milking technology could certainly reduce the time spent day and night to milk the cows – not to mention the opportunity to reduce contamination.

By the time we’re enjoying this cup of tea I calculate it took Judith and Angel no less than two hours to prepare. The challenges we discovered by investigating the journey of this cup of tea, plus more from other communities, will be framed to create problem statements, which teams willbegin to address in collaboration with the community in the coming month.

Judith in her traditional Masai cloth
Judith in her traditional Masai cloth

Judith is excited about attending the International Development Design Summit this year as a participant to work on solutions to the challenges she, and her village, face throughout the year. When I asked if she was nervous she said, “No, of course not. I am strong Masai lady!” Participants from our partnering communities in Tanzania and from around the world joined in Arushaon the 7th July and will run until August 9th. More updates will be posted periodically on the blog.


Bianca Anderson is a mechanical engineering graduate of Deakin University, Australia and the international organizer and design facilitator at the International Development Design Summit. She’s passionate about appropriate technical solutions; working to develop grain storage solutions at the International Development Design Summit in Zambia 2013; and agricultural technology with the Covenant Centre for Development in Tamil Nadu, India. She’s an energetic ambassador of Engineers Without Borders Australia and has spent countless hours volunteering in their Melbourne head office as well as out in the field. You can reach her at


Nine tips for using twitter to tap into the #globaldev community

This post originally appeared on DevelopmentIntern and is reprinted with permission. 

If you were to ask me what my most useful resource during a three-year undergraduate development studies degree has been, I think the answer might surprise you: Twitter. Although I initially joined Twitter so that I could join in on my housemates’ banter about cupcakes and Ryan Gosling (don’t judge), I quickly found Twitter to be an invaluable professional and career development resource. I decided to leave the Ryan Gosling banter to Facebook, the pictures of cupcakes to Instagram, and came to see Twitter as a ‘rolling online CV’.

Through Twitter I have been approached and invited to a coffee meeting to discuss a new business venture; I’ve been recruited for freelance work at a national newspaper; and I’ve been sent a film that I went on to screen at my university. My housemate (also a development student) even connected to a journalist at the Guardian through Twitter, and was interviewed for an article that was published on the website. While I am by no means a social media expert, I thought I would share here some top tips on getting the most out of the Twittersphere.

1. Get your profile right: It needs to include the serious stuff (such as your current degree or place of work etc.), but don’t forget to make yourself sound human (put in one of your other interests or a quirky fact about yourself). See examples here.

2. Don’t just retweet: It’s important to inject some of your own voice into your Twitter feed, so don’t just rely on retweets or on tweeting out links or article headlines (although obviously do that too) – aim for something like 70% pure retweets, 30% tweets that you have either written yourself or altered.

3. Live-tweet: For me, the best way to interact with people or to gain followers has been to live-tweet from events, conferences, talks and panel discussions. Jump on the event hashtag, tweet some of the best things the speaker is saying, and make sure to interact with other people who are tweeting from the event.

4. Research hashtags: Make sure you only use hashtags that you know other people are already using. Don’t go making up bespoke hashtags à la Instagram (#yolo #internlife #unayyy). Before using a hashtag, click on its feed to make sure it’s active – basically, you want to make sure it’s worth using some of your precious 140 characters on. Talking of hashtags, the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network (@GuardianGDP) tweet out a daily hashtag (#hashtagoftheday), which is always worth checking out. Another important point is to limit how many you use – more than five hashtags significantly decreases the likelihood of someone interacting (clicking on, favouriting or sharing) with your tweet.

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The #globaldev hashtag on Twitter.

5. Watch what you Tweet: If you imagine your Twitter page as a rolling online CV, you automatically become more aware of what you allow on to your feed. There’s nothing wrong with Tweeting comments of a more personal nature (it makes you a more interesting person), but being too controversial or offensive is only going to draw attention to your feed for the wrong reasons.

6. Follow academics: This one is probably a little biased given that I am technically still a student, but there are some academics who are very active on Twitter and who are well worth following (try Laura Hammond and Chris Blattman for example). Of course, make sure to tailor this to your own area of interest so that the issues they are talking about, or the research they point you to, is relevant.

7. Get favouriting! Twitter can often be an overwhelming space of information, so the ‘favourite’ button is a really useful tool. Use it to bookmark anything that you see that may be of interest or of use, but which you want to come back to later. When I’m writing essays or preparing for exams, I often stock up on these resources and then go back through them to find what might be most relevant.

8. Don’t be afraid to engage: Twitter is much like the real world – people like to interact, and they like to know your reactions and opinions on things! They also love a good complement. So if you’ve read, or seen something that you liked – post it on Twitter and say what you liked about it (making sure to mention the original source). Even if people don’t get back to you on it, they’ll likely appreciate you for making the effort to Tweet about it. Similarly if people post questions, or shout-outs, on Twitter – reply to them (but only with something useful). That’s how my housemate got interviewed by the Guardian, and how I ended up contributing to this blog!

9. It’s another skill to add to the CV: Many entry-level jobs in development organisations are likely to be in PR or communications positions, and if you can showcase that you are an active user of Twitter you are automatically in a stronger position. If you think that your Twitter feed is a good reflection of you both as a person and as a potential employee (or let’s face it, intern), don’t be afraid to include the link on your CV. It will give people a unique insight into you – one that can’t be achieved on LinkedIn or on a two-page Word document.

If all of this seems like a lot of effort, I promise it tends to be worth it. For me, Twitter has been an equal playing field – despite being a lowly development undergraduate, Twitter has given me a platform to engage and interact with the development community and has brought my degree to life in a way that I don’t think other resources could have done. There are so many ways to get the most out of Twitter, and these 10 tips are just the beginning – please get in touch if you have more to add!


Quick links to get started on Twitter:

Development Intern’s list of good accounts to follow (including: academics, bloggers, development news sources, job opportunities & our writers)

WhyDev’s list of globaldev allstars


Gemma McNeil-Walsh is completing her undergraduate degree in development studies & economics at SOAS in London, and heading to the Oxford Internet Institute for her MSc in October. Interested in media, communication, Internet and ICTs on the African continent, she works in digital newspaper production, interns with SOAS Radio, and has spent the previous two summers working in Freetown, Sierra Leone on documentary and citizen journalism projects. Follow her on Twitter @gemmcneil