The Words I Don’t Use

International development is infamous for its constant, jargony, changes in vocabulary. It’s not the third world, it’s the developing world. It’s not the bottom billion, it’s an ascending market. They’re not people living with AIDS (PLWA), they are people living with HIV (PLHIV). It seems ridiculous, because it kind of is, and we all get tired.

But I do believe in the power of words to shape the way we think. It’s easy to laugh at each new acronym update, but vocabulary does affect how we frame things. So there are a few words and phrases I never use, because I think they lead us in the wrong directions:

1) Beneficiaries – I never use this word unless I am contractually obligated to do so. I know that it serves a useful purpose as a standard term for the people a project serves, but I don’t like it. It implies that people are sitting around passively waiting for a savior to help them. No project works if they don’t have partners to make it work. Even handing out lollipops to children requires children who’ll take candy from strangers and parents who’ll permit it and get the children to the lollipop distribution site.

Your partners might be a community, a local government, or a community organization. But those people are not passively benefitting. They are helping make the project happen.

2) Individuals – This word is just a synonym for “people.” But it’s a cold, formal word that helps you forget that the individuals involved are actual human being people.

3) The Poor – Pretending that poor people are a homogenous collective is poor thinking, and dehumanizing. People fall in and out of poverty for a whole range of reasons, and they cope with poverty in different ways. Fighting poverty requires that we recognize that, and terms like “the poor” are a barrier. (That bring said, two great books – The Poor and Their Money, and Portfolios of the Poor – use the phrase.)

4) Africa – Okay, there are appropriate ways to use this proper noun. Like in a discussion of continental geography. Then there are all the other ways: lumping all the nations on the continent together, as though Senegal and Somalia are exactly the same; using “Africa” in the name of your tiny MONGO that works in one village in Uganda; getting confused and lumping China, Russia, and Africa together as though they are equivalent political units. Let’s stop.

Photo credit: thinkretail

International development on Twitter, Part 1

Ten people to follow on Twitter if you’re interested in international development. Not the top ten, necessarily – there are too many great people on Twitter for me to make that claim. But ten microbloggers who consistently engage my attention with interesting ideas:

Glenna Gordon
Glenna Gordon is a journalist, photographer, and author of the Scarlett Lion blog, currently living in Uganda. Her writing, and the links she posts, offer beautifully written insight into Uganda, with a solid dose of cynicism and wry humor.

Sample tweet: Supermodel risks TB and Genocide by visitng Rwanda: Monika Schnarre, who considers herself a supermo..

Why you should follow: For links to photos and articles on Uganda, Africa, and development which you wouldn’t have found on your own.

Chris Albon@chrisalbon
Chris Albon is author of the amazing War and Health blog, and posts a great series of links on war and conflict.

Sample tweet: For the past 2 weeks I’ve been writing post on armed groups potentially exploiting Ushahidi. This is what I mean:

Why you should follow: For links to a huge range of articles and resources on conflict in general and conflict and health. He’s obsessed with the intersection of war and health, and obsessed people make great reading.

Vasco Pyjama
Vasco Pyjama
is an aid worker who’s been everywhere, including Somalia and Afghanistan.

Sample tweet: Documenting lessons learnt and writing up methodologies. At first I thought I had indigestion. Now I realise it’s heartache.

Why you should follow: For a self-aware, intelligent, first-person perspective on aid work and its discontents.

Glenn Strachan@glennstrachan
Glenn Strachan travels the planet supporting ICT for development. He blogs as well as using Twitter.

Sample tweet: Right now I am trying to assemble a list of the top 30 organisations worldwide doing work specifically in ICT4D. There is no list.

Maneno @maneno
The twitter account of, which is devoted to making African voices heard.

Sample tweet: Toivo Asheeke’s latest post on his Maneno blog, “A Brief Case Study of A Successful African Country” (Namibia)

Why you should follow: To keep your news sources broad and deep.

I’ve got five more profiles coming up in my next post: @maratraingle, @chriswaterguy, @nadodi, @guaravanomics, and @joncamfield. Who am I missing? Tell me in the comments.

(photo credit: FunnyBiz)
Chosen because I love graphs.

Heading Offline

I am heading North this morning for a week of vacation and my baby brother’s wedding. Wish me luck! Internet access is slow and hard to get at my destination, so it’s unlikely I’ll be updating until my return. If you need reading material in my absence, check out these bloggers:

Glenna Gordon, at Uganda’s Scarlett Lion writes about Uganda, obviously, but also broader issues of Africa and development.

Rupert Simons, a Liberia fellow, writes Adventures in Development.

[My] State Failure Blog offers geopolitcal analysis.

White African writes about Africa and technology.

Should you find yourself pining for my unique perspective, here are some posts I have been especially pleased with (that aren’t on the sidebar):

The ongoing Things I Believe in Series.

April 13 -20 was a good week for me.

Bad Granting

Relief vs. Development

See you all in ten days!

Well played, International Water and Sanitation Centre

I was recently led to the WASH news Africa site via a Google Alert. It turns out to be an aggregator of news articles on water and sanitation in Africa topics. It’s a nice resource for people interested in the topic.

What’s even more interesting is that the site, and a host of sister sites, was set up by the International Water and Sanitation Centre. It serves to collect articles for their use as well as inform others. It looks to me like they were already distributing a weekly digest of water and sanitation news, and set up these blogs as a way of sharing all the articles that don’t make it into the digest. Based on my browsing of their site, I think the idea must have come from Cor Dietvorst, their information specialist.

I love it. It’s such a beautiful example of sharing work they are already doing in a way that benefits others. I bet it was also quick to set up, and they are using free blog hosting. They include links back to their main site, since people at the WASH news Africa site are pretty much guaranteed to be interested in water issues, but they don’t make a big showy deal about it. They just position them selves as a generous and knowledgeable partner.

I wish I had an award to give to sites like these.

“For God’s sake, please stop the aid!”

A Kenyan economist opposes foreign aid in Spiegel. James Shikwati is interviewed in Spiegel, and is firmly opposed to aid for Africa. He argues that it causes corruption, creates huge bureaucracies, and teaches Africans to be beggars.

On one hand, he makes some accurate points. Badly designed aid packages will indeed create a culture of dependency. It’s not just likely but certain that there will be some private sector leakage because of corruption, and foreign governments and NGOs do put distorting pressures on the English-speaking labor market. And he might be right that without food aid, African countries would develop trade relationships to compensate for shortages.

He’s also got some great quotes here:

“Currently, Africa is like a child that immediately cries for its babysitter when something goes wrong.”

“Unfortunately, the Europeans’ devastating urge to do good can no longer be countered with reason.”

However, I think his overall conclusion is weak and off-base. He blames the used-clothes markets in Africa on charity donations of old clothes, when in actuality they are generally bought by the pound in the US from thrift store and resold to African wholesalers. This is a pretty elementary mistake for an economist to make, and it implies he has an axe to grind and won’t let the facts get in his way. He also seems to think that aid goes directly to governments, when most goes through international NGOs with extensive networks of locally-hired staff. He also downplays the impact of HIV to an unreasonable degree.

It’s an article well worth reading for its contrarian view, but it’s not likely to change your perspective on the world.