Making things

Bottles
Sand-filled bottles are stronger than bricks – and supposedly bullet-proof

After an intense few days inside one of Uganda’s largest refugee settlements, I’ve stumbled upon two slightly different (and a bit more uplifting) movements.

On the way back to Kampala, I stopped for a night at the Social Innovation Academy, created about two years ago to address the desperate lack of job prospects in the country.

60+ young people aged from 18 to late 20s live in dorms and traditional African huts and new constructions made from sand-filled plastic bottles; several more buildings are in various stages of completion, including new housing for volunteers and a huge hall. Hand-painted signs are dotted around: “Do something every day that scares you”, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those already doing it”.

Scholars get free rent and board, and training for as long as they need it to develop business ideas that will benefit themselves, the community, the environment, or all three. Continue reading “Making things”

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Truly enterprising

Posters
Just enough budget for posters

The bizarre and wonderful Wakaliwood is making ripples around the world.

The morning we visited the “studio” of Uganda’s homegrown action movie industry, the team was expecting a group of French and German reporters. The story has been picked up by the BBC, VICE magazine, Al Jazeera, and national Irish television. The films have a cult following, with fans in Russia, Guatemala, China. In the rehearsal space – which doubles up as a bedroom for some of the actors and storage space for props and equipment – there’s a wall with foreign names scribbled on it.

“Are these all your visitors?”, we asked.

“No”, we were told, “just the ones we ‘killed’”. Continue reading “Truly enterprising”

A poor perspective

Seeing it from their side
Shifting the viewpoint

‘Very happy, very sad, or super determined’ –  the usual spectrum of emotions we assign to poor people, says sociologist Michael Woolcock.

His recent lecture at the Institute of Development Studies – watch it online, below – sets out to change that.

Woolcock begs for a more, well, human way of looking at what it’s like to be poor. How? Through the lens we’ve been using to look at other people’s lives since time began – storytelling, including in its more modern forms. Continue reading “A poor perspective”

Dear reader

Nairobi 2013 - let's not overstate the transformation
Nairobi 2013 – let’s not overstate the transformation

Whatever you might think of Bill and Melinda’s pro-aid stance (and there are many who disagree), the Gates annual letter is a well-crafted communications piece (mostly).  Here’s what it does right:

It creates a buzz.
Not easy for a publication these days. Of course, the authors are pretty well-known and have lots of money (they’ve handed out over USD 28 billion to date); they don’t exactly have to fight to be heard. Continue reading “Dear reader”

A hell of a to-do list: 2014 in development

We may need it all
We may need it all

What’s in store this year for international development?

Here’s a bit of a preview, drawing from various publications (not very scientifically selected – mostly, those daring enough to make predictions). It’s also somewhat weighted to areas of my own interest – hence the Europe/Africa focus. (The great danger of the Internet: instead of widening your knowledge, you simply find evidence to back up your own theories.) Continue reading “A hell of a to-do list: 2014 in development”

Common goals

EU brochure on MDGsFreelancing on different projects all the time has one big downside: you’re pulled in only for a certain phase of the project’s life cycle, and once you’ve done your bit you’re often unaware of where your work has ended up, and what impact it might have had.

So it’s good to see the European Commission’s publication on the Millennium Development Goals out – just in time for the UN Summit last week. I had also edited their 2010 version (available, for now, here). This year, we struggled again to keep our clients down to the word limit – crowded pages with not enough white space just don’t work for a product aimed at a wider public – and ended up adding more pages. But it worked out ok, and the final editorial quality is better this time, probably due to fewer Commission folk making changes, and thankfully, a certain amount of trust in my suggestions. It also helped, no doubt, to have a first version to start from, with a format that could easily be updated. Continue reading “Common goals”

Pictures without pity

Which image of Africa would you rather see: skeletal, abandoned child, or healthy-looking working family?

Most people would say the latter; certainly most of those in the aid sector  – some of whom were discussing this at the recent PICS festival – now consider the starving child images not only unethical, but also unhelpful. They’re “not effective”, is the general view.

sunglasses
Provocative without the pity

But effective for what? Fundraising appeals today still deploy the same imagery, and the same language, as they did in the 1980s, when “poverty porn” made it to the mainstream with the Ethiopian famine hitting our headlines. That’s not only an indication that we’re seeing the same problems as we did three decades ago; it means we’re also stubbornly looking at them in the same way.

Continue reading “Pictures without pity”

From dusty shores to a screen near you

Phew – first (published) video entirely made by me – in other words, my first credit as “self-shooting producer/director and editor”, not to mention researcher, translator, etc.

(Start playing, and then click on the subtitles icon, bottom right of the window, if they don’t automatically appear.)

Sifting through the footage, and figuring out how to pull a coherent thread from five different sets of interviews, most in Kiswahili, wasn’t so much fun. Planning and filming was wonderful, though. Kigoma, on the western edge of Tanzania, is far enough (two days’ drive) from Dar es Salaam to have its own, somewhat gentler character than that chaotic city; it’s tiny too, in comparison. But it’s a place of significance – an international crossroads; a landing place for refugees from Tanzania’s troubled neighbours to the west (Burundi and DRC); the endpoint of the country’s first rattling railway line  – and the spot where, supposedly, Stanley found Livingstone. Continue reading “From dusty shores to a screen near you”