Development 2.0 – More than jargon?

There are a few possible interpretations of Development 2.0 that make it more than jargon. Two are simple (although not easy) and most likely inevitable. The last one is very, very hard. And, of course, it’s the one that matters most.

The first meaning of Development 2.0 would be using new technology and methods to share information and improve practice. Use new technology to improve the quality of the work we do. This includes both using new technology to solve development problems, and to share information across communities of practice. It could mean a better kind of water pump, it could mean Ushahidi, or it could mean posting your trip reports to YouTube. Other examples include Aidworkers Network, Appropedia,, and Not to mention the growing community of international development blogs and twitter accounts.

I think this kind of Development 2.0 will occur naturally. Development organizations are full of people who care about their work and seek ways to do it better. Early adopters will grab useful new tech as it occurs, and sooner or later institutional resistance will be overcome.

Another form of Development 2.0 would be using the social web to crowd-source funding for development projects. We saw the Obama campaign route around traditional donor dominance by getting hundreds of thousands of small donations instead of relying on a few major funders. We could do the same thing in development. This would mean a greater diversity in what projects get funded, and fewer irrational restrictions on money. This would mean that no one had the power to impose a global gag rule, for example, or force a project to procure all their mobile phones from Finland.

The truest, most difficult form of Development 2.0, however, is more than improving our current work. Instead, it will mean going from a donor model to a partnership model. The web 2.0 revolution was when people went from being passive consumers of pre-packaged information and entertainment to creating their own content and sharing it with each other using new tools. It shattered traditional media structures in ways we are still trying to understand.

If we could do that in development, it would be genuinely earth-shaking. What if developing countries went from being passive recipients of aid packages to identifying their own needs and developing their own solutions, reaching out to donors to provide funding and targeted expertise as requested? What if they shared those solutions with other countries in the same situation? Countries who have seen success in bringing down HIV rates could offer technical expertise to those still struggling. New technologies make information sharing and analysis easier than ever. They are not the exclusive province of the developed world.

Web 2.0 still relies on traditional media to provide content to be discussed, contextualized, and remixed. Perhaps in Development 2.0 donors would do deep technical research to support good program design, and monitor and evaluate programs to support the best possible uses of donor money.

Thanks to JamesBT, Bjelkeman, carolARC, waugaman, stevebridger, and Will Schmitt for helping me refine my ideas on this.

(photocredit: Ed Yourdon)
Chosen because I have a deep and abiding love for Al Gore.

Five mistakes international organizations make when using Twitter

1. Using it just for press releases. People don’t follow you on Twitter for generic organizational announcements. They follow because they want to feel a personal connection with what you do. They want to become friends and allies. Write your Twitter updates in less formal language, and tweet little things, too. Not just press releases. Welcome new employees, for example, or tell them a little bit about one specific project.

2. Only asking for money. Constant calls for funds will bore people and cause them to unsubscribe from your Twitter feed. Ask for money no more than once a week, and when you do, tie it to something you mentioned that week.

3. Not following back or replying to others. As an organization, you should automatically follow back anyone who follows you on Twitter. People don’t want to be broadcast to; they want to be part of a conversation. Following people is the first step; the second step is paying attention. Use Twitter search to monitor mentions of your organization. Reply to those mentions. Periodically read the postings of people you follow. You don’t have to read every post, but check in from time to time, and reply if you have something interesting to say.

4. Forgetting the global audience. Twitter has a worldwide user base. This includes people in the countries where you work. It may include potential donors and beneficiaries in other countries. It will definitely include your own staff. When you write about events in, say, Rwanda, assume Rwandans will be reading. Are you still comfortable with your post?

5. Not having a Twitter strategy. There are things to think about before you post your first tweet. Do you want to encourage all your staff to have organization-linked Twitter accounts, or just a single account to represent the whole organization? What aspects of your organization do you want to highlight? What kind of expertise do you possess and can showcase? Who will update the Twitter account, and will all postings need to be approved first? These are issues that can be resolved with some planning, and can go very wrong on you without some advance thought.

How to write like a person

Writing a good report is an under-appreciated art. You don’t want to be dry and overly technical, but you don’t want to sound like Sally Struthers asking for donations, either. You want to present your work in a way that makes your impact clear and also makes everyone want to keep reading. It requires a careful balance, but here are a few tricks that may help.

