03 January 2011 ~ 8 Comments

Guidelines for Writing About “Development Issues”

Over the course of the last five years we have jotted down many rules and given presentations internally at PEPY about our writing guidelines.  I spent the better part of the day today locating them and compiling them, and they have a lot of the same themes. Here are a selection of the Do’s and Don’ts we have listed.  I’d love other thoughts on what you have added in your own internal writing guidelines for your organizations – or other thoughts you have on the topic!

Here are some of the things we are focusing on:

We should avoid: “villagers”, “the locals”

Instead we might use: members of Chanleas Dai community, the people from xxxxx village, etc

Why? Most of us are from a “village” somewhere, but wouldn’t describe people from our own areas as “villagers”


We should avoid: “our schools”, PEPY Schools

Instead we might use: schools in Chanleas Dai, our partner schools, PEPY partners

Why? These are government schools (not “our” schools), and we should use vocabulary that recognizes our partnership

We should avoid: “poor people”

Instead we might use: people living in areas without XXXX, or other adjectives which might apply as a more fitting generalization for the specific place such as “rural communities” or “a community which is Xkm away from a high school” etc

Why? Not only is “poverty” subjective, it also doesn’t always apply to everyone in the areas we work in.  Use more concrete descriptions relating to specific cases.

We should avoid: heartbreaking photos of “poor people”

Instead we might use: honest photos of our work which highlight our programs successes and failures

Why? We are not a magazine for 17 year olds showing “before and after” shots. No one would want to be the “before” shot – or the “poor person” photo. Avoid using any photos which you would not want to put up if it were YOU in the photo.

We should avoid: our egos, excessive praise, constant focus on successes

Instead we might use: honest appraisals of our successes as well as our failures

Why? We believe that NGOs need to admit mistakes and that donors should not be trained to expect constant success. By being open about our progress, we engage our donors in a learning process which will hopefully benefit the NGO community at large.

What would you add to this list?

  • http://twitter.com/gentlemandad JoeTurner

    anything including any variation on the phrase “changing the world, one x at a time..’

  • Anonymous

    A similar post from the “Blood & Milk” blog by Alanna Shaikh http://bloodandmilk.org/?p=1693

  • http://twitter.com/VolunteerCard Volunteer Card

    This is a very practical post that really got me thinking. As a writer, I recognize the importance of choosing the right words very carefully, but I have not considered deeply how this applies to writing about development issues. Shame on me! I think you have a great start here. I will give this more thought. nnLacy

  • http://twitter.com/VolunteerCard Volunteer Card

    This is a very practical post that really got me thinking. As a writer, I recognize the importance of choosing the right words very carefully, but I have not considered deeply how this applies to writing about development issues. Shame on me! I think you have a great start here. I will give this more thought. nnLacy

  • Susan Tileston

    This all rang a bell with us! We run the MY STORY photo project on both sides of the Thai/Burma border; providing the tools so that refugees and IDPs can tell their stories through the medium of photography. We are often told by Westerners that we are doing worthwhile work. Our response is: we aren’t doing the work, our students are! They teach us just as much as we teach them. And the images they make are not ‘heartbreaking'; they are of family members, working people, students, animals, flowers… the one thing they have in common is dignity.nnYes, we’ve had our failures. Not connecting well, expectations on our part that were unrealistic. But we have all learned something: listen more carefully, be more patient ( really hard for me!) and always be ready to laugh. nnHi Daniela; We borrowed bikes from you about 4 years ago to tour around Cambodia. Met Mr. Smile (?) who wanted to cycle in the Olympics…. Thanks!nnSusan/Nat TilestonnMae Sot, Thailandnmsppa.org

  • http://www.karenkefauver.com KarenKefauver

    Excellent reminders and will work on changing my langauge.

  • Claire Coxon

    Nice post Daniela – My role at the moment is all about communications and language use in a development context and I think the main point I have picked up is that when writing about particular issues to talk about the systemic and structural issues that have impacted on peopleu2019s ability to receive an education or access adequate health care – taking the onus away from the individual and making sure that the language we use doesnu2019t blame people for their situation. Being u2018uneducatedu2019 (I am not a fan of the word uneducated) implies a lack of education as a result of bad behaviour, where itu2019s the systemic issues they face in their communities that might have influenced their access to education.

  • http://twitter.com/intldogooder How Matters

    I recently saw a great interview with Tim Shriver, head of the Special Olympics, where he asks Stephen Colbert to lead a campaign to get people to stop using the r-word. Words indeed matter if they make people feel that they don’t count. I like what you and he said about putting people first in our descriptions of them, e.g. “person with…”, “people with…” Colbert also speaks very eloquently about the purpose of “othering” in our speech.

    You can see it here at: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/379371/march-30-2011/tim-shriver