How to write about development without being simplistic, patronising, obscure or stereotyping

September 10, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

It’s all very well writing for wonks, but what about the poor comms people who have to make all those clever ideas about nuance, context, complexity etcmumbo jumbo etc accessible to people who don’t spend all day thinking about this stuff? Oxfam America’s Jennifer Lentfer has a good piece on this on her ‘How Matters’ blog, discussing her work with a class of international development communications students. Her central question – ‘How can a new generation of communications professionals embrace nuance without turning the public off? (After all, nonprofits are competing against cat videos)’

To answer it, she, and a bunch of others, have put together ‘The Development Element’ – a nice new guide to post-patronising comms. Here’s their summary of the main messages:

Comms dos & don'ts

To which I would add a further don’t – don’t publish documents in green that are almost unreadable when people print them out to read on the bus……..

I think there is something else going on here – in an age when people are used to absorbing fragmented messages, we need to get better at telling parts of the story well, rather than thinking we have to tell the whole story every time. We could be much better at simply ‘bearing witness’, including by getting out of the way – webcams in every refugee camp? Follow an activist’ twitter feeds? It’s OK to publish a great killer fact that illustrates a problem without feeling compelled to add several pages of unread recommendations about how to put it right.

And yes, I realize this is a bit rich from someone who writes 500 page books……

See also this Guardian piece from Jonathan Tanner, then of ODI on the tension between complexity and comms.

Update: I have a nagging feeling that I overpromised in the title for this post – this report is good, but doesn’t quite nail it. What other advice would comms people offer?


September 10, 2014
Duncan Green