1) Don’t ever use the word individual. It’s not an individual, it’s a person. More than one person is people (not individuals).

Compare “Individuals who visited the clinic reported greater satisfaction with quality of care,” to “People who visited the clinic…” People get your attention. Individuals are meaningless.

2) Keep your paragraphs short. Reports are so often big blocks of text that short paragraphs are refreshing to look at. It subtly makes your materials seem easier to read, which makes people more likely to read them. By the same logic, use bulleted lists whenever you can.

3) Use acronyms sparingly. Some acronyms are so common that they will read like words to most people; those are okay. Acronyms that are specific to your project or organization, however, will drive readers away. Avoid them. If you use a special kind of pit toilet designed by your own engineers, do not call it the Improved Insect-Negating Ground Facility (IIGF) and then go on to refer to the IIGF throughout your document. Just call it the new toilet design.

4) Change up your sentence length. Let some sentences be long; go ahead and use subordinate clauses. Others should be short. Varying the rhythm will keep people engaged.

5) Be careful with adjectives. Calling something terrible doesn’t really make your point. Describing the terrible conditions does. Saying a school is in “a condition of despair” (yes, that’s a quote from a report I read) is much less effective than saying that the school has leaky plumbing, no roof, and a rat infestation.

6) When you’ve finished your last draft, read it out loud as a final check. Any awkward phrasings will leap out at you in full awful glory. (Thanks to Ryan Briggs for this tip.)

(photo credit: genewolf)

Things I believe in #14 – writing all your documents in clear, simple language

There are two big reasons that clear writing is important. First of all, it lets as many people as possible understand what you have to say. Secondly, writing clearly forces you to think clearly; it improves the quality of your ideas.

Using jargon-free writing appeals to the largest possible audience. Experts in your field can still comfortably read your reports, but non-experts can understand them, too. It takes a little more work to find understandable terminology for technical ideas, but doing your best is well worth it. Your donors, staff members, and the people you serve probably don’t have the background to read a jargon-dense article, and these are your most important audiences. There may be a few highly-targeted documents that need to be heavy on technical terms, but even then you can still write well.

Using jargon-free writing also forces you to think about what you’re saying. Jargon makes people’s attention – even your own – slide away. If you write that you are going to “include stakeholders in decision-making,” you don’t have to stop and think about who, exactly, you will include or how you’ll make them part of your decisions. Jargon is an obstacle to good planning. Clear, specific language, on the other hand, leads to clear, specific thinking and plans.

(Here’s a tip: if you are so far into the belly of the beast that you can’t tell what is jargon any more, read your writing out loud. Anything that stumbles off your tongue should be removed.)

Things I believe in #33 – Skype

I believe in Skype.

For those of you who don’t know, Skype is a program that lets you make phone calls over the internet. Calls are free if you call someone else running Skype, and cheap to a standard phone line. Skype also works as an instant messaging program. It’s secure, and it’s instantaneous.

I love Skype. It lets your employees scattered around the world feel like a single team. It can erase the divide between field and headquarters by making communications less formal. Using Skype phone, you’ve got time to chat a little before doing your business, because you’re not costing money or burning cell phone minutes. Using it as an instant messenger, you can pop off a quick informal question whenever you need to know something.

Easy, informal communication builds relationships. It connects your people, and makes them feel like they’re part of something. It makes your reports more useful, your programs better designed, and your grant proposals more accurate. It lets your respond more quickly in a crisis, and change your projects if they’re not working.

A caveat – you need to be a well-managed and an utterly transparent organization to use Skype well. Skype will reveal the fault lines of your organization very, very fast. When gossip can shoot across the globe in the blink of an eye, nothing stays secret for long. Unhappiness or fear will spread from person to person like a virus, and mistreatment of one employee will soon be known to all.

Great link on CARE’s social network

APP+FRICA has a great post up about CARE’s new social network. This is exactly the kind of constructive criticism and innovative thinking that NGOs need.

Social media presents an amazing opportunity for international NGOs to tell their stories in a detailed, authentic way. But to use this opportunity well, they need to take social media seriously, and use it like the new form it us. They have to be brave.

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